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Heart Felt

These days, 90-year-old retired physician Dr. Neil Duncan can joke that, given his brother’s chosen profession – going into law like their father – he was forced to restore to Plan B and pursue medicine.

“My older brother got a job with dad’s office, so I had to do something else,” he scoffs. But given his successful career as a pediatric cardiologist, it is obvious Dr. Duncan wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“I was totally happy with my career – I’ve had a lot of people respect me for that but I also worked to get that,” he says during a recent interview at his Edmonton home. “I could hardly wait to get to work every day. I did the best I could on every case. Every kid had a future and I would do my best to get that kid a future.”

Born in 1925 in Edmonton, Dr. Duncan graduates from the University of Alberta medical school in 1949. In a career that lasted until 1992, the father of five, trained in Canada and the U.S., travelled to northern communities, made house calls and took phone calls from panicked parents at all hours.

While he speaks freely about hard work, Dr. Duncan stops well short of bragging. “He doesn’t toot his own horn,” his daughter Deborah Duncan says. “But he was flying to the Northwest Territories and the Arctic treating kids in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Dr. Duncan was a major player in his field: one of the first pediatric cardiologists in Alberta, one of the founders of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and its first chair. After training at children’s hospitals in Toronto and Chicago, Dr. Duncan came back to Edmonton keen on bringing his expertise to Alberta.

He joined the Baker Clinic in 1953 practicing general pediatrics. The next year, adult cardiologists at the University of Alberta Hospital, Bob Fraser and Joe Dvorkin, started developing a cardiac catheterization lab for patients who were candidates for pioneering cardiac surgeon Dr. John Callaghan. A number of those patients were children and newborns, and the two physicians were looking to develop capabilities in caring for them. Dr. Duncan joined them, beginning his career in pediatric cardiology.

In 1957, at an annual salary of $5,000, he took a part-time appointment in the department of pediatrics at the University of Alberta where he taught pediatric cardiology to medical students, post-graduates and residents. Working with children was always a pleasure. “They are better than adults… their live is all good,” he says.

“Every kid thinks tomorrow is going to be a good day and they are going to get up and have breakfast and mom’s going to be there. Adults get up and say ‘Oh great, I’ve got to go to work.’ Children were always good patients.”

Dr. Duncan left the Baker Clinic in 1983 to focus full time on building the department of pediatric cardiology at the University Hospital.

He is “proud to have seen the department climb from such humble beginnings to its present astounding position,” but it wasn’t smooth sailing. Instead, it was frustrating to try to develop pediatrics in the way he and others envisioned – given there was pushback. “I wanted to get pediatric cardiology elevated to a level it should be,” he says.

“No one wanted a children’s hospital. It aggravated me. It was just disinterest by doctors who were treating adult patients. No one likes other people’s children,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s a real gift to enjoy other people’s children.”

And one of the gifts is the legacy of his work, which lives on decades after his retirement. Pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Keith Aronyk says Dr. Duncan is among a group of “pioneers for pediatric sub-specialties. He was a major inspiration to us and he paved the way,” Dr. Aronyk says. “He is the most compassionate and calm and humble person and he is highly capable – he taught a whole generation how to listen to heart sounds at the University of Alberta Hospital.”

Busy with children at work, Dr. Duncan – who now has 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren – had five of his own at home, too. He and late wife, Eleanor – his partner for more than 65 years – built a great life that included packing their children up for summer road trips across Canada or cherished time at the family cabin. When he did talk about work, it was about he people he met.

“He would take about the good days but he seldom talked about the bad days,” his youngest daughter Deborah, recalls. “As a pediatrician you always have two patients: the child and the parent. He never talked about his cases but the people he treated. Through his life he was always extremely hard-working, passionate… he kind of jumped into things very wholly and never did something halfway – the house, the yard, the cottage – he barely ever relaxed; he was always working on something.”

Dr. Duncan’s love of children made his work easy. “Some kids acted up, but I never met a kid I didn’t like,” he says. “I guess I liked kids, spending time with kids. Kids are easy. Kids are fun. If something is wrong with the kid, you fix them,” he adds. “All you have to do is care a little.”

While Dr. Duncan is an inspiration for those who came after him, his pursuit of medicine was fueled by none other than his own childhood physician – a man who would later become his idol in medical school. Dr. [Douglas] Leitch laughed all the time, he had a happy disposition and a way of coming in and going out and you never know he was there," Dr. Duncan adds. “He was a good pediatrician. I wanted to be like Dr. Leitch.”

But even before Dr. Leitch, “I was always going to be a doctor,” he says. “In high school they called me ‘Doc.’”

And while many heap accolades on Dr. Duncan for his contributions to pediatrics, he says “The thing I’m most proud of is my family.” One of his sons grew up to become a pediatric cardiac surgeon, with two children becoming nurses, one a teacher and one a lawyer. They all trained to be professionals in the service of others. “In our house, that’s what you did. Eleanor and I raised five kids and they are all good kids. I think that is probably the most important thing I ever did. I found a good wife, we had a lot of fun and had five great kids and I’m still alive.”

Published Fall 2015, Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation