Dr. John Seely Take a Bow!

Dr. John Seely A tribute to his impact on Canadian Medicine & Palliative Care
June 03, 2009

We the family, friends and colleagues of John Seely wish to celebrate his life and work; that is, from the Latin celebrātus, ‘to observe publicly and duly’ a person who has helped to shape our lives and has enriched us beyond measure in the process.

John is a medical graduate of McGill University and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.  He has been a McLaughlin Travelling Fellow (University College Hospital London England); Dept. Medicine Training & Research Fellow (McGill); Centennial Fellow (the Medical Research Council of Canada); Research Fellow (McGill Clinic & Dept. of Medicine, Royal Victoria Hospital); Post-Doctoral Fellow (Dept. Physiology, Yale University Medical School).         

In addition to his outstanding skills as a teacher, lecturer and author (40 scientific papers; 9 textbook chapters;  numerous book reviews & abstracts), John’s academic contributions have reflected international recognition of his discernment, leadership skills and profound comprehension of the physician’s role in society.  Among a remarkable list of  commitments, John has served as Professor of Medicine & Director, Division of Nephrology (RVH), McGill;  Chairman, Executive Committee,  Postgraduate Board (RVH);  Chairman, Executive Committee, Council of Physicians & Dentists (RVH); Member, Board of Directors (RVH Foundation & Corporation); Chairman Research Committee & Vice-President Research (RVH);  Member, Research Council of Canada Grants Committee (Endocrinology & Nephrology); Vice-President Board of Examiners, Nephrology (Quebec); President, Canadian Society of Nephrology; Member Examinations Committee (RCPSC); Professor & Chairman, Dept. Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences (Univ. Ottawa); Physician-in-Chief, Dept. Medicine (Ottawa General Hospital); Acting Vice-Dean Research (Univ. Ottawa); Dean, Faculty of Medicine, (Univ. Ottawa); President, Canadian Association of Professors of Medicine; President, Association of Canadian Medical Colleges;  President, Council of Ontario Faculties of Medicine; Project Director, RCPSC CanMeds 2000; Director, Univ. Ottawa Institute of Palliative Care.; Medical Director, Palliative Care Sisters of Charity, Ottawa Health Services; Division Head, Palliative Care, Dept. Medicine, Faculty of Medicine & The Ottawa Hospital; Member, Committee on Specialties (RCPSC); Member of Council (RCPSC); Chairman, Evaluation Committee (RCPSC); Member Executive Committee, Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians. 

John has served as Chairperson for Accreditation & Standards Review Committees examining many academic Health Care bodies including - Faculty Medicine (UBC) / LCME Accreditation (Dalhousie Medical School) / French Languages Health Services  (Ontario Ministry of Health) / Child Health  Research Institute (Univ. Western Ont.) / Palliative Care Services (Cape Breton Health Care Complex) / Dept. Med. (Univ. Western Ont.) / Taskforce for Evaluation and Planning increased Medical School Enrollment (McGill) / Centre for Integrated Health Care (McGill), as well as Member of many other Standards Review Committees including Aga Khan Medical School, Karachi, Pakistan.

Beyond these outstanding achievements, our indebtedness to John is fundamentally rooted in the personal attributes that have been foundational to all his activities.  As a Clinician, John brings to the bedside a combination of current scientific knowledge; unique presence to the persons, issues and essences of the moment; attention to detail; an inquiring mind; a passionate commitment to whole person care for patient and family; a selfless respect for colleague of all disciplines, from nurse, to physician, to all variety of therapists, to cleaners; to volunteers, to ……..  This respect results in his being a peerless team player!

John’s character and stature as a friend are marked by his other-person centredness; his remarkable absence of interfering ego-defense mechanisms; his gentleness, loyalty and generosity.  These qualities have flowered in an exceptionally wide range of personal interests that include his children and grandchildren (beyond all else); the music of Richard Wagner (particularly The Ring as performed at the near-sacred Bayreuth Wagner Theatre!); the CBC; classical music recording off the www; knitting fabulous sweaters for his family; reading (the New York Review of Books; Buddhist writings); preparing marmalade, jams and exotic meals for friends; love of Family Systems Theory and the intricacies of personal psychodynamics; and, underpinning all, the spiritual path (Buddhism, the daily practice of sitting, simplicity in living, deep concern for our precious planet, openness and silence.)

Not surprisingly, all this grace and productivity did not simply happen “out of the blue.”  Instead, it is the product of a diligent response to suffering and the vicissitudes of life, and it exemplifies the remarks of Marc Antony in his assessment of Brutus, “His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man.’  (William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar)
~ Balfour Mount

In 1985, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. John Seely when he moved to Ottawa from Montreal with his family to become the new Chairperson of Medicine, replacing Dr. Ken Smiley, who was retiring.  I was fortunate to work with Dr. Seely over the course of the next ten years while he was Chairman of Medicine and later Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa.  Dr. Seely is a wonderful person to work with!  He touches peoples’ lives in a special way simply by meeting them.  You know immediately that he is an extraordinary man: gentle, kind and respectful of others.  He never makes a decision without carefully reflecting on its effect on those involved.  

When Dr. Seely stepped down as Dean, he decided to continue his career by doing what he loves and does best: clinical care of patient and family at the bedside.  People matter most to Dr. Seely!  He exhibits genuine, instant empathy for everyone he encounters. He has a rare ability to enter a room, one where there may be hostility and anger, and through his caring presence change the mood to one of peace. He can make a person feel cherished and understood simply through touching an arm, or holding a hand.  He listens - really listens - to patients and their families, with presence, insight and compassion.   

On several occasions, Dr. Seely told me that what he receives in caring for the terminally ill and their families is far greater than what he can give.  Nevertheless, it is clear that what he gives has a profound beneficial impact.  Over the last fifteen years, I have interacted with many people who have lost a family member or friend and have been impressed at how frequently they identify Dr. Seely as a caregiver whose attitude of caring and respect has been particularly comforting and nurturing, both for themselves and for the one who had been ill.  The impact of such a healing presence cannot be overestimated. 

I feel privileged and honoured to have been included in several functions with John’s family.  His relationship with his children is very special.  There is nothing more gratifying to him than his family. 
My life has been forever blessed as a result of having John Seely as my friend!
“It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters.”                                                                                                       
~ Hilary Charron

I first met Dr. John Seely when he was the Head of the Department of Medicine at the University of Ottawa and I was interviewing for a residency position in Internal Medicine. He asked his first of many (over the years) thought provoking questions: “What do you think is the biggest problem with medicine today?” My response: “Doctors think they cure people” elicited a lively discussion and a relationship spanning many years with John as my Department Head, Dean of Medicine, colleague and most importantly friend. As the Department Head, Dr. Seely always had an open door and provided a supportive environment for residents. He provided opportunities to learn wholistic, person-centred care and emphasized and modeled that medicine was more than just science. Dr. Seely’s open and supportive nature was further demonstrated when he allowed me to spend six weeks of my final year in internal medicine training working in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. As a colleague, I have witnessed how the tremendous respect that John has from the broader medical community has helped him to advance palliative care as a discipline and specialty within Canada. For me, John is a quiet, gentle, supportive mentor and friend who has been there to help wade through the politics, disappointments, successes and forks (which one to use and when at Rideau Hall?).                   
~ Deborah Dudgeon

I have had the privilege of working with John Seely for the past 10 years on the Ottawa Hospital Palliative Care Team. His dedication to patients has been an example to all of us.

As John’s colleague, I have witnessed time and time again, his ability to connect with people on a very human level. He is able to see the uniqueness of each patient and look beyond their illness to the person underneath. Patients and families are immediately put at ease knowing that they will truly be listened to, taken care of, and never abandoned. John would never think any job beyond him; he was equally at ease at the head of a stretcher portering patients back to their rooms as he was at the bedside talking about dying.

Johns’ lasting lesson to me is never to forget ‘to truly listen’ to patients; they often have more to teach us than we have to give them.                                                                        
~ Catherine Boucher

John Seely is a tall man. His imposing physical frame, however, is dwarfed by the size of his heart and mind. Brilliant scientist, clinician, teacher and administrator, he rose rapidly to the top of academic medicine in Canada. His dramatic and prophetic career shift from medical school Dean to palliative care physician challenged Canadian medicine to re-discover its deepest meaning and vocation. While surprising to some, palliative care was a perfect fit for John to demonstrate and  live out his life-long philosophy of reflective, personal, humane medicine, the very same ethos that he embedded in the radically reshaped curriculum at Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine. John created Canada’s first Division of Palliative Medicine in 1988 and developed The Ottawa Hospital’s program to be the largest consultation team in the country. John’s wisdom and political skill was pivotal in framing a national vision of academic palliative medicine. He became the face of academically credible palliative care for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Council of Deans of Medicine and his many other colleagues. Yet for those, like me, who look to him as mentor, we most admire and seek to emulate him in his ability to integrate mind and heart in the care of the sick. John is a person of enormous stature. We know his gentle humility, his empathy and warmth for friend and stranger, his deep inner life forged in suffering, his rich cultural depth and his incredible capacity to listen. He is a father of four remarkable children but he is also a father to many of us. I join his other colleagues in celebrating his career and thanking him for his many gifts.                                                                                        
~ John F. Scott

One of the factors that attracted me to my new position as the Division Head in Ottawa was the opportunity to work with Dr. John Seely. As a new recruit to Palliative Care in the mid 1990s, I always looked forward to hearing Dr. Seely present at conferences and read his publications. Although I had only a few opportunities to interact with John, I came away from each encounter feeling in awe of the man, his demeanor, the integrity he oozed and his unfailing commitment to improving patient care and promoting excellence in Palliative Care. John’s wisdom and humility have been inspiring. One of the marks of a great man is the ability to apologize and I have observed John do just that when, upon reflection, he felt that he could have done things differently and admitted to it. John – as a person, colleague and leader – continues to serve as a beacon for our Division and for that we are eternally grateful to him. John, we thank you for all that you have done for us.
~ José Luis Pereira

I first met John Seely when I came to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal as an Internal Medicine and subsequently a Nephrology Resident in 1972. John Seely was the most exciting person in medicine and nephrology at the Royal Vic at that time. He was a brilliant teacher, both off the cuff and in formal teaching sessions because he understood the material so well himself and appeared to find it fascinating. I remember him at the blackboard explaining the one kidney and two kidney models of renal artery stenosis, with scribbled words and diagrams all being connected at a furious pace as we watched awe-struck by his brilliance. Watching John Seely, one felt that one was at the very forefront of medical knowledge. Nephrology rounds in those days were a standing room only affair moderated by John Dirks, in which Seely and other younger attending nephrologists debated issues of clinical function and pathology with a passion and intellectual rigor worthy of the Oxford Union. It was both high drama and wonderful education and we loved it and him. 

When John Dirks left to become Chief-of-Medicine in Vancouver, John Seely became Director of the Division of Nephrology (RVH). As might be expected he was a wonderful leader. It was partly his ability to inspire people that he had exhibited earlier but on a personal level he was also very fair and most notably extremely positive. He always saw your best potential before you did and saw nothing that you could not do if you put your mind to it. In those days there were a lot of well known visitors to nephrology with whom individual attending nephrologists would meet to discuss their research or other work. It was striking to me that the visitors always seemed extremely impressed with what I was doing even before I explained it. The reason of course was that John Seely had already given a glowing description of my work to the visitor. That kind of generosity and enthusiasm made the Division of Nephrology at the Royal Vic the most enriching place in the hospital to work.

John’s enthusiasm for medicine and for life made you want to follow him in whatever he did. He became an avid supporter of the work of family therapist Virginia Satir and as a result I did a course in family therapy that has had a major influence on my life and work. Later in his career he made a move to palliative care and I subsequently made the same move because John showed it was possible. 

After he moved to Ottawa we stayed in close contact and when my children were younger used to visit John and Janet in Ottawa. My kids loved John and remember him going down to the basement and taking out boxes and boxes of toys that his own kids had used. Whenever we said we were visiting the Seely’s  there was a fever of anticipation for weeks. I am originally an immigrant from Ireland and have sometimes thought about the losses and gains involved. One of the main gains has been me and my family meeting John Seely and his wonderful family. As they say in Ireland “We shall not see his likes again!”                                                                                                            
~ Tom Hutchinson

In his enthusiasm, altruism, hard work, and passion, Dad has been a significant role model and mentor for us, both in our career choices and in the subsequent development of those careers.  As father of four and grand-father of eight, he has given generously and shown an incredible capacity for focused attention and love; he has provided a personal experience of radical presence that has helped to build a firm foundation for the close ongoing relationship he has with each of us.  

A care provider has the privilege and responsibility to improve care and, over a lifetime, may accomplish this in a number of ways. In addition to Dad’s direct impact on Canadian Health Care administration, research and education, he has left a potential legacy for continuing enhancement in caring delivered through us, his children, indeed through us in the broader sense - the wider community of colleagues, friends and others whom he continues to touch.  It is our challenge to breathe life into this potential.                                                                                         
~ Jean, Alison, Andrew & Dugald Seely

Editor’s note: Jean is a Thoracic Radiologist with an interest in thoracic and breast oncology; Alison is a Veterinarian with an interest in chiropractic manipulation; Andrew is a Thoracic Surgeon & Critical Care Physician interested in monitoring complex systems; Dugald is a Naturopathic Doctor and Director of Research at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. He has an interest in integrative oncology.



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