A Royal Memory

 

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Photo by: Photawa/iStock

Harold Fireman is a retired physician. He is 96 years old and retired aged 88

 

Medical doctors, in a long career, encounter many interesting, unforgettable events. Strangely, my most elite experience came almost immediately after I graduated from the University of Toronto Medical Faculty in March 1942. World War II was at its peak, since Hitler's army had over-run Europe in 1939 but Queen Wilhelmina of Holland had escaped to England with her family and some Dutch officials, joining the Allies in hopes of eventually reconquering Europe. England, however, was a short distance from mainland Europe hence the German Luftwaffe made frequent bombing trips to England, mostly to London. Queen Wilhelmina felt she had to remain as the iconic Dutch figure, at the Allied hub in London, but wisely decided that her family would be safer in Canada. Consequently, her daughter Princess Juliana, with her husband Prince Bernhard, came to settle in June 1940 in a home on a small estate in Rockcliffe Park, a suburban village of Ottawa that contained the residences of most foreign diplomats.

In 1942, Princess Juliana was "in a family way" and under the care of Dr. John Puddicombe, the Chief of Obstetrics at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. On learning that the Princess would be delivered there, the hospital had four rooms at one end of the obstetrical ward rebuilt, then had them officially declared Dutch territory and reserved for the Princess's confinement.

In April 1942, I arrived at the Ottawa Civic Hospital to complete a wartime abbreviated rotating internship as a Medical Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. In January 1943, Princess Juliana was admitted to the hospital in labour and I was appointed the intern for obstetrics during her hospitalization. Dr. Puddicombe warmly welcomed me to his service and told me that Princess Juliana was a very nice young patient who did not want any special privileges. She had insisted on coming to his office for her monthly prenatal check-ups although Dr. Puddicombe had offered to go to her house.

When the arrangements for the Princess became known, an unofficial meeting was called by the interns in the intern's quarters where a mock ceremony was performed to present me with a broad red-satin ribbon pinned on to my white uniform, from the left shoulder down to my right waist diagonally like a diplomatic aristocrat and I was dubbed "The Royal Intern.”

My routine included frequent visits to the nursing station at the head of the obstetrical ward, with special checks of the Royal Dutch Four Rooms. The front room on the left housed two Dutch bodyguards, in civilian clothes and we soon became good friends. The back room on the left was for the Princess and the back room across the hall on the right was reserved for the baby. The front room on the right was reserved for the Dutch nurse who had cared for Princess Juliana when she was born.

The royal labour progressed and the Princess was taken to the delivery room. I was summoned to appear and when I arrived, I was surprised to find a crowded room that reminded me of  New York's Grand Central Station! The medical team included Dr. Puddicombe, an anesthetist, two nurses and myself. In addition, seated in a far corner were Prince Bernhard, the Dutch ambassador and his first (male) secretary. The delivery advanced rather quickly and smoothly as well as very quietly. On Jan. 19, The baby was born with a lusty cry that made us all chuckle and congratulate the parents. Prince Bernhard then went to the nurses’ station where a telephone line had been kept open to Queen Wilhelmina in London. He gave her the good news that a healthy baby girl was born and that all were well. Next the Dutch ambassador and his secretary came to the nurses' station to sign an affidavit, swearing they had witnessed the birth of the baby, the true daughter of the Royal Princess Margriet Francisca.

There was one unusual but harmless, complication. Young Princess Juliana had suffered a mild case of the mumps through it all.

Dr. John Puddicombe and his wife visited the Royal Dutch family years later and told me they were given a very warm welcome. Dr. Puddicombe also later delivered my wife of my own daughter who became my Princess.

Editor’s note:
January 19 is Princess Margriet Francisca’s 73rd birthday. After World War II, the Netherlands began sending tulip bulbs to Ottawa every year in gratitude for sheltering Princess Juliana and her daughters during the war. Those bulbs marked the start of the now-famous Canadian Tulip Festival, which the Princess attended in 2002.

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