I imagined a flatland with endless wheat fields and, perhaps, a glimpse of the mountains in the far distance from where we would be living.
I suspected that it would be much colder than Dublin, Ireland where we were living when I received the call from Professor Robert H. A. Haslam, Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Calgary.
I had been mulling over offers from three other centres in Canada and one in the United States. My decision was made very easy the moment I hang up the phone. There was a warmth and friendliness in Dr. Haslam’s voice that suggested that he would suit my nature very well. It was one of the best decisions I made.
We would spend the next four years living in the foothills of the exceptionally beautiful Rocky Mountains. Our idea of a weekend’s sightseeing was what people from faraway places paid thousands of dollars to see.
As a senior resident, I enjoyed two consecutive summer camps in the Rockies in the company of wonderfully energetic and entertaining kids who had diabetes mellitus. It was an opportunity to teach them and to learn from them about the management of their condition.
A visit to Banff or Lake Louise, less than 200 km to the west, was always a therapeutic experience. A ride up the mountainside in the comfort of a gondola dangling from suspended cables was a thrill that, for that moment, dimmed my usual aversion to risk.
Florence and I cherish the memories of the times we spent there, in what appeared to be pristine country.
While we enjoyed visiting the built up areas of Alberta, such as Edmonton and Calgary, to my eyes there was nothing in the province that was (is) more beautiful than the Rocky Mountains.
The cold winters were eased by the visual treat of the snow-capped ruggedness in the near distance. The summers were enhanced by the mosaic of coloured rocks, plants, flowers and forests that covered the mountain range as far as the eye could see.
With 600 lakes, beautiful meandering rivers, provincial parks, pine forests and prairies, Alberta had more to offer than its gorgeously rugged western wall. Of course we saw a tiny fraction of these. We neither had the time nor the funds to explore as much as we would have wished.
Whereas we saw bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison (buffalo), deer, moose and elk, it is the memory of the black and grizzly bears that pops up whenever I think of Alberta’s fauna. No, I did not have a personal encounter with them. The closest I got to a bear was at the Zoo.
However, I retain a dark memory of grizzly bears because of the destructive mauling they inflicted on a medical student and his wife, a nurse, who had gone camping in the Rockies. This student, who had worked under my supervision, and his wife, a colleague at work, narrowly survived but were left with ghastly mutilation of their faces and arms as they tried to fight the beasts.
Alberta’s birdlife was, well, not particularly exciting to me. Not that I had developed as much interest in birds as I have now. Perhaps I would have taken closer note. However, the large eagles and hawks perched in the trees up in the mountains were always a treat.
The lakes offered ducks and swans. Through reading I gathered that I should have been on the lookout for geese, pelicans, owls and crows, apparently plentiful in Alberta.
Alberta’s waters harbour various fish, including the Bull Trout, the provincial fish, though, again, this was not of interest to me. Of personal interest to me were Alberta’s poisonous prairie rattlesnakes.
No, I did not wish to make their acquaintance and, mercifully, I was spared the honour. Their possible visit was always on my mind whenever we went camping with the children.
Alberta’s wealth was dominated by its oil wells that had turned Calgary from cow town to boom town in a matter of a decade. It was in Alberta that I first saw pump jacks, those horse-like contraptions that suck oil from the ground. Indeed some call them nodding donkeys.
When we arrived, oil was a big political issue in Canada. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government had created a National Energy Program that was very unpopular in Alberta, the country’s main source of oil. The majority of Albertans disliked the prime minister, a fact that he was reminded of when he passed through Calgary aboard a train on his trans-Canada excursion by rail.
Protesters swarmed his train and freely invited him to leave. The next day, the Calgary Herald newspaper had a large front-page photograph of the prime minister defiantly looking at his people from behind the glass, his right hand raised, with the middle finger prominently sticking up.
I had no idea what this gesture meant and why it had made headline news on the television networks until I asked colleagues at work. After they recovered from bouts of laughter, my colleagues educated me about the body language of a very angry Canadian. It is an image of Trudeau that has stuck.
Famous for the Calgary Stampede (a cowboy summer festival) and the Calgary Flames (a hockey team), my Calgary was (and remains) the Foothills Hospital and the Alberta Children’s Hospital. Foothills Hospital was the place where I started my career in Canada on July 2, 1981.
I had arranged to meet with Prof. Haslam at 9:00 that morning. Decked in my three-piece striped suit and tie, and carrying my briefcase that contained a couple of pieces of paper, I reported with plenty of time to spare.
Betty, the department chairman’s secretary, received me with reassuring smiles and assured me that all would be well. Just before 9:00 a.m., a man dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots, a checked shirt, a shoestring (bolo) tie and a large Stetson hat walked in. He offered a good morning to Betty and a hello to me before walking into an inner room. Perhaps he was a deliveryman, I thought, or some other employee in the department.
Moments later the man walked out and offered me his hand. “Hi! I am Bob,” the cowboy introduced himself. “I am Dr. Mulera,” I replied. “Can I offer you a cup of coffee?” he asked. “No thank you,” I declined. The idea of drinking or eating in the office was completely foreign to me.
The gentleman invited me into the inner room. Clearly he was ushering me into the department chairman’s office where I would find Prof. Haslam waiting for me, or so I thought. Instead the cowboy sat behind a large wooden desk and offered me a seat. On the desk was a plaque on which was written: Robert H. A. Haslam MD.
The conversation was very cordial, and had nothing to do with the practice of medicine. To this Ugandan, raised and educated in a Victorian tradition, the informality and easygoing manner was at once shocking and endearing. I often wonder what he thought of my choice of attire for that warm summer morning.
Prof. Haslam insisted that I call him “Bob.” I smiled and continued to address him as professor or doctor. Over the next four years I would hear many young people, including students, refer to him as Bob. Thirty-five years later, I still cannot call him anything but Dr. Haslam.
The department of paediatrics was housed at Foothills Hospital, with the main children’s ward and ICU on the 11th floor of the yellow-coloured building. I recall the kindness of my senior residents in 1981, especially Drs. Helen Machida, Beverly Bell, Albert Ackerman, Thiru Govender and Heidi Schroter, who made settling into a rather strange land and culture much easier than it might have been.
We lived in the South Tower, a residential building that belonged to the hospital. Apartment 401, which faced west and offered a gorgeous view of the Rockies in the distance, was our home for four years. Coming from Ireland and East Africa, where one paid to make brief local telephone calls, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that local calls cost “nothing” regardless of duration of conversation.
I bought a red 1967 model Ford Galaxy, one of those long North American cars that were standard features on the roads. I bought it from Dr. Niranjan “Tex” Kissoon for the grand sum of $275. I then discovered another tradition hitherto unfamiliar to me. One was required to pay to park one’s car where one lived or worked.
Like everything else in Canada, that car was very large compared to what I had been accustomed to. The roads, the stores, the apartment, the commercial buildings, even the servings in restaurants were very generous.
Disaster almost hit on our very first Christmas Day. It was a bright and sunny morning, without much snow on the ground. Thinking that there would be Christmas worship at the Presbyterian Church that we had started to attend, Florence and I donned warm clothing and strolled over for the service.
The large wooden doors were shut and there was no sign of life in or around the building. There were hardly any cars on the roads around us.
It was so bright and dry that we decided to take a walk to the Bowness neighbourhood, across the Bow River, to visit our new Ghanaian friends, Archie and Hannah Adams and their lovely children Esther and Benjamin.
Before long, Florence, who was with child, slowed down, her step began to falter and she struggled to keep up. We took shelter in an empty bus stop and waited.
I flagged down a cab and the good driver obliged me. “What the h… are you doing out here?” he asked. “Do you want to die or something?”
Once inside the cab, it became quickly clear why the driver was using expletives to address complete strangers. “Did you not listen to the cold alert?” he pressed on with the interrogation. We had no idea what he was talking about. All was forgiven once he learnt that we were newly arrived from the tropics.
When we walked into the Adams home, they greeted us with an expression of shocked delight that did not need elaboration. We were cured of our naiveté and learnt to respect Alberta’s deceptive winters.
The children’s department moved out of Foothills Hospital in early 1982 and relocated to the brand new Alberta Children’s Hospital (ACH) on Richmond Road in the South West part of town.
The ACH was a unique hospital in its time, arranged in a forward-looking pod system that discarded the traditional long-wards and dimly lit rooms. The patient rooms were arranged in a circle around a central play area. The entire place was designed and run to put patients and families first. This was not yet the standard attitude in medical practice, and so it was quite a shift of one’s professional mindset.
It was in Calgary that I was introduced to two technological advances that would change the way we lived, worked and enjoyed entertainment. First was the computer, a real “living” machine that was installed in the paediatric intensive care unit. It took me a while to gather the courage to learn how to use it. However, like every aspect of my years at ACH, there was ready support and encouragement that made what seemed impossible, doable.
Second was the Compact Disc (CD), a shiny piece of plastic that, to my complete disbelief, my favourite audio store owner in North East Calgary told me carried music that “sounded better than that from a vinyl LP.”
He plucked the CD from of a plastic jewel box, slipped it onto a little tray, pressed a little button, the tray noisily disappeared into a black box that resembled an audio receiver and out of the speakers came a sound that was very strange to the ears.
I recall disliking its harshness, but marvelling at the fact that that little thing was the source of recorded music. I had no clue how a laser beam could read that shiny thing. I still don’t.
Of course the CD today (and its refinements such as the SACD, DVD-Audio and Blue Ray and MP3) is very different from that sharp and grating sound that I heard in northeast Calgary in late 1982. However, to me Calgary was the place where the great leap backward in sound reproduction began. I still prefer the sound of a well cared for vinyl LP to that of even the best CD.
Calgary was very good to us, not least because of the kindness and outstanding teaching received from the faculty in the department of paediatrics. It is very difficult to cite examples when one had so many great teachers. However, I rank the following among the finest teachers I have had in my career: Drs. Robert Haslam (Paediatrics & Neurology), Hussam Darwish (Neurology), Robert G. McArthur (Endocrinology), Diane Morrison (Residency Program Director, Behavioural and Developmental Paediatrics), Richard Wesenberg (Radiology), Reginald Sauvé (Neonatology), Douglas D. McMillan (Neonatology), Dennis Mayock (Neonatology), Albert Ackerman (Neonatology), Gus Cooper (Paediatric Intensive Care Medicine), Alexander K. C. Leung (General Paediatrics), Robert Somerville (Paediatric Cardiology), John Bowman (Paediatric Haematology/Blood Transfusion,) Donald Clogg (Paediatric Emergency Medicine) and Stephen Rubin (Paediatric Surgery.)
These teachers introduced me to paediatrics and set me on my still unfinished journey of learning the science and art of caring for sick children and their families and of sharing my knowledge with our younger colleagues. I was very honoured to be appointed their Chief Resident in my final year.
Sam Darwish, Diane Morrison and Donald Clogg died very young. Their memory lives with me.
I also recall with great fondness a number of medical students and residents that I assisted in their learning and, in turn, learnt from them, top among them James Kellner, Michael Giuffre, Peter Nieman, Richard Wong and Mohammad Al Herbish.
It was in Calgary, at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, that I took the examinations for the Royal College of Physicians of Canada. My formal training as a paediatrician was complete. I was now ready to move on to the next task.
However, leaving Calgary on the morning of June 27, 1985 was a difficult moment, only eased by the excitement of joining the Neonatology Division at the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto. An old dream and challenge was about to be fulfilled.