Larry Evans: Steady hand took surgery instructions over the radio


There's an insurance company in town called Western Financial Group. It wasn’t that long ago it was called J.W. Baker Insurance and was owned by Jack Baker, a prominent businessman in Fort St. John, and for many years he owned the only insurance company here. 

The following is Jack’s story told in his own words. Part of it deals with a story I had heard as a kid and in later years read about in different history books. It is the stuff Hollywood has made into legends but it did actually happen here in the north in 1939. 

It deals with a well-known doctor, Garnet Kearney, Jack, and a man by the name of Gordon Stock, whose life was saved by Jack working under the direction of Dr. Kearney over a shortwave radio 500 miles away.

“J.W. Baker was born in Cork, Ireland, and was the son of a businessman who enjoyed singing and entertaining. Jack entered the University of Manitoba at the young age of 15, but was too young to be happy about it. As soon as he could, he shipped out for the north in 1928. He spent 10 years living with the Inuit and First Nations people of the Arctic tundra. 

“He then left the Arctic and went to Fort Liard where he ran a fur trading post for Northern Traders Ltd. of Winnipeg. On a winter day in 1938 a small plane stopped on the river near the post. The pilot asked if he could stay the night. The pilot was none other than Grant McConachie, who became the founder of Canadian Pacific Airlines in 1942.

"McConachie found it interesting that Jack had built a small radio transmitter and, after fastening a hand key, had managed to learn and transmit messages using Morse code. Jack was then asked if he could go to Watson Lake and open a station for radio and weather reports, as well as other data.

“Northern Traders sold the business in 1939, but Jack remained at Liard until late summer, arriving at his home in Winnipeg in fall. After a great reunion with his family and friends Jack decided to head back north. Jack took the train to Edmonton to look for McConachie, who was delighted to see him and wanted him to leave right away for Watson Lake.

"Jack got a ride to Fort Nelson on the mail plane. He traveled on to Fort Liard for some of his things, then borrowed a dog team from a trapper and was soon back in Fort Nelson. He was picked up by another pilot and flown to Watson Lake in early February 1939. This is where he met Frank Watson and Vic Johnson, who were busy building the station with logs. 

“The company had already sent radio equipment, a transmitter and receiver along with storage batteries and a gasoline motor generator. The Dominion Weather Service had also sent in weather equipment including a recording anemometer (wind speed indicator), barometers, thermometers, rain gauges, a cloud atlas among many other things.

“It wasn’t long before Yukon Sourthern Air Transport became very busy and increased its service from Edmonton and Vancouver to Whitehorse. It was at this time that Jack felt he could not keep up with the work and insisted that McConachie send him an assistant. In late summer Gordon Stock arrived. Soon Gordon took over the outside work, cutting firewood and tending planes when they stopped in. 

“By early November, the lake was freezing over. Gordon started experiencing bad headaches, which he tried to calm with aspirin. As time passed, Gordon’s face began to swell, with one eye closed completely. There was no plane that could land, so with the problem getting worse and Gordon not eating or sleeping, Jack felt he had to try something.

He called the operator at Charlie Lake, where the Fort St. John float plane base was at Red Powell’s, and asked the operator if he could locate a doctor and find out what Jack could do for Gordon. Later, the operator called back to say that Dr. Kearney said he would have to do an immediate operation to relieve the pressure, which was forcing its way into some delicate area back of Gordon’s eye, and this could result in death if nothing was done.

"He agreed to attend at the radio station at Charlie Lake that night at 8 p.m. when communications were expected to be at their best, and would guide the hand of Jack Baker nearly 500 miles away. He advised Jack to break a razor diagonally to give it a piercing and cutting edge, to boil it to sterilize, and to have clean cloths and hot water for mopping blood.

“That night, other radios on their circuit cleared the air to allow an open channel, and conditions were excellent so they could use microphones instead of the usual Morse code. Jack led Gordon into the shack and sat him down. He was pretty far gone and there was no need to tie him in the chair, as the doctor had suggested.

"Jack was pretty shaky as he started poking the pointed instrument around Gordon’s eye, following the instructions from Dr. Kearney on where to cut and how deep to go. Blood began to flow; Gordon winced and moaned, but the doctor was as near as the microphone, keeping him calm. It took longer than expected but he eventually cut through to the seat of the trouble and then it burst. Gordon immediately went limp in a faint.

"The doctor said to lay him out on a mattress on the floor so the incision could continue draining, and to cover him up to keep him warm and hope for the best.

“Jack cleaned up the ‘operating room’ and went to bed physically and mentally exhausted. When Jack woke, he checked on Gordon and saw he was still asleep, but breathing OK with a steady pulse. Gordon finally woke up the next day, remarking that he was hungry. Jack was very glad to hear those words, so got him up to wash up, then fed him some soup.

"Gordon could not remember what had happened. After several days, a small plane finally came to pick up Gordon to take him to Fort St. John and for a check-up with Dr. Kearney, who said there was nothing else to be done as Gordon, by this time, was healing nicely and the infection had subsided. Jack didn’t meet Gordon again until 30 years later, when Gordon visited Jack in his office in Fort St. John. They had a great reunion, and the little scar was hardly visible. 

“By 1942, Jack was promoted to Chief Dispatcher of Canadian Pacific Air Lines, northern division in Whitehorse. Once the government became involved with their regulations, paperwork, reports and uniforms Jack lost interest and went back to the trapline.

"This time he headed for the Peace River Country, at Gold Bar, where his father-in-law had a ranch. He trapped for a couple of years in the mountains and at Graham River. In 1948, Jack and his wife, Clarice Beattie Baker, moved to Fort St. John where they raised seven children. '

"It was in Fort St. John that Jack had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kearney. They finally had a chance to discuss, in person, the frightening night they had shared nine years before when they saved the life of Gordon Stock. They remained friends until Kearney’s death in 1970.”

Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.

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