A Life's Story

February 11, 2023

Occupational therapy degree was her ticket to the world

Barb Granger, 93, was longtime head of St. B OT department

By: Kevin Rollason

Barb Granger helped children and adults living with disabilities and mobility challenges around the world, but it was in Winnipeg where she helped the most.

Granger, a longtime occupational therapist, died May 5, 2022, at age 93.

For the first third of her life, no one — including Granger — would have predicted the Manitoba capital would be where she would settle and do most of her work.

Granger, the daughter of a doctor, was born in Peterborough, England, on July 15, 1928.

During the Second World War, Granger and her younger sister were part of Operation Pied Piper, a plan to move British children, pregnant women, mothers with babies or children who hadn’t started school, and adults who were infirm, from the large urban areas targeted by enemy bombers to rural communities. In three days, just before the war began, more than 1.5 million children and adults were relocated.

After the war ended, Granger received a degree in occupational therapy in London and joined the World Health Organization.

“The degree was her ticket to the world,” says her son Martin. “I don’t know what made her do occupational therapy.

“But because of it she had this amazing exciting life which most single women in the ‘50s and ‘60s didn’t have. She travelled the world as a young blond English woman. And she experienced a lot.

“She would happen to say, ‘When I was climbing the pyramids’ and I would say what? Huh? And then she would say, ‘When I went on a trip on the Nile’ or ‘When I rode an elephant’ and she would say that’s how we got to work in Sri Lanka.”

Wherever she went to work she would bring weaving looms or have them shipped in.

“She would show people how to weave with a loom because you need dexterity of fingers,” Martin says. “She would take these large looms and teach the locals. It helped them.”

Granger worked and lived in numerous places through the 1950s, including India, countries across Africa, and Sri Lanka — where she worked for a time at a leper colony.

She finally ended up in Argentina, and was there until 1962, when, fearing the local political situation, she returned to England shortly before having a baby.

Martin says his mother’s best friend, who was also an OT and living in Winnipeg, asked her to come to the city to develop the program at Children’s Hospital. The pair left England in February 1964.

“Maybe not the best time of the year to come to Winnipeg,” he jokes. “We were dressed for London, England, when we came here. But her friends took care of us and got us boots and coats.

“We were made welcome here.”

Heather Birtles, a friend for decades in Winnipeg, says she too was an OT from England working in the brand-new Rehabilitative Hospital when Granger started employment at nearby Children’s Hospital.

“She had taken extra training when thalidomide (and the birth defects it caused) was an issue,” Birtles says. “This was a time when people were just beginning to think past medical interventions. People were trying to do things for children.

“Barb was a very good administrator and she was also a very good hands-on therapist. She never made a big shout out about herself, but she really was a clever woman and had a good philosophy for life.”

Granger also worked with students and gave them practical experience.

“She was someone to admire in my profession,” Birtles says.

Granger worked at Children’s Hospital for several years until becoming head of the St. Boniface Hospital occupational therapy department, a position she held until she retired.

“Her first retirement was when she was 65,” Martin says. “She loved the thought of retiring. But then she was convinced by Manitoba Health to fly in to remote Manitoba communities up North to do assessments of kids… She loved the adventure.”

Granger also volunteered for years with Altrusa International of Winnipeg, a branch of the international service organization for business, professional and executive women.

In 1973, Granger convinced the organization to fund a free toy-lending library for children living with special needs in the community.

Known as TOTS (Take-Out-Toy Ser vice), it later moved into the Rehabilitation Centre for Children on Wellington Crescent in 1994, and followed the facility to its current location on Notre Dame Avenue.

“Barb Granger was a passionate pioneer for the equal participation of all children by providing free access to adapted toys,” says Barb Borton, RCC director of rehabilitation and clinical services. “Her leadership enabled countless children and families to play and participate.”

Martin says his mother “took toys seriously… She loved working with the kids and she would research the toys. She wanted to make sure they had a use and that they would help.”

For a woman who did so much travelling for work, Granger’s trips in her later years were simply for vacations, even taking a long journey around China when she was in her 80s.

“She never left Winnipeg,” says Martin, now based in New York as a director of television commercials. “Once we got there, she was a huge supporter of the city. She always sang its praises.

“My mom always had this pipe dream of returning back to England when she retired, but when I was 18, she realized how completely North American she had become. She didn’t want go back to a place where if there was a problem with your phone, they wouldn’t come for three weeks, but here Manitoba Telephone System would come the next day.”

Fittingly, because of her globe-trotting life helping others, the family asked for any donations to go to an organization close to her heart: Doctors Without Borders.


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