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James Bruce Smith
James Bruce Smith

Lives Lived: James Bruce Smith, 69 Add to ...

Teacher, anesthesiologist, history buff, gourmet cook. Born in Ottawa on March 15, 1944; died in Knowlton, Que., on Dec. 7, 2013, from progressive supranuclear palsy, aged 69.

As fellow anesthesiologists, Bruce Smith and I knew one another for years. When my wife and I moved into the same Halifax apartment building as Bruce and his wife, Merete, proximity strengthened our friendship.

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Bruce’s apartment offered clues to the man – full bookshelves, along with CDs and a stereo system, a kitchen with good chef’s accoutrements, walls displaying fine paintings. A bon viveur, unpretentious and deferential, he was one of nature’s gentlemen. Scholarly and formidably intelligent, he was friend to many.

In his kitchen, he created delicious dinners. Many evenings, chatting with apron-dignified Bruce, we’d sample a good cabernet, while boeuf bourgignon or a seafood casserole bubbled on the stove. He would watch carefully, sometimes hastily adding a forgotten ingredient, then serving his creation with fine wine and wide-ranging conversation, peppered with laughter. And, always, bread.

He read widely, from Scandinavian crime fiction to politics and history. He devoured history, especially American, boasting of once earning 100 per cent for a perfect high-school paper. His musical tastes, although eclectic, leaned toward classics and opera.

Bruce grew up in a multiethnic Montreal community. His love of sports enabled him to overlook religious differences and make friends through hockey, football and baseball. In later years, he worked out regularly and was a keen tennis player, cyclist, hiker and golfer. The Masters Golf Tournament highlighted our television sport-watching; we saw many final rounds together, always asking to be undisturbed. Monday Night Football and the New England Patriots were his other passions.

Bruce graduated from McGill University’s medical school in 1969 and later entered the anesthesia program. A born teacher, and superb clinician, he served as program director of anesthesia at both McGill and Dalhousie universities. He was very supportive of trainee residents, several of whom became lifelong friends. In 2008, to a standing ovation from friends and colleagues, he received the Canadian Anesthesiologists’ Society’s Clinical Teacher Award.

Two years earlier, Bruce had experienced the initial symptoms of a devastating disease, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), the same affliction that took the life of actor Dudley Moore. In 2007, Bruce learned he had, at most, seven years remaining, and decided to retire prematurely. We met regularly for coffee and conversation at Halifax’s Wired Monk café. Bruce taught me much, including how to accept adversity with grace and to remain stoic, and generous throughout.

As a young man, Bruce had travelled the world and one evening our talk turned to the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas. The following Christmas, he gave me a copy of Patrick French’s biography of Sir Francis Younghusband, who explored the region.

In 2008, Bruce and Merete moved to Knowlton, Que, to be close to their daughter, Samantha, and granddaughters, Kiana and Kaely. As PSP exacted its progressive toll, Bruce needed scooters for mobility, yet still travelled and golfed. He embraced technology, acquiring (and frequently losing) smartphones and tablet computers, and Skyped friends regularly. Our last Skype conversation came just 10 days before his death.

Bruce loved the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where he and Merete enjoyed many hiking vacations. His last gift to me, Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, is a history of walking. Somewhere, unhindered by disability, Bruce’s spirit is exploring new ways.

Des Writer is a friend and former colleague of Bruce.

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