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Medicine from First World War taking centre stage at annual meeting

Physicians who attend this month’s CMA annual meeting in Ottawa will have a chance to step back in time — to the First World War, when doctors played a key role in supporting Canada’s military efforts.

To do so, they can walk into a casualty clearing station (CCS) that has been created specially for the CMA event to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War. The commemoration, a joint effort of CMA and Royal Canadian Medical Service (RCMS), is designed to contrast battlefield medical care in the 1914-18 war with care available today.

During the First World War, the CCS was a vital collection point that allowed wounded soldiers to be stabilized before being sent to recover at base hospitals further behind the lines. It stands in stark contrast to displays featuring today’s battlefield treatment facilities, including the operating room suite and intensive care unit the Canadian Forces (CF) can deploy on today’s humanitarian and military missions.

In addition to the presentation of special medals to commemorate the close ties between physicians and the CF, the meeting features a display of 21st-century versions of the flimsy ambulances used during the First World War, including the 13-tonne Bison armoured vehicle that can transport up to four wounded soldiers on stretchers.

CMA President Louis Hugo Francescutti, who serves as honorary colonel of 1 Field Ambulance, Edmonton, said the displays not only highlight a century of change within military medicine but also commemorate the service of approximately 1,400 Canadian physicians in 1914-18. That list contains many well-known names, from Drs. John McCrae and Norman Bethune to former CMAJ editor Andrew Macphail, and Sir Frederick Banting. As well, three Canadian physicians who served in the First World War – Drs. F.A. Scrimger, B.S. Hutcheson and J.A. Sinton – were awarded the Victoria Cross, the British Commonwealth’s highest award for bravery.

“The CMA has had a close relationship with Canada’s military personnel for well over a century, and we are extremely proud of that,” said Francescutti, who noted that more than a quarter of CMA presidents elected since 1867 had seen wartime service. Today, two former CMA presidents – Drs. Ruth Collins-Nakai and John Haggie – serve, like Francescutti, as honorary colonels for CF medical units.

Brigadier-General Jean-Robert Bernier, the CF surgeon general, said today’s military physicians are grateful for the CMA’s support. “In reflecting on what our colleagues faced in the past, I have confidence in preparing for today’s operational health threats because we continue to enjoy the same support from the entire Canadian medical community as my predecessors did in 1914.”

That close relationship helps explain another highlight of the 2014 meeting —presentation of the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service to the CMA for “service of a rare and exceptionally high standard, which accrues great benefit to the CF as a whole.”

The nomination came from Bernier, who is also commander of the CF Health Services Group, to thank the CMA for “everything it does and had done” to support military physicians and Canadian troops.

“The RCMS cannot directly provide all the medical support the armed forces need,” he explained. “The CMA and its members provided or supported many elements of military medical recruitment, education, training, research and clinical care that were critical to our medical readiness and to our unprecedented 98% casualty survival rate in Afghanistan.”

The medallion will be presented during the meeting by Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson,  and afterward placed on permanent display at CMA House in Ottawa. Bernier said Lawson supported the nomination “with great enthusiasm.”

The CMA will also mark the war’s 100th anniversary with the first presentation of its John McCrae Memorial Medal to honour current or former CF clinical health services personnel who have demonstrated “compassion, self-sacrifice or innovation beyond the call of duty.” The inaugural recipient is Lt.-Col. Bethann Meunier, an anesthesiologist based in Kingston, ON. She has described the honour as a “wonderful reflection of the military-civilian collaboration that has been a long-standing aspect of Canadian health care.”

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