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G. William N. Fitzgerald, CM, MD, FRCSC: 2018 Recipient of the Royal College’s James H. Graham Award of Merit

Dr. Fitzgerald unveiling his portrait at the Royal College in 2010

G. William N. Fitzgerald, CM, MD, FRCSC
General Surgeon, prior to retirement:

  • Surgeon in Chief, Charles S. Curtis Memorial Hospital, St. Anthony, NL
  • Clinical Professor of Surgery, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Known as “the patient’s doctor” Dr. William Fitzgerald conducted a challenging and eclectic practice for 38 years over a vast area in northern Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec’s Lower North Shore. Into retirement he continues to provide support as teacher and locum surgeon.

Patient-focused care

Self-described as a "traditional" general surgeon, Dr. Fitzgerald’s focus was always on the needs of patients. This commitment together with surgical excellence and training helped to build a team at Charles Curtis Memorial Hospital that serves the specific and diverse needs of this vast area.

Dr. Fitzgerald at Charles Curtis Memorial Hospital, St Anthony Newfoundland

Northern Newfoundland

The hospital works together with a system of community health centres and nursing stations separated by hundreds of kilometres over inhospitable terrain with few roads. So that people did not need to travel for surgery or sub-specialty consultation, Dr. Fitzgerald expanded his surgical scope. Through intensive training Dr. Fitzgerald was able to treat a range of conditions and diseases: selective thoracic surgery to treat lung cancer and pulmonary complaints; mastoid surgery to clear up severe mastoiditis in children; and spinal and disc surgery.

A former colleague said they are still struggling to fill the void left with his retirement.

Committed to research

Early in his surgical practice, he and a nurse colleague noticed a worrying pattern of early onset colon cancer in certain families in the region. They worked together to understand why. As a result, the Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colon Cancer screening and surgical program was put in place to catch and treat cancers sooner. Their efforts have saved countless lives and related published research is still being used today.

An inspiring teacher and colleague

“It was my greatest privilege to teach students and residents and it is the greatest compliment to have them succeed and in turn become my teacher,” said Dr. Fitzgerald.

Dr. Fitzgerald, students and colleagues at Charles Curtis Memorial Hospital

St Anthony is affiliated as a teaching hospital with Memorial University of Newfoundland. Despite its remote location medical students and post-graduate trainees from around the world flock there for surgical rotations and other training because of his international reputation as an outstanding teacher, and the legacy of excellence that remains since his retirement.

He was equally known for his support of colleagues and the profession. If a physician requested help or a referral, Dr. Fitzgerald was always available. His view was that a request for referral was a referral accepted, especially from a colleague working in a smaller community.

Dr. Fitzgerald also served the profession through many roles, including President of both the Royal College (2008-10) and the Canadian Association of General Surgeons (2006-07).

Canada’s obligation to global health

Dr. Fitzgerald’s time teaching in Nigeria and Uganda fueled his own interest and involvement in global surgery and inspired many medical students in those countries to pursue surgery.

Of working in Africa, Dr. Fitzgerald said, “People are much the same the world over and want basically the same things we do - peace, security, a reasonable lifestyle and opportunity for their children. Canada has an obligation to assist in improving the standards of medical care and residency training internationally. In doing so we enhance capacity, build bridges and break down barriers.”

Dr. Fitzgerald was also deeply influenced by his work with Indigenous peoples, and the unique health care challenges they face. Dr. Fitzgerald continues to address inequalities in Indigenous health as a long-standing member of the Royal College’s Indigenous Health Advisory Committee.

With the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean at the Order of Canada Investiture Ceremony in 2007

A testament to the impact of Dr. Fitzgerald on the lives of his patients and colleagues was being recognized as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2007 for his long and outstanding service to the community. The nomination was initiated by a patient living in Labrador. Dr. Fitzgerald truly is “the patient’s doctor”.

Dr. Fitzgerald and his wife Dr. Trudy O’Keefe with their children

“I would be remiss not to acknowledged the important role played by my wife and colleague Dr. Trudy O’Keefe, my closest advisor and most honest critic, and my four children,” Similarly I acknowledge the role of my many colleagues. To honour one is to honour all.” Dr. Fitzgerald.

A colleague summed up Dr. Fitzgerald by saying “Selfless dedication to patient care, vast scope of practice, technical wizardry and a love of teaching along with service to the profession and broader community have been the hallmarks of his career. He is simply the most extraordinarily talented surgeon I’ve ever met.”