Canadian Medical Association

Surrey, BC; Westminster Medical School (England), 1956; family medicine; past president, Canadian Medical Association (CMA), 1988-89, and British Columbia Medical Association (BCMA), 1986-87. Died Jan. 23, 2022, aged 92. Survived by a daughter and 5 grandchildren. His daughter Catharine commented: “Dad practised at Sandell Medical in Surrey for 37 years. He retired in 2004, but continued to do locums until he was 88.” Although COVID-19 didn’t cause her father’s death, she said it was a contributing factor. “COVID was really hard on people like my Dad. He was a very sociable fellow, and the virus meant that visits from his friends were no longer possible. It was very hard on him.” Dr. Brian Day, a Vancouver orthopedic surgeon who served as president of the CMA in 2007-08, recalled: “John’s first exposure to medicine was as a young child making house calls with his GP father, whose practice was based in a working-class area of Birmingham, England. John had grown up during the turmoil of the Great Depression, and at a young age he had observed patients suffering from illnesses such as polio and tuberculosis and seen the serious impact of poverty on patients in need of care. His father died prematurely of tuberculosis, leaving his mother a young widow. A positive result of such difficult childhood experiences was his expanding interest in medicine, which he chose as a career. After 10 years working under the British National Health Service, John immigrated to Canada in 1966, and grew to love his adopted province and country.” Dr. Day added that even while serving as CMA president, “John continued to serve his own patients at every opportunity and continued to do an 8-hour emergency shift in the Surrey Memorial every week.” When Dr. O’Brien-Bell was asked about his availability for interviews while serving as CMA president, recalled Dr. Day, he told reporters that he was busy with his patients once he left home. “He gave out his home telephone number, telling them, ‘The best time to call is around 7 a.m., before I've left the house.’ ” Dr. Day concluded: “Like many others, I am a better person for having known and learned from John. Leaders like him are a rarity in this modern era.” Dr. Derryck Smith, a past president of the BCMA and former member of the CMA Board of Directors, added: “John died after a full and satisfying life of service to the profession.” Matt Borsellino, former national editor at the Medical Post, wrote: “In my 20 or so years of communicating with Dr. O’Brien-Bell, I found him to be straightforward and generous. That’s a particularly effective combination for anyone trying to get his message across to the media. To my mind, there was never anybody like that before he came along, and there’s certainly been nobody since.” Lucian Blair, a former director of communications and government relations at the CMA, added: “Throughout his long and distinguished career, Dr. John O’Brien-Bell was always guided by his personal holy trinity: medicine, medical politics, and media relations. And it was the last of these that he passionately pursued. He never saw a camera he wouldn’t pose for, a mic he wouldn’t speak into or a reporter he wouldn’t try to charm.” His CMA biography stated: “Dr. O’Brien-Bell was a media-savvy physician who didn’t always wait for reporters to call him. He told CMAJ that raising the CMA’s profile was one of his major goals as association president. ‘We have to be seen addressing health care issues in a high-profile way. I hope to have met with all of the major papers by the end of November [1988] because I think it is important to let the media know you're there. I am there, and they can call me any time they want.’ ”

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