Dr. Martin Friedberg, a pioneer in emergency medicine in Toronto who saved countless lives, died in his home on Jan. 6, after a lengthy illness. He was a few weeks shy of his 73rd birthday.
Recalled as a brilliant, quick-thinking physician, Friedberg was also known for being humble. He always insisted that other doctors, nurses and paramedics call him “Marty.”
“There was never a hint of ego,” eulogized his son, Matthew Friedberg, at his funeral. “He smiled when the provincial government automatically stopped giving doctors ‘MD’ licence plates. Dad was a man of the people.”
Friedberg played a leading role in introducing the first paramedics in Toronto in 1984 and was a medical advisor to Toronto Paramedic Services for 30 years.
He was also the medical director of International Trauma Life Support (ITLS), an organization that developed a course designed to teach emergency responders, paramedics, nurses and doctors to assess and treat critically injured trauma patients. Begun in 1982, ITLS is now recognized around the world as the standard for pre-hospital trauma care.
“Dad protected all of us by developing training policies, guidelines and procedures for our city’s paramedics,” noted his son. “He ensured our citizens’ safety during everything from SARS, to developing our 911 dispatch system, to preparations from terrorist threats.”
Toronto’s paramedic service “works, and works awfully well,” Martin Friedberg told the Toronto Star six months after paramedics, who have an additional 1,000 hours of medical training, started riding in the city’s ambulances. “The feeling that everyone has (access to) it is making an enormous difference.”
He said it was difficult to show how many lives had been saved by the service, but for heart-attack victims, paramedic aid can make all the difference.
Friedberg was born in 1945 in Toronto to Celia and Morris Friedberg, Polish Jews who came to Canada in the 1920s to escape the pogroms. Martin Friedberg was the youngest of three brothers, whose parents toiled in factories. “Life was not easy,” noted Matthew Friedberg.
The clan settled in the St. Clair and Christie area of Toronto, across the street from the old Shaarei Shomayim synagogue, where they were regulars, and a teenaged Martin Friedberg considered becoming a rabbi. They lived above the women’s clothing store that Friedberg’s mother owned and ran. His father died when he was just 15.
But all three of the couple’s sons became doctors – Martin Friedberg became a family physician at just 23 years old. His family believes he delivered more than 1,000 babies before shifting to emergency medicine.
The field became his passion. “Thinking on your feet, the adrenaline rush, the necessity to assess the situation with acuity and act instantly, enthralled him,” recalled his son.
Once, on a flight from Los Angeles to Toronto, he encountered a fellow passenger in insulin shock. Friedberg fashioned a feeding tube from old-style airplane earphones and fed the victim orange juice through his nose during the entire flight.
Among his tasks was preparing for the medical fallout from large-scale disasters, whether natural or not.
As the medical director of exhibition and urban sites for the city of Toronto, Friedberg was given the honour of sitting near Pope John Paul II for World Youth Day in 2002. But he gave up his seat for, as he put it, “a more deserving person, preferably a Catholic.”
In addition to teaching at the University of Toronto’s medical school, Friedberg held 14 professional appointments, including chief of emergency at Branson Hospital in the 1980s.
He was a pioneer in emergency medicine before it became a recognized medical specialty and perhaps his most lasting contribution to the nascent field was in pre-hospital care, said Dr. Brian Schwartz, now vice-president of science and health protection at Public Health Ontario. The two worked together for decades in emergency care.
Schwartz said Friedberg became an expert in emergency medical dispatch, in which specially trained 911 operators get enough information from the patient or caller to send the right level of paramedic.
Schwartz quoted former Emergency Medical Services chief Bruce Farr as saying, “No EMS equipment would touch a patient until Marty approved it, ensuring patient and paramedic safety on every call.”
What he loved most, his family said, was being on the road in ambulances with paramedics.
Friedberg helped arrange the donation of Toronto’s old ambulances to communities in South America that had no medical transportation vehicles. “Dad’s capacity for kindness and tikun olam knew no limits,” his son said.
He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Laurel Friedberg (née Nickin), his brother, Dr. Jacob Friedberg, sons, Matthew and Jeremy Friedberg, and three grandchildren.