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Rea Brown: surgeon and churchman.

A story of family, faith and service to others

To be in the presence of Dr. Rea Brown is to be in the presence of greatness. However, most members of Briarwood Church in Beaconsfield, Quebec, have no idea the big teddy bear of a man with the strong, chubby hands of a son of the farm is one of the top trauma surgeons in North America. Briarwood people see a quiet man with a pleasant smile who comes to church with wife, Kathy, and sits on the right side, in the second row from the back. He gazes up high, contemplating events of the past week and talking them over with God.

Rea retired last year after 38 years of medical practice at the Montreal General Hospital. "How lucky I was to be at the Montreal General," he says. "It is a world leader in so many fields. There were so many talented people. They have done a lot for the province and for the country. They were never afraid to record and compare with the rest of the world."

Rea was a professor of surgery at McGill University since 1984 and head of the trauma unit at the Montreal General (a McGill teaching hospital). From 1984 to 1991, he was a director of the surgical intensive care and trauma unit there. He served on the senate at McGill, and wrote and supervised several research papers. He won many international prizes, one for his work on colon cancer. He has had a longtime interest in pancreatitis and diabetes, and one of his students in now a world authority on diseases of the pancreas and diabetes.

Rea received his higher education at McGill University and at the Montreal General, training as a general surgeon. "That means I operated on everything from the top of the nose to the tips of the toes!" explained Rea. "When the Second World War ended, Canada was a great place to learn, and McGill was one of the best." It was up to the general surgeon to direct the care of the trauma patient -- any person who has come into collision with his environment such as breaking a leg in a fall.

The worst trauma situation for Rea was the 1989 massacre at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. Rea was giving a lecture and not on duty that night. He had just finished when he heard the special code come in over the hospital loudspeaker. So he rolled up his sleeves and pitched in.

Never in his life had he seen anything like it. Thanks to the skills of Rea and his trauma team, all the young women who came to the Montreal General that dreadful night survived. He received the American College Trauma Award for that work.

This event made Rea a staunch advocate of gun control even though he came from the farm where everyone in the family was a hunter. "It's not the hunters who are the problem; it's the gun in the wrong hands."

God has walked with Rea throughout his life. At times, like the massacre, or when a good man or woman is dying and Rea has prayed for recovery, he has had a hard time coming to grips with their deaths. The only question that has never been answered for him is "Why?" Rea has pondered this question with many of his Presbyterian pastors over the years but has never come up with a satisfactory answer. "I guess there is no answer," he says.

Rea has been a Presbyterian since high school days when his mother had some falling out with another church and the whole family became instant Presbyterians. Both sides of his family were originally from the Holiness Movement (now the Free Methodist). His Uncle John and Uncle Stewart on his mother's side were ministers in the area of the family farm -- Cardinal, Ontario, a small town of 2,000 on the St. Lawrence River about half-way between Cornwall and Brockville, and home of Canada Starch. Rea's parents were married in the Holiness Movement but later became United Church members.

That Rea became formally educated was something of a miracle. He hated school and studying, and only passed from one grade to another conditionally. His dad, who ran a successful dairy farm operation, did not have much schooling but was determined his three children should have a college education. He switched Rea to a one-room school where a marvellous teacher, Mrs. Van Camp, showed him the value of books. His whole life changed, although he still wasn't crazy about studying.

When Rea studied at McGill, he was a star football player for the McGill Redmen. Many of the players prayed regularly before the games, but not publicly as some teams do now. The Redmen won the Canadian intercollegiate football championship in 1960, and all the players were inducted into the McGill Athletic Hall of Fame last fall. "By golly, I still hated studying," says Rea. "But I knew if I didn't keep up with my marks I couldn't play football."

Rea eventually became the consulting general surgeon for the McGill Redmen and the Montreal Alouettes. He also cared for the Montreal Canadiens. He has several interesting anecdotes involving the Canadiens. As a kid in Cardinal, Rea would tune in for the games from Montreal; but, there was so much interference from the nearby radio stations in Ottawa, he could only hear the games beginning with the second period. He persevered, however. And, then,

church and sports combined for the thrill of a lifetime.

When the young people's group from St. Andrew's Church in Cardinal went to Montreal for a PYPS event, the youth asked the minister's wife (Maude Fitzsimons) if they could go to the Montreal Forum on Saturday night to see Rocket Richard try for his "big goal." She agreed, and they obtained tickets in the nosebleed section through Canada Starch. The kids had a wonderful PYPS weekend, but the icing on the cake was watching the Rocket score his big goal.

When Rea became a surgeon at the Montreal General, one of the doctors had season's tickets to the Canadiens right behind the glass in the old Forum. He wanted to sell them, and Rea was anxious to own at least a share in them. He and Kathy, setting up house in Montreal, had only a few sticks of furniture and no budget for extravagances. However, the furniture was put on hold and they were behind the glass for many games! They still are!

So, how did the farm boy get into medicine? The fault, or credit, lies with Rea's older brother George. In 1942, George became ill with pneumonia. At that time, it was a sentence of death. There were no antibiotics. Complications set in. He was treated in Brockville to no avail. Toronto hospitals could not help him and, finally, the Montreal General agreed to take him. He had several operations there. He received wonderful care and, then, with the war ended, penicillin became available for the general public. George's recovery was almost instantaneous, nothing short of a miracle. The Brown family never forgot the care and the kindness of the Montreal General, and Rea ultimately went into medicine there.

Would Rea go into surgery today? "I certainly would, but you'd have to love surgery to stick with it. It is tough to have a decent income here in Quebec. There is no operating room time. Young surgeons starting today are in a tight squeeze financially."

Now in retirement, Rea is a consultant regarding Groin Syndrome for the NHL Players' Association. Hockey fans will remember when Claude Lemieux was hurt in the playoffs 10 years ago and was out for the rest of the season. Throughout the summer, he couldn't even play golf! When fall came, the management wondered if he might be faking his injury. Rea's chief at the Montreal General, Dr. David Mulder, thought something was wrong with Lemieux and asked Rea to operate. He did, and he found a tear in the fascia of the abdominal wall that he repaired. Lemieux recovered and went on to win two Stanley Cups. From then on, hockey players with Groin Syndrome (some 30 in 10 years) have been referred to Doctors Mulder and Brown for successful repair. In the fall of this year, they will present a paper at a conference in Phoenix, Arizona What is the cause of this syndrome? "The ice is not good enough," says Brown. "Out West, they have good ice; but not here, and not in Toronto either!"

Rea sometimes goes down to the family farm. He goes fishing and looks around in wonder at God's magnificent creation. He enjoys his children -- Beth, Kelly, Laurie and Drew -- and their families. And, week by week, Rea and Kathy continue to slip quietly into Briarwood Church and let God's peace wash over them.

Virginia Bell is clerk of session at Briarwood Church in Beaconsfield, Que.
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Author:Bell, Virginia
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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