Dr. Garson (Gary) Romalis never sought the limelight. He was thrust into it in the most terrible way, with two serious attempts on his life. Dr. Romalis was targeted because he provided abortions to desperate women, which of course are completely legal procedures, paid for by medicare.
The first attack came within an ace of costing him his life. A sniper’s bullet fired through his kitchen’s glass doors, as he ate breakfast, tore into his left thigh, rupturing a key artery. He would have bled to death on the kitchen floor, if he had not been able to use the belt from his bathrobe as a crude tourniquet. As it was, he spent months in hospital and never recovered completely.
Six years later, he was stabbed as he walked through his clinic’s office lobby. Again, he survived.
Sadly, Dr. Romalis did not survive a serious bout with pancreatitis earlier this year, and he passed away towards the end of January at the age of 76.
My full-length obituary on this remarkable man appeared in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago. It’s here, if you missed it.
He was exceptional in so many ways, and even with all that newspaper space, there were still aspects that had to be left out.
This is from a powerful speech Dr. Romalis gave in 2008, marking the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark decision that removed all restrictions from abortion access in Canada.
As he began, Dr. Romalis talked about a tragic case he encountered more than 50 years ago, when he was an aspiring young obstetrician/gynecologist at the University of B.C. It’s a chilling reminder of the dark days in Canada before abortion was permitted.
“I was assigned the case of a young woman who had died of a septic abortion. She had aborted herself using slippery elm bark,” said Dr. Romalis. “I had never heard of slippery elm. A buddy and I went down to skid row, and without too much difficulty, purchased some…Slippery elm is not sterile, and frequently causes spores of the bacteria that cause gas gangrene. When it gets wet, it feels slippery, making it easier to slide slender pieces through the cervix where they absorb water, expand dilate the cervix, produce infection and induce abortion.
“The young woman in our case developed an overwhelming infection. She had multiple abscesses throughout her body, in her brain, lungs, liver and abdomen. I have never forgotten that case.”
In addition to his courage and commitment to providing services to women in the face of the violent attacks against him, what I also found laudatory about Dr. Romalis was his modesty and quiet, yet determined approach to the cause. He was not a crusader, seeking neither recognition nor headlines, quite unlike his outspoken friend, Dr. Henry Morgantaler.
But his views were just as unwavering. After his shooting, and those of other abortion physicians, he began to advocate for a woman’s right to an abortion in a way he hadn’t before, albeit still in his typical low-key manner. He did this through selected media interviews, mentoring young doctors in the provision of abortion services, and organizing a day-long teaching symposium. All this from a doctor who loved nothing better than delivering babies. (After my obituary appeared, several friends told me they had children delivered by Dr. Romalis. He hated giving it up, because of the physical toll of his injuries.)
“I didn’t sign on for danger pay. I didn’t think I would be on the front line in a war zone,” he told reporters. “These are acts of terrorism designed to frighten doctors into stopping performing abortions and they threaten the health of women.”
Of course, there was more to Gary Romalis than his heroism as a doctor. His good friend, veteran Vancouver lawyer Howard Shapray, cites his extreme loyalty, away from the stethoscope, to those around him. Shapray recounts his ongoing relationship with a former psychiatrist he knew well, who was later diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, ending up on the city’s bleak Downtown Eastside. Dr. Romalis made a point of lunching with him almost every Saturday.
And when he switched from his long-time barber to a more conveniently-located hair trimmer, Dr. Romalis went to his old barber, apologized for making the change and gave him a bottle of Scotch. “Things like that were the measure of a guy,” Shapray says. “He was a man of complete integrity. He always wanted to do the right thing.”
Nor was Dr. Romalis without an irreverent sense of humour. Two years after the shooting, the Globe and Mail’s Robert Matas asked him what cautionary advice he provides for other abortion providers who might feel at risk: He replied: “I tell them to buy a bathrobe with a belt.”
Throughout his career, Dr. Romalis consistently stressed that an abortion – safe, legal, and relatively quick – can rescue a woman from the most stressful situation of her life. One day, after speaking to a class of UBC medical students, a student approached him, as he prepared to leave. She told him: “Dr. Romalis, you won’t remember me, but you did an abortion on me in 1992. I am a second-year medical student now. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here now.”
Garson Romalis, Braveheart, RIP.