Edward Feldman is likely one of the last doctors still alive today who served in field hospitals during World War II.
Now nearly 97, Feldman enlisted in the Canadian army while in his 20s and in 1943, after completing a medical residency at the Ottawa Hospital, he was sent overseas – first to Italy and then to Holland – to serve as a military officer.
Placed in charge of field ambulances, it was Feldman’s job to provide emergency medical care to soldiers who’d been injured in combat. Or as the Toronto-born child of Polish Jews put it modestly, pointing to the military decorations his daughter Bonita Josse had brought out, “I didn’t do anything particularly heroic… I did my job and I did it well, I think.”
Feldman, who now lives in an apartment in the Terraces of Baycrest, graduated from medical school at the University of Toronto and did an abbreviated residency in obstetrics and gynecology – his passion – before being shipped off to a small town in Italy.
Because the town’s doctors had fled due to political strife, local people who needed medical help often approached Feldman. “If Joe Blow came to me and said, ‘My wife is terribly sick. Can you help me?’ how could you say no?” he recalled.
“The colonel would look the other way, and we would help them.”
In one especially memorable incident, the person who came to him for assistance was the town’s mayor, whose teenaged son was desperately ill with pneumonia.
Feldman was in a bind. He had no penicillin, which was only available in the major hospitals. He did have access to an antibiotic called sulfa, but when he gave it to the boy orally, he vomited it up.
So he improvised, creating a mixture with sulfa and water and administering it to the mayor’s son rectally via a slow drip method.
The boy recovered and, Feldman chuckled, “Now I’m in the town with a halo around my head.”
To show his gratitude, the mayor held a special banquet to celebrate Feldman, his colonel and a few other officers.
When asked to clarify if he’d saved the boy’s life, he joked in his typical understated manner, “No, he got better in spite of me.”
After several months in Italy, Feldman was sent to Holland to work in a field hospital there. When the war ended, he stayed in Holland working in a military camp, where he treated wounded soldiers, both Canadian and others, including German.
“When they were wounded, they were just people, people who needed medical service, that’s all,” Feldman said, though he acknowledged that the only time he experienced anti-Semitism as a Jewish doctor during the war was in his encounters with these German soldiers.
The men in his unit knew he was Jewish and were, he said, “very supportive.”
He remembers that when he first entered the service, he refrained from eating the cook’s pork chops. Over time, he said, he realized, “there’s a war on and if I don’t eat I’ll be in trouble.” And so, “the pork chops became lamb chops… lamb chops that looked very much like pork chops.”
Feldman returned to Canada after the war and discovered that training he’d been planning to do in New York City had been cancelled. As well, there were too many doctors for too few patients in the Ottawa hospital where he’d hoped to get more training in obstetrics and gynecology.
“So, I hung up my shingle and went into family practice,” he said.
Josse said the practice, rooted in obstetrics, became quite successful. Her father, who subsequently taught medicine at U of T and became head of family practice at Mount Sinai Hospital, was known as “a committed family practitioner,” for whom it wasn’t unusual to deliver three or four generations of a family.
Feldman married in 1953 and had three children. He has seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “But who’s counting?” he quipped.
Josse said her father rarely talks about his war experiences, though. “I imagine, given his age and how young he was when he fought, he would probably be one of the few, if not the only, field doctor left from World War II.”
Feldman, with characteristic modesty, shrugged and said, “There were times there when I wasn’t sure I’d be coming back, but you accept that what will be, will be and think, ‘Let’s get on with it.’