In Memoriam

Dr. Stanley Mercer

(1924-2010)

(From Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario)

It’s hard to imagine Ottawa without the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. But in the decade leading up to CHEO’s opening in 1974, many skeptics dismissed the grassroots movement to create a freestanding pediatric hospital in the region.

“Ottawa just isn’t large enough for such accommodations,” one physician told the Citizen in 1969. Dr. Stanley Mercer paid little attention. He was among a dozen advocates who fought to get CHEO established. Mercer went on to serve as the hospital’s founding chief of surgery. Until his retirement in 1989, he recruited a generation of doctors who helped earn the hospital an international reputation.

The creation of CHEO meant parents in this region no longer had to take their children to Toronto or Montreal for specialized care, a choice that had only been available to wealthy families.

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Mercer emigrated to Canada in 1953 and quickly won a fellowship in pediatric surgery at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The field was so new that when Mercer moved to Ottawa’s Civic Hospital after finishing his training, he became the city’s only pediatric surgeon. In 1960, Mercer performed an emergency operation on June Runtz’s son, who was just two days old. Within weeks, three more surgeries followed. Throughout that difficult time, Mercer remained an unwavering source of support, Runtz recalled.

“Dr. Mercer had left word at the hospital that when my husband and I visited our son, they were to call him at home if he wasn’t in the hospital and he would come and see us,” Runtz wrote in a letter to the Citizen. “He also gave us his home phone number and told us to call any time if we needed to talk to him.  … Unfortunately, our son died suddenly when he was 16 months old. Dr. Mercer was in Montreal, but when he heard of the death he wrote to us expressing the loss he felt along with us.” Mercer’s colleagues say such dedication was typical, but also a necessity, given that he was, in effect, a one-man department. His wife and three sons learned to adapt to his demanding workload.

“The only time he could take a real break was if we went out of the city and one of the adult (patients’) surgeons would agree to cover for him,” said Sylvia Mercer. “We never thought that was odd. We did have family time, for sure, but we would never say, ‘A week from Friday, we’re going to do this.’ ”

The couple’s youngest son, Brian, remembers twice visiting the Civic as a boy. The first time, he fell off a chair and hurt his head, prompting his father to take him to the emergency room, where he stitched up his son’s wound. The second time, Mercer gave his son a tour of the operating room to put Brian at ease before he was to have his tonsils removed. How Mercer treated his own children — and other young patients at the Civic — foreshadowed his philosophy for the hospital he would help create. How can you be stuffy with small children? They’ll pee over you or vomit on you,” Mercer once told a reporter. “You can’t stay pompous for very long with children. They won’t let you.”

Shirley Post worked closely with Mercer during the decade-long campaign to establish CHEO. She later served as the hospital’s first director of nursing. “Stanley believed that we should treat all children as if they were our own children,” said Post, who co-chaired the Citizen’s Committee on Children, which lobbied for the hospital’s creation.

Post remembers Mercer as an early supporter, who barnstormed through town halls and church basements to raise money. In 1966, the Ontario government announced $24 million for CHEO’s construction, but that amount was eventually cut to $18 million, which nearly derailed the project, said Post. “It hurt so much when it got cut back because it meant we had to cut a lot of outpatient services. But at a meeting one night, Dr. Mercer said, ‘We’ve decided it would better, if we couldn’t have a Cadillac, to have a Volkswagen.’”

For three years leading up to CHEO’s official opening, Mercer juggled his surgical duties at the Civic while attending nightly meetings of the five-member committee that oversaw every detail of the hospital’s design. “I think that hospital got redesigned three times,” said Post, a committee member.

In the years after CHEO opened its doors, Mercer played a key role in recruiting young surgeons. One of them was Dr. Juan Bass, now the hospital’s acting chief of general surgery. Bass recalled how Mercer, as president of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons in the 1980s, conducted a survey that determined the country faced a shortage of pediatric specialists. He then devoted himself to establishing a training program for pediatric surgery at CHEO, one of only four in the country at the time. Said Bass: “One thing he said that I never forget: ‘You have to remember that the hospital is not made out of bricks, it’s made out of the people who work inside.’”

Mercer died in his sleep on Oct. 29 at his Ottawa home. He was 86.

Original article by:  Pauline Tam, The Ottawa Citizen November 7, 2010; Photograph by: Paul Latour, The Ottawa Citizen