Physician, teacher, pioneer in environmental medicine, friend. Born on March 30, 1948, in Sydney, N.S.; died on Oct. 29, 2013, in Bountiful, Utah, of cancer, aged 65.
When Jerry Ross began training in 1969 at Dalhousie Medical School to become a family doctor, he had no idea he would become a leader in environmental medicine – nor how his own health would shape his career.
While working as a GP in New Minas, N.S., in the early 1980s, he became progressively weaker from an illness that defied diagnosis. The Environmental Health Centre of Dallas finally determined that he had developed multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), triggered by dry-cleaning fluid that had tainted the New Minas water supply. After his health improved, Jerry was trained and certified in Texas and England in environmental medicine, and began working at the Dallas clinic.
At a time when the environmental impact on health was not being taught in medical school, he pioneered the field, helping to persuade the Nova Scotia government to open a pilot Environmental Medicine Clinic in Halifax in 1990. He ran the part-time clinic for five years, travelling every two months with a team of nurses from Dallas to treat patients who had struggled get help for their illnesses.
The part-time clinic was a success and grew to include several doctors, nurses and a host of volunteers. There was a two-year waiting list when more than 800 staff at Halifax’s Camp Hill Hospital became ill from toxins that entered the ventilation system. The clinic’s success caused the government to continue to increase financing and resulted in the promise of a full-time clinic.
Although Jerry remained in Dallas with his wife, Heather, and sons Graham and Andrew, his work in Halifax had raised awareness, both in the medical community and public at large, about the risks of chemicals and pollutants. He applied new treatments for allergies and sensitivities, fostered groups working to create healthier schools, homes and offices, and encouraged organic food. He influenced groups pushing for incinerator bans, controls on pesticides, and smoke- and fragrance-free venues. He was truly the father of environmental health in Nova Scotia.
He also served on an advisory board to the Ontario Ministry of Health that established the Environmental Health Clinic and Environmental Hypersensitivity Research Unit at the University of Toronto. In the United States, first in Dallas and later in Utah, he became nationally acclaimed for his exemplary clinical, research and teaching skills. He served two terms as president of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and was consulted by many organizations, including the presidential commission on the chemical exposure of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In 1999, Jerry moved to Utah to establish an environmental health clinic, but an accident caused serious MCS symptoms to return and forced a semi-retirement. He worked on smaller projects, including serving as medical director for a program for police officers who developed MCS after conducting raids on meth labs.
Along with his keen intellect and generous personality, Jerry had a fine sense of humour. He enjoyed pulling pranks, such as the time he hid apple juice among the urine samples in his clinic. He raised quite a fuss among the staff when he took a long drink from the cup.
He was a frequent lecturer, and always began his talks with a picture of a Nova Scotia lighthouse – a symbol of light, guidance, hope and comfort. These were the things he offered to everyone he touched.
Dr. Patricia Beresford is a friend and colleague of Jerry; Karen Robinson is a friend and former patient of his.