Getting to know Newfoundland and Labrador’s Minister of Health & Community Services

From superpowers he wishes he had, to things he wished he never said, The Herald enjoys a little light-hearted moment: The good Doctor is in!

How did you end up leaving England for NL?

By sheer chance in many respects. I wanted to leave the job I was in because I was not suited to it and it wasn’t suited to me. And because of various factors I started looking abroad. I only really had the one language, so I applied to work jobs in Canada and … the next thing, I was on a plane with my wife and headed for St. Anthony. 

Where did your love of the outdoors come from?  

I acquired it here. I grew up in a big city. Manchester’s population is well over half-a-million and  … It was a typical northern industrial centre of manufacturing, engineering and commerce at the time I was growing up, but it changed over the years. 

So really getting out in the country was a break for me. I had actually lived in  rural Cheshire (England) for a while whilst working at the University of Liverpool and I really liked it there, so when I went to St. Anthony it was just a different kind of rural and it was great. And when I was in Gander working, I actually lived in Appleton which was smaller still and I  commuted for 18 years, so I like the rural areas. Today, I live in Gander. Home is where the mortgage is. 

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What type of things do you like to do outside?

When I grew up in Manchester, the only thing you’d catch in the river was heavy metal poisoning. It was a real mess. And I came to really just sort of enjoy walking and hiking.

I have the dogs (Westies, Chloe and Gracie) so I get out with them. I love maps and I’m interested in that, too. I actually taught navigation …  But I get a bit lazy I suppose sometimes. I walk some days, but I like to take the side-by-side. My middle daughter Jennifer was a real quad enthusiast. She was forever … scooting around probably at an age when she shouldn’t have been at it. 

Speaking of your children, on Mother’s Day, your daughter Elizabeth posted something quite touching (Page 11) Do you mind sharing what that was about?

My wife (Jane) died of a very rare throat cancer and the girls (Hollie, Jenni and Elizabeth) were younger, so for a time, it was just us. 

I think it’s interesting, (Jane) said before she died – she was a nurse and a midwife herself – but one of the things she kept saying was she couldn’t get over how well she was looked after by the nursing staff or the physicians over the course of her illness. She spoke very highly of those in the health care system. 

You have a camper you enjoy at Square Pond Park in Gambo. How did that passion come about?

In many respects, the tragedy of the girls and their mom in 2005 kind of refocused us a little bit. So camping, and before that the cabin, became much more a part of our lives. By then the girls were 14, 15 and nearly 18 so there was a lot of the activities we could do that made getting away, for those weekends where we could getaway, more important in a way, and more enjoyable.

Take us down memory lane of Victoria Day of weekends past.

Well one of the most spectacular memories was when we had a cabin years ago and we went out there on a fairly nice sunny Thursday evening and then on the Saturday, we had 59 centimetres of snow. In this province, if you worried about the weather before you planned anything then you’re really not thinking straight because it’s going to do what it’s going to do. (laughs).

What do you enjoy doing in your time off this time of the year?

We have a camper and it’s a seasonal site and whatever the weather, we’ve got heat. May 24th, for me, it marks the functional end of winter and spring and summer are ahead of you. And while the weather may not be the best, it’s just the fact that you’re in a different routine where you can be out more easily and you’re getting away from the cold of winter to some warmer temps. 

So many have fallen hard for your no-nonsense yet comical style. Where did that come from?  

It came from two sources. As a surgeon, it’s very difficult to be too flowery with your language. Medicine, along with a lot of professions, have got a lot of technical terminology. But when you come to someone who is frightened, who’s had bad news, who’s really agitated, and may actually be acutely unwell … you need to be able to explain what you’re going to do while you’ve got a knife in someone’s innards. You have to translate medical jargon and it has to be understandable and clear cut, no nonsense. 

The other side, I was raised by my mom and her younger brother, Glyn (Wilson). Glyn was an academic … a historian and he had a real flair for language, not just in terms of vocabulary, but in the terms he could spin sentences together and had a very dry sense of humor. My sister, she says to me to this day;  ‘Glyn will never die as long as you’re around.’ And, yes, it’s got me in as much trouble as it’s got me out of sometimes. 

Any tales you’d like to share on that sense of humour of yours?

I remember this one patient I had from maybe Gander Bay, and he heard my accent and said, ‘you’re not from ‘round here, are ya?’ and I said, ‘No, b’y, I’m from C’nantny’ (St. Anthony) and he said, ‘Oh yes, b’y, that’s alrite.’ (laughs). 

When I left Liverpool, one thing I missed was the humour, but I’ve found that again here. Liverpool has several things that are interesting about it. One is that it has a really strange and unique accent that people love to mock. Another is that the people there have a really self-deprecating sense of humour that others in Southern England have a hard time getting, and another thing about the people there, they’d give you the shirt off their back. Sound familiar? So, you see, I feel right at home. 

Tell us about a typical day for you these days. 

If I find myself under stress I like to get some fresh air. Go on the side-by-side, or read a good book. And I work. In the beginning of all this, I’d stay (in town) but it’s hard being away from home. For me, while I wouldn’t say the pressures have eased, they’ve changed. It’s a lot less stressful when you don’t have rising numbers of patients to deal with or concerns about seriously ill individuals in hospital in large numbers.

But while the pressure hasn’t changed, it’s easier to manage from home now. My wife (Jeanette) was frightened because I usually do a lot of chatting. It takes me 45 minutes to an hour to get a carton of milk under the best of circumstances and Jeannette, she’s a healthcare worker, an RN at the hospital here  … so it’s important to maintain that bubble. 

I’ve got the technology working here, though I actually burnt out a tablet. It overheated from all the Skype I was doing, so I got me a new laptop and I’m into a comfortable routine. My office is in the forestry building and I’m the only person there, so I don’t feel as though that’s breaching any bubbles. So I work, and I go home, and to relax, I get outside. 

There are chocolate bars with your sayings on them. There’s also artwork. Thoughts?

These sayings are not new for me. The one about hope being a girl’s name, staff at the hospital I worked with would roll their eyes whenever I said that. I say that without thinking. 

You’re talking about a patient; you hear, ‘I hope you’ll be better soon.’ ‘I hope it’ll all go all right.’ ‘With any luck, we hope this will work.’ And of course, me being me would say, hope is a girl’s name. The one about Tinder and Grindr, they just slip out naturally. Things just popped into my head because again, this goes back to the idea that you’re trying to explain complicated ideas by analogy.

Tell readers something you’ve said that you immediately wished you hadn’t? 

My wife always said, ‘would you, for God’s sake, put your listening ears on while you’re talking?’ And just today, in the briefing, I used the word handicap and I realized that wasn’t right. 

You are heading into the woods for a year. All your shelter and grub needs are taken care of, what other two items do you take and why? 

I would take my Kindle and either a notebook and a pen or a laptop so I could jot down and journal things. I got into the habit of doing that when I did some stress management kind of self-love schooling back in the day with the Medical Association. That will help my enjoyment of playing with words. Maybe one of my ambitions would be to write a book, though I don’t think anybody would want to read it. 

You get to have two superpowers. What are they?

Wow. You know, I really don’t know. I’m not much fun, am I? I’m a pilot, so flying sounds good. Being invisible sort of seems like unnecessary nosiness, really, though maybe that’s fun. I wouldn’t mind having better eyesight. 

You get to pick a song that plays every time you walk into a room. That song that will play is…?  

Piece of music that would play? Every time I walk in the room? Obviously I have no imagination. I can certainly dredge up something that would label me as a child of the 60s, but one piece of music that would get me up and on the go or relax me, Fantasia on Greensleeves by Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

It’s an orchestral piece by an English composer at the turn of the last century. I don’t always listen to classical music, I mean, my tastes go from there all the way to Led Zeppelin. 

You get to plan a celebratory parade for Newfoundlanders to enjoy once this pandemic is over. Describe the float that you’re riding on and who’s on the float with you? 

Oh, yeah. Easy. I want a bubble machine. And all my kids and grandkids are on it, and we just blow a whole bunch of bubbles. We’ll have a huge family reunion on that float and they’re all blowing bubbles. I’m in charge of the biggest bubble machine. 

You have one day where you can only say one word. What’s the word? 

I learned a long, long time ago how to say no, it’s one of the most liberating words you can use. But, if I could only say one word for one day, it would be ‘fantastic!”

What’s an item that you keep stocked in your fridge at all times? 

The thing that I get most concerned about running out of is anchovies.  I love anchovies and I’ve always got them in the fridge. Every once in a while I’ll sit down, I’ll eat one or I’ll put it on pizza or something.

You get to be a member of any sitcom family you pick. What family do you join?  

There was a sitcom in the U.K. called Till Death Do Us Part and it was the prototype for Archie Bunker. I’ll be the patriarch, Alf.  

He got to swear at everybody and say exactly what he wanted. It was totally politically incorrect. Obviously, something totally fun. 

If anyone asked you what’s the best thing since sliced bread, what would that be in your opinion? 

Donair meat. I love that stuff. (laughs)

Name something you’re horribly bad at and one thing you’re surprisingly good at. 

I used to think I was a hopeless handyman. In actual fact, I surprised myself because the projects I’ve done have worked out well so that answers both questions. I still think I’m bad at it, but the things I have done, particularly the ones I haven’t analyzed to death, haven’t been bad. 

Describe your life so far using one word. 

You know what? I’d have to use fantastic. I mean, it’s had its ups and downs, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve done things in the last 25 years I would never, ever have envisioned.

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