Access to safe abortion services: Remembering the life and work of Dr Gary (Garson) Romalis

I read with great interest a recent compassionate blog post, “Roe is out. BC must bring universal reproductive health care in,” by six UBC medical students associated with the UBC Political Advocacy Committee. As I was reading the post, my mind turned to the life and work of a former UBC medical graduate, Dr Gary Romalis, who was instrumental in initiating the Canadian branch of Medical Students for Choice and who got enormous personal and professional satisfaction out of helping people, including by providing safe and deeply caring abortion services.

Dr Romalis was a few years behind me at UBC, graduating in 1962. He interned and participated in the OB/GYN residency program at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, then in 1972 he returned to Vancouver as a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology. His practice included abortion services. That was 4 years after the Supreme Court of Canada decided that the Criminal Code’s restrictions on abortion were unconstitutional because they deprived women of the right to security of the person. In 2008 Dr Romalis explained, “Why I am an abortion doctor” at a University of Toronto Law School Symposium to mark the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision. 

The first time he started to think about abortion was in 1960, when he was in his second year of medical school. He was assigned the case of a young woman who died of a septic abortion. She developed an overwhelming infection. Three years later, he spent the first month of his residency at Ward 41 of the Chicago Cook County Hospital—the septic obstetrics ward. Up to 30 patients were admitted each day with septic abortion. In contrast, after the 1968 Supreme Court ruling, septic shock from illegal abortion became  a “disappeared disease” in Canada. He pointed out that one cannot help but be emotionally involved in providing abortion services. Unplanned, unwanted pregnancy may be the worst trouble a patient may have ever been in. 
He also highlighted that the work involves significant stressors for the doctor and the family. Some happenings are nuisances, like his home being picketed or nails being thrown onto his driveway. One action he never expected. At 7:10 a.m. on 8 November 1994 he was shot through the window of his home. His left femur was fractured, large blood vessels severed, much of his thigh muscles destroyed. He almost died from blood loss and other complications. After 2 years of physical and emotional rehabilitation he returned to part-time work, continued as gynecologist, including abortion services, but he was physically unable to perform major gynecological surgery or to deliver babies. Then on 11 July 2000, despite security arrangements, a younger man approached him and stabbed him. Fortunately no vital organs were damaged but his life and his family’s life changed forever. 

Dr Romalis concluded his emotional presentation with one last story to illustrate the satisfaction he got from his privileged work. He recalled that some years ago he had spoken to a class of UBC medical students. A student approached him as he was leaving. “Dr Romalis, you won’t remember me, but you did an abortion on me in 1992. I am a second-year medical student now and if it weren’t for you, I would not be here.”

Dr Gary (Garson) Romalis died on 31 January 2014 following a brief illness. In his obituary, written by Dr Dorothy Shaw, he is described as a soft spoken, kind, humble man with a quick sense of humor and a big smile, “He will be remembered as a hero by many.”

I think he would be very pleased to read our medical students’ post about their earnest desire to see the provision of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care in British Columbia.
—George Szasz, CM, MD

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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Meite Moser says: reply

What a wonderful article, and a well deserved reminder of a wonderful man, and the sacrifices and contributions he made.
Dr. Romalis, your memory is a blessing.

Gary Jackson says: reply

I remember Dr. Romalis very fondly. I was a resident in Ob/Gyne from 1980-84. Dr. Romalis was a dedicated teacher & physician. He had compassion for his patients. He also had a great sense of humour!

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