A Life's Story
November 17, 2018
Saint of a man
Obstetrician dedicated life to helping expectant moms and delivering thousands of babies
By Kevin Rollason
You might say Dr. Gerard McCarthy was born to deliver babies.
After all, his parents named him after St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers and unborn children.
From that auspicious beginning, McCarthy went on to become a Winnipeg obstetrician renowned for wanting to deliver the babies of all the women who were his patients and spending decades helping mothers-to-be at northern reserves.
“People have told me my father was probably the best obstetrician in the province,” McCarthy’s daughter Fiona, said.
“My friend didn’t even know she was pregnant and he walked by and said, ‘Oh, I think you have a wee one there,’ and she said, no, and her husband said, ‘It’s Dr. McCarthy, maybe we’d better check.’ Sure enough, she was pregnant.”
McCarthy died on Aug. 23 at the age of 77.
McCarthy’s family said the doctor never kept track of how many babies he helped to enter this world, but they said a conservative guess would be around 25,000.
Brendan McCarthy, himself a doctor — in fact, both his sisters went into health care, as nurses — said it wasn’t just Winnipeg mothers-to-be who were helped by his dad. He would regularly travel to Indigenous communities accompanied with an ultrasound machine and fetal assessment nurses who could operate it.
Brendan said his father would do what he could to stop pregnant women from drinking alcohol while he was around.
“He would go into boarding homes, basically hotels, and drag them out,” he said.
Due to his father’s passion for helping Indigenous women, and combating medical issues their communities face, the family asked people to donate to charity — the Indigenous Women’s Healing Centre, the Canadian Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation — in lieu of flowers, Brendan said.
McCarthy was born in Portaferry, a village in Northern Ireland. He had three brothers and a sister. He began school early, when he was only three years old, to help his older brother, Sean, who was born with physical disabilities.
By the time McCarthy was 10, he had experienced a change that would affect his life: he was sent to Belfast by himself to attend boarding school.
McCarthy later enrolled in science at Queen’s University in Belfast, but, when his sister convinced him to switch to medicine, he found his true calling.
He graduated in 1964, completed his obstetrics exams in 1969, and because there were few jobs for obstetricians in Ireland, he moved to Canada. He worked at the Mall Medical Clinic in Winnipeg.
McCarthy delivered babies at several local hospitals, but throughout his decades-long career he regularly jumped into small planes, as well as snowmobiles, helicopters, and float planes, to help women on northern reserves.
Christina Carpenter, a northern nurse who worked with McCarthy for years, said she asked him once what drove him to continue going up north.
“He said he identified with the north because he was raised in Ireland. He said he knew how poor it was, so he could identify with what people went through up north,” Carpenter said.
“He just devoted his time up here. He never let people down. He was just as dedicated to the people of the north as he was his patients in Winnipeg.
“He was just one of a kind.”
Carpenter said, because births are unpredictable, he wasn’t usually up north for deliveries, but if there was a problem with a birth, he was a phone call away.
“He’d be on the phone with us, he would talk us through the delivery.”
Carpenter said when she was in Winnipeg for training to deliver babies, “Dr. McCarthy came in and asked, ‘Who is a northern nurse here?” and I said I was. He said, ‘the rest of you can leave: you’re delivering the baby’.
“He knew we had to know how because we are the ones doing the delivering.”
Rachel King said she met McCarthy last year, after she’d had a miscarriage. A few months later, King said she saw him again, after she became pregnant.
“He treated me like his own daughter and even provided me with his personal cellphone number to call him any time,” she said.
“I remember him saying to me, ‘Rachel, I want to deliver your baby before I retire.’ It was really touching. He said ‘I’m going to retire, but I’m going to wait because you’re going to be one of the last before I go.’
“He came from his house at midnight and delivered my son and then came to see me the next day at the hospital. I know I’ll never have a doctor like him again.”
Kathy Strachan, Villa Rosa’s executive director, said McCarthy visited the institution for many years to see the pregnant single young women there.
“All throughout his career he was always willing to see our moms at a moment’s notice,” Strachan said. “He was gruff, but in a fatherly way. He treated them with the utmost respect and in his soft manner.”
Dr. Denise Black, an obstetrician who worked with McCarthy, said everyone knew he always wanted to deliver all of what he called “his babies.”
“When he went on vacations, he always expressed concern over who would look after his patients and whether they were up for the job,” Black said.
“He had a special dedication to the ladies from the Island Lakes First Nations. He knew everyone by name, knew about their families, and kept an amazing Rolodex of information inside his head, not just about their medical histories, but about their entire lives.”
Black said even when McCarthy returned from his exhausting work up north, he didn’t go directly home.
“His first stop would be at the hospital to get a feel for what was going on and what had happened during his absence.”
Black said McCarthy told her he never became a doctor to get a big salary.
“He had no tolerance for those who viewed medicine as a business. To him, it was a calling and he embraced and respected the privilege of caring for women.”
Black said she was touched by how much McCarthy loved his wife and how she loved him.
“He’d comment that she must be a saint to put up with him,” she said.
“She’d often come into the office in the morning with a stack of clean shirts and personal toiletry items so that when he came straight from the hospital, where he’d been all night, to the office, at least he could freshen up a bit.”
Black said when McCarthy talked about retirement, instead of discussing hobbies he’d like to do, he always said, “he was looking forward to spending more time with his Marie.
“She often said, ‘He looks after me and I look after him,’ That they did, and he never had anything but high praise, respect and great tenderness for her.”
McCarthy is also survived by his wife of 49 years, Marie, and another daughter, Rachel.