The final cut: A longtime surgeon finally hangs up his scalpel at 85

This isn’t the first time surgeon Dr. Michael Ross has retired.

Fifteen years ago, the ear, nose and throat specialist shut down his practice after a mere 45 years of practising medicine.

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It didn’t last. The then 70-year-old ended up stepping back into the OR, assisting vascular surgeons until four weeks ago, when he decided to finally retire for good, at the age of 85.

“I think that may be a Canadian record,” said his wife, Mary, adding with a chuckle that he is so dedicated, she almost expected him to expire on the job. “I thought he might just go one day, in the OR.”

There are many in Victoria who’ve been touched by the talents of the specialist in head and neck surgery, who came to Victoria in 1960 from England.

He served for many years as chief of surgery at the Royal Jubilee hospital, was president of the Victoria Medical Society, served as a consultant at the Island Pain Clinic and the B.C. Cancer Clinic and taught at the University of Victoria for 10 years.

Why did he give up his practice at age 70 only to resume operating soon after?

“Being a specialist on call is very hard on the family,” said Ross. By transitioning into vascular surgery, he stayed in a profession he adored, but also had time for his family, including son Drew, who manages health and safety for the city of Vancouver, and daughter Meg Ross Schmon, a costume designer for film in Vancouver, as well as two grandchildren.

Then there’s Mary, a former professional dancer who took up writing books and painting after a career touring Europe. Ross calls her his fountain of joy and excitement.

Assisting in vascular surgery is no less taxing than head and neck surgery. On one occasion, four months ago, Ross spent 22 hours straight —except for short breaks — working in the Jubilee operating room.

“It’s an unforgiving specialty,” he said. “It’s very challenging and technically tough. The surgeons I worked with are meticulous and I am so impressed with their dedication, the quality of their work.”

Colleagues return the accolades for Ross, whom they value for his demeanour as well as his skill.

“We worked shoulder to shoulder,” said Dr. Jim Dooner, former head of the division of vascular surgery and chief of surgery for Island Health. “We are making him an honourary vascular surgeon, even though he was in a different specialty.”

Dooner said Ross took on a “masochistic project” when he began working with their division.

“There is tremendous volatility in our work … the only reason you’d do it would be for love of the game, but Michael has a unique intellect and is always interested in the technical side. He wasn’t doing it to make a living, but to enjoy living. I marvelled at that, and thanked him profusely.”

Dooner explained that a vascular surgeon looks after every blood vessel inside the body, outside the heart.

“The scope is huge, the work is a bottomless pit … stroke prevention, carotid arteries, legs about to turn black and fall off …We call it the field of life and limb. It has a huge impact. We spend a fair bit of time rescuing people when other surgeons run into bleeding problems.”

He said the phrase “lifelong learning” is overused, but it applies to Ross in spades. “He has an endless, student-like zeal that he embraces in every aspect of his life.

“Any doctor wanting to accelerate his or her growth can learn from Michael’s generosity, kindness and total focus on the patient — something which gets lost sometimes when a doctor becomes a little obsessed with technique.

“I have known Michael my entire career — he was here 15 years before I arrived — and if there was ever anybody you wanted to emulate for his many attributes, it is him.”

Where some people bring drama into an OR, Ross always brought tranquility, Dooner said.

“Things can get tense, in our work,” said Dooner. “The clock is ticking, brain cells are dying, so there is always an appropriate level of urgency, but Michael knew how to calm things down.

“He brought something valuable every time he showed up. He was there 100 per cent, standing for hours on end in PPE, often also wearing close to 20 pounds of lead [as protection from X-ray imaging].”

Dooner noted that while some family doctors continue to work in remote rural areas at age 85, it’s rare to still be working in an operating room at that age.

When Ross came to this city in October 1960 after training as a family physician in England, he opened a general practice. Later, he decided to do a four-year residency in otolaryngology — or head and neck surgery — in Seattle, because as a GP, he saw so many cancers of the mouth and tongue.

“They had to go to Vancouver for surgery and reconstruction surgery took weeks, months, putting great stress on the families.”

He then took a year’s fellowship in London, England, in the same specialty.

While Ross was in London, he operated on the chief of police from Cairo, Egypt, something that made him very nervous. A few weeks earlier, a soldier from the Middle East had brought his son in for surgery, but the youngster had not survived the operation. His father came back a few days later and shot the surgeon dead.

To avoid any misunderstandings, Ross insisted that the chief of police’s bodyguards, a group of beefy, tough-looking men in dark glasses, be in the consultation room while the chief was given his options.

Ross told the chief he would die soon and in great pain unless surgery was performed to remove his voice box. All the men saw their chief agree to the operation. Fortunately, the surgery was successful and Ross never had to deal with any angry family members.

Ross returned to Victoria in 1973. Another otolaryngologist came to Victoria around that time, so they shared the night and weekend work. Despite the demanding hours, Ross loved the work: “Because of the very compact anatomy, is it very interesting, satisfying.”

It was also challenging, because 70 per cent of his cancer patients were alcoholics with cancer of the tongue, mouth and lymph nodes in the neck. They weren’t easy patients, he said. “They could be belligerent in withdrawal, hostile to the poor nurses and they required frequent night visits.”

Besides tonsils, he spent untold hours removing everything from crayons to keys from throats. Once, he even had to remove “great lumps of glass after a sailor finished his beer in a bar and decided to eat the glass. I spent a lot of time down his esophagus to get every last piece.”

Airway problems, bleeding caused by falls, facial fractures, broken bones due to fights, car accidents — he saw it all, and notes that seatbelts made a huge difference in reducing the number of facial fractures.

One of his favourite stories is about an elderly veteran.

When Ross looked in the man’s left ear, the senior advised him not to bother, saying: “I lost my hearing there in 1918 when a shell killed my two buddies and I was left unconscious. I have a pension for hearing loss.”

Ross took a look anyway. Deep inside, he discovered pieces of cotton batten that had been blasted against the ear drum. “I took them out and the man covered his ear and said: ‘Stop yelling!’ ”

After his ear drum had been protected by the cotton for 50 years, the man suddenly had acute hearing. “He left with a hand over his ear saying he wasn’t going to tell the army,” said Ross.

Ross was on call for the Queen when she visited — “Luckily she didn’t choke on a fishbone while here” — and went to Haida Gwaii numerous times at his own expense to perform surgeries for the Indigenous population. He had become interested in the area while on fishing trips.

It’s also where he had what he described as the worst day of his life in the operating room, when a 15-year-old experienced unstoppable bleeding after his tonsils were removed. Ross, who didn’t have the resources he would have had in Victoria, “harassed the provincial jet service hourly through the day and night,” and the boy was eventually evacuated to Vancouver, receiving transfusions en route. At Vancouver General Hospital, a hematologist diagnosed a clotting disorder and was able to stop the bleeding with an injection.

On his next trip to Haida Gwaii, Ross learned his patient’s cousin had cut his leg with a chainsaw and died from a hemorrhage, indicating the disorder was probably in the family.

Ross’s family also had an ethos of service. His father went straight from medical school onto a navy cruiser in the First World War and was later public health doctor for the city and port of Liverpool, where he was a lifelong advocate for sailors. Ross’s brother is also a doctor, and his sister, a nun and colleague of Mother Theresa, ran a school in Calcutta for 25 years.

Ross says he always loved the milieu of medicine, “the purpose, the colleagues, the caring nurses and my thousands of patients.”

While there have been many changes in medicine over his career, he says, “there is still joy in doing it right, the best you can.”

Dr. Shung Lee, current head of the division of vascular surgery at Royal Jubilee, calls Ross “timeless and ageless.”

“He is so sharp, young at heart and mind, inquisitive, scholarly and he knows how to treat people,” Lee said. “He is a gentleman’s gentleman. He always introduces himself, even to junior staff, and always remembers their names. People like working with him because of his wit and charm.”

Like Dooner, Lee says Ross brought calm to the operating room, saying “sometimes in vascular surgery things can get sticky.”

“Even when surgeries lasted five or six hours, he wouldn’t take a break. He has stamina and equanimity — and when he is assisting, he makes me look good.”

Lee says while Ross has been slowing down recently, he still has “incredibly steady hands and good eyes, which is important as we use threads that are like a fine hair or strand of silk, and we work on two- to three-millimetre vessels.

“I will always think of Michael as a Renaissance man with this beautiful white shock of hair. He makes his own wine, paints, is a scholar, always expanding his mind — I miss him already and he’s only been gone a few weeks.”

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