Storied surgeon dead at 104

Dr. Nigel Rusted made lasting impression on N.L. medical community

Published on March 20, 2012
Nigel Rusted flips through an old patient register in his former medical office in the basement of his St. John's home. — Telegram file photo

Even in his 11th decade, and many years removed from clinical work, Dr. Nigel Rusted remained well-versed on medical matters, making for a unique doctor-patient relationship between himself and his family doctor.

“Just recently, about five months ago, I had a really unusual radiology report on an investigation I had done on this patient,” said Dr. Roger Butler, who often discussed difficult cases in confidence with the 104-year-old retired-physician.

“I talked over the case with him, and I would say his commentary saved that patient’s life. ... His diagnostic accuracy was absolutely amazing.”

Rusted died Sunday at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s following a three-week stay in hospital.


He was predeceased by his wife of 63 years, Florence, who died in 2007.

A member of both the Order of Canada and the Order of Newfoundland, Rusted was born in Salvage, Bonavista Bay, in 1907 and spent portions of his youth in Upper Island Cove and Carbonear.

He was a member of Memorial University’s inaugural class in 1925 and later earned a medical degree from Dalhousie University. He spent time in the 1930s as a medical officer on the SS Kyle, travelling through coastal Labrador, and on the MV Lady Anderson along Newfoundland’s southwest coast.

Rusted opened a private practice clinic in 1936 and went on to perform 9,000 operations before retiring from surgery in 1982. He was also appointed clinical professor of surgery at MUN in 1968.

He retired from his clinical practice in 1987. Rusted kept his records and updated them if he noticed obituaries for former patients.

His family doctor for the last 10 years, Butler considers Rusted a personal medical hero, adding it was humbling and a privilege to look after the health of such a smart man.


Remarkable intellect

“He had an intellect that was remarkable,” said Butler, who enjoyed sharing in shop-talk with Rusted. “Even though he was out of practice for the last 26 years, he still read a lot and maintained his activities with the medical school.”

MUN created the Dr. Nigel Rusted Lecture in Medical Humanities in his honour, and he mentored many medical school students over the years.

“He was an avid reader,” said Joan Rusted, one of his three children. “He still read medical journals up until a few weeks ago. He just never stopped (learning), even at his age.”

Having come from the pre-antibiotic era, Butler said Rusted practiced medicine in an age that required excellent technique and clean work from physicians.

“His work in the area of cleft palate (repairs) is very emotionally touching, because he gets letters even today, up to this past year, from patients he had worked on, thanking him for the major change he had made in their lives,” said Butler.

According to a 2011 article from the Canadian Medical Association’s Journal, Rusted was the first doctor in Newfoundland and Labrador to perform several operations, including cleft lip and cleft palate repair, partial gastrectomy, pedicle graft from abdomen to neck, and adrenalectomy.

“He commanded respect, but he also earned respect,” said Butler.

Dr. James Rourke, dean of MUN’s medical school, had many chats with Rusted in his home-based office.

“Dr. Rusted gave a lifetime of service to people in Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said. “At his home, he showed me the many meticulous records he kept, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit him at his home.”

Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association past-president Dr. Patrick O’Shea said Rusted possessed a great sense of humour, and he was glad the NLMA was able to present him with an honorary life membership prior to his death.

“Much to our chagrin, we realized he had not been so honoured,” said O’Shea. “He was a great person and very friendly with all doctors.”

Joan Rusted said her father preferred to practice medicine with a personal touch.

“He was somebody who believed in putting the patient first,” she said. “The patient was an individual, not just a case or a disease.”

Rusted worked upwards of 80 to 100 hours in a given week, according to Butler. Joan Rusted said being a doctor often kept him away from home while his children grew up.

“He was a very hard worker, and his practice took up a lot of his time, but when he was home, he was a family person,” she said.


Senior driver

He purchased cars from four generations of the Hickman family, according to Butler, and only stopped driving last year. However, Rusted maintained his driver’s licence up until his death, passing his most recent medical clearance from Butler two months before his death.

His interest in staying up-to-date on the world extended to technology. Rusted owned an iPad, exchanged emails with family and friends and also engaged in online voice chats.

“Nigel Rusted never grew old,” said Butler. “He had a young mind, he had a very curious mind, and he would always ask the question ‘Why?’ and then answer that with his own ‘Why not?’”

His son Tom Rusted recalls a CT scan conducted on his father during his final weeks in hospital.

“(The doctor) commented he had the brain of a 40-year-old,” said Tom Rusted, who had lived with his father for the past six months. “I’ll miss eating together, his stories, and his humour. He was always pleased to see (his children) whenever we were around.”

Nigel Rusted’s other daughter, Elaine Hyde, spoke with him every day until his death.

“He was always pleased to see me coming. He’d tell me what his day was like up until that point, and I’d tell him what my day was like. He was great.”

Butler estimates there is a surgical lifetime of work Rusted completed without pay.

“He has a filing cabinet that itemizes every operation he’d done in his lifetime,” said Butler. “He was paid for only three-quarters of the work he’d done in his lifetime.”

Rourke said treating people without receiving compensation was significant for Rusted, given universal health care did not exist for most if his medical career.

A funeral for Rusted will be held Thursday at the Anglican Cathedral in St. John’s at 11 a.m. Family and friends can visit Carnell’s Funeral Home today and Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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