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Doctor’s journey from farm to neonatal unit

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Retired paediatrician Eugene Outerbridge. (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Eugene Outerbridge Jr didn’t intend to become a paediatrician.

He always thought he’d end up working on his father’s lily farm. But then, halfway through his botany studies at university, the business began to suffer.

He dropped out to help.

“[My father] eventually switched to potatoes, and then opened up a small grocery store,” said Dr Outerbridge. “Honestly, I couldn’t see myself as working in a grocery store for the rest of my life, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Fate intervened.

In 1958 he got the opportunity to sail from Bermuda to New York on a 72-ft ketch, Ticonderoga.

“That had to be the best five days of my life,” he said. “It was the first time I ever really sat down and thought about what I wanted to do long-term. I thought about strange things, like how fascinated I was when my botany teacher gave us a two-volume book on human diseases caused by fungi. I read it from cover to cover.”

He decided that he would go into medicine, and if that failed he’d sail yachts for wealthy people.

“At McGill, I felt intimidated by my classmates,” he said. “They all had parents and grandparents who were doctors and felt very comfortable with medical terminology. Everything seemed to come easily to them.”

At first he thought he would go into psychiatry because there was no blood involved, but a visit to a chronic care psychiatric facility changed his mind.

He found his calling in his final year of study.

Bill Cooke, another Bermudian doctor in training, suggested he do paediatrics.

At the time there weren’t any on the Island.

“I loved that there were all these neat little people that we didn’t know much about yet,” he said. “But I decided to stay in Canada. So Bermuda’s first paediatrician was the late Dr Janet Grant Tyrrell.”

In the 1970s he worked with ventilator pioneer Leo Stern at Montreal Children’s Hospital.

The Quebec institution was home to one of only three newborn ventilating units in North America. Babies were only put on them if they were in a critical condition.

“We actually got the first five babies off of respirators,” said the 81-year-old proudly.

But the newness meant not a lot was known about making repairs.

“Because of my experience with tractors, I found it very easy to understand how the respirator worked and fix it when it broke,” he said. “The others didn’t. My farming background came in handy for the very first time.”

The hospital also started a follow-up programme as it wasn’t clear what the long-term outcome would be for ventilated babies.

“I met the mother of one of my patients at an outreach function,” he said. “She showed me her daughter’s university graduation photo. It was an unbelievable feeling to see the child all grown up and doing well.”

Dr Outerbridge spent 30 years in Montreal and then returned to Bermuda in 1998 as chief of paediatrics at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.

He retired from medicine last month, having specialised in neonatal intensive care for more than 45 years.

He is proud to have been part of a medical revolution, not just in terms of equipment, but also in compassion.

“When I was young, children were treated very dispassionately,” said Dr Outerbridge. “Child patients could only see their parents for an hour on Saturdays; fathers weren’t allowed to stay for the delivery of their children.”

He was thrown out of the delivery room during the birth of his first two daughters. “I told them: call me if the baby needs oxygen. I’m one of the best in the business,” he laughed.

When his third daughter was born, he convinced the obstetrician to let him stay for her birth.

“The nursing staff didn’t know what to do with me,” he said. “They were shocked. It just wasn’t done in those days.”

He hopes to stay involved in activities that improve the lives of children.

Dr Outerbridge and his wife Sylvia have three daughters, Catherine, Barbara and Heather and six grandchildren.

Eugene Outerbridge Jr with his father in their lily field in St David's. (Photograph supplied)