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Surgeon Ted Percy ‘performed miracles’ for athletes

Orthopedic surgeon Edward Percy.

Ross Outerbridge

Edward Percy's great skill as an orthopedic surgeon earned him the nickname Brother André, a nod to the legendary Montreal faith healer who was canonized in 2010. Some of Dr. Percy's patients, including Montreal Canadiens great Serge Savard, believed the doctor could work miracles, too, sometimes resuscitating the careers of athletes who had suffered serious bone breaks and ligament damage. Dr. Percy died of cancer on March 2 in Saanich, B.C. He was 92.

Dr. Percy was long affiliated with McGill University, serving as a professor of orthopedics with the university's fledgling sports medicine program and caring for many athletes there. His expertise was also sought out by the Montreal Alouettes, the Expos and the Canadiens.

Edward Charters Percy was born on Oct. 15, 1924, in Hampstead, Que. He was the youngest of four children born to George Percy and the former Caroline Little. When Edward was a child, he had a fondness for the outdoors that continued throughout his life, according to his son, Kevin.

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He attended Westmount High School, before enrolling at McGill. But his studies had to be postponed in 1943 when he enlisted with the RCAF. In 1943, he was shipped overseas to England, where he flew Lancasters on supply and training runs across Great Britain for the duration of the war.

When he returned to Montreal, he found himself back at McGill and studying medicine alongside his old Westmount High compatriot Hugh Brodie. Classmates called the life-long friends Mutt and Jeff, referencing the long-running newspaper comic strip about the tall and meek Mutt and his off-beat pal Jeff. As Edward Percy was a soft-spoken man who stood at 6 foot 4 and towered over his 5 foot 10 friend, the comparison, Dr. Brodie said, was inevitable.

Dr. Brodie laughed when he described how the Mutt and Jeff shtick paid huge dividends during anatomy class where the duo spent their mornings huddled over a cadaver with three or four other students. "It can be pretty macabre stuff, but Ted's light-heartedness and optimism helped to make the absurd and disturbing daily ritual more bearable."

In 1949, Edward married Marion Moffatt (who was known as Myrne), and two years later he graduated from medical school. Dr. Percy quickly made a name for himself while completing his residency and fellowship in orthopedic surgery, landing appointments to the orthopedics staff of six hospitals. It was during this period that Dr. Brodie helped to nudge Dr. Percy toward a career in sports medicine. Dr. Brodie was already working with McGill doctor Everett Crutchlow, who was putting together a sports medicine program. When Dr. Crutchlow asked if Dr. Brodie knew anyone else who might want to come on board, he immediately suggested Dr. Percy.

Dr. Robert Berke, who was a linebacker with the McGill Redmen in the late 1960 and early 70s, remembered how Dr. Percy took him under his wing. "He was one of the football team doctors and was enthusiastic when he discovered that I would be attending med school."

As a consequence, Dr. Berke said he was privy to procedures typically not part of the med school curriculum. "On one occasion I accompanied [Dr. Percy] to a knee surgery. From the first incision to the final stitch, he was finished in 15 minutes." Dr. Berke, who practices family medicine in Mayville, N.Y., said he was flabbergasted, not just because of the speed, but the precision. When Dr. Percy noticed the spellbound expression on his young colleague's face, Dr. Berke said he smiled. "There was a twinkle in his eye, and in a conspiratorial tone, he whispered that nobody needed to know how quickly he wrapped up the operation."

In addition to his work with McGill athletics, Dr. Percy also served as the Montreal Alouettes team doctor from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. But as The Montreal Gazette's Pat Hickey reported: When Bob Brodrick, who was the team doctor assigned with the Expos, or Doug Kinnear, who was with the Canadiens, required a surgeon, they rang up Ted.

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One of Dr. Percy's patients was Peter Dalla Riva, an Alouettes tight end from 1968 to 1981, who was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Mr. Dalla Riva hurt his knee during training camp following Montreal's 1970 Grey Cup victory. After his inside ligament was torn off the bone, Dr. Percy stapled the tear back together, and Mr. Dalla Riva, who feared his career was over, was back on the playing field the same year. "The rehab was long and demanding. But I still managed to see action the last five games of the season. It's a credit to Dr. Percy because I didn't think I would ever play again!"

Mr. Dalla Riva said Dr. Percy was gracious and giving and went beyond the call of duty. "I remember that at the same time that I injured my knee, my kid brother experienced a similar injury playing junior football in the Hamilton area." During a trip to play the Ti-cats in Hamilton, Mr. Dalla Riva said, Dr. Percy examined his brother's knee and provided him with tips on how to rehabilitate the injury. "He didn't have to do it, but that was the type of man he was."

Dr. Percy's most renowned patient may have been Montreal Canadiens blue-liner Serge Savard. His fate rested in the surgeon's hands three times, beginning when Mr. Savard was playing junior hockey. The final operation occurred in 1971 after Mr. Savard broke the same leg he had fractured the year before. Although the pundits were questioning whether Mr. Savard would ever lace up for the Canadiens again, the star defenceman was much more optimistic.

"There is a reason why I called him Brother André. He performed miracles." Not only did Mr. Savard prove the naysayers wrong, he was back playing for the team at an elite level the following year, assuring him a spot on Team Canada during the 1972 Summit Series against the Russians.

After the Canadian squad's victory, the players were given commemorative watches by Team Canada officials, Mr. Savard said. "When I arrived back in Montreal, the very first time I ran into Dr. Percy I gave him the watch and told him that he deserved it because I would never have recovered in time to play in the series if it wasn't for him." Dr. Percy wore that watch constantly, his friend Dr. Brodie said.

What Dr. Percy enjoyed most about working with athletes was their desire to heal quickly, his son, Kevin Percy recalled. "From a doctor's perspective, they were ideal patients who followed his instructions."

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But there were exceptions. John Ferguson, regarded as one of the great hockey brawlers of all time, needed extra motivation to adhere to Dr. Percy's wishes. "He had been getting into so many fights that the knuckles on his hand became damaged. So they called my father in." Dr. Percy did everything he could to repair the player's knuckles before instructing Mr. Ferguson to stop dropping his gloves and provoking fights, Kevin Percy explained. But in the heat of battle, Mr. Ferguson would inevitably forget, resulting in more damage to his hands. "So [Dr. Percy] instructed the training staff to tape the gauntlets of Ferguson's gloves to his sweater, ensuring that the brawler couldn't toss the gloves aside."

In addition to his work with professional athletes, Dr. Percy also played a crucial part in the advancement of sports medicine in Canadian amateur sports. In 1970 he established the first medical team for international Canadian athletes and was named the chief medical officer with the Canadian Olympic, Commonwealth, and Pan American teams. Dr. Percy was a member of the International Association of Medical Officers and served as the co-founder and first President of the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine, from 1971 to 1972.

In 1978, Dr. Percy was recruited to establish a sports medicine program at the University of Arizona's faculty of medicine. He remained a vital part of the academic team until his retirement in 1991.

Serge Savard recalled a preseason exhibition game played in Phoenix in the late eighties when he was the general manager of the Canadiens. Dr. Percy stopped by to see the game and say hello. "Ironically there was an injury on the ice. We didn't bring our team doctor." Mr. Savard said his old pal immediately sprung to action and looked after the injured player. "It was just like old times!"

Wishing to be closer to family, Dr. Percy and his wife began to spend more time in Kelowna, on Lake Okanagan, before moving to Victoria in 2011.

Dr. Percy leaves his wife, Myrne; their children, Kevin, Lynne, Jill and Jane; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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