When he shuffles into the lobby of the Wedgewood Hotel, Allan Fotheringham looks much smaller than I expected him to be. The famous newspaper columnist and author appears to have lost a lot of weight since he was a panelist on the CBC’s Front Page Challenge show in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a bit shocking to realize that Fotheringham, once one of the sharpest, wittiest, and most energetic members of the Ottawa press gallery, seems now to be a slow-moving senior. But as soon as the former back-page columnist for Maclean’s sits down in the bar and looks me in the eye, I see that familiar flash of intelligence, irascibility, and humour.
His new memoir, Boy From Nowhere: A Life in Ninety-One Countries (Dundurn), includes a shocking tale of alleged medical malpractice involving a routine hospital colonoscopy in 2007. So I begin by asking him about this. “I’m glad to talk about the fucking medical profession,” he declares defiantly. “I went in for 48 hours and came out five months later. I weighed 170 pounds when I went in. I weighed 115 when I came out.”
Fotheringham, 79, claims that someone at the hospital in Toronto pushed the wrong button. What happened next will shake anyone’s confidence in the health-care system. “They took the remains of my bowels and put them in my lungs,” he says. He then holds up his finger and thumb close together before swearing, “I was this far from gone.”
His wife, Anne, was asked to write an obituary for the Globe and Mail, but according to the man known across the country as Dr. Foth, she refused. “My three children flew out from Vancouver to Toronto to hear the last rites being read,” he adds. “I was so heavily drugged I couldn’t even recognize them.”
Despite his ordeal, he hasn’t lost his sense of humour. When I ask if I should submit myself to a colonoscopy, he replies, “Get it done. I’m the prime example. Get it done—but don’t get your bowels mixed up with your lungs.”
He can laugh about it now, but the description in his memoir is anything but funny. A tube was installed in his throat, which destroyed one-and-a-half of his vocal cords. This is no small loss when you consider how much he enjoyed his public-speaking engagements over the years.
“I then got ventilator-activated pneumonia, followed by two hospital superbugs (MRSA and Pseudomonas), which colonized in my left lung and which I could only have gotten from the doctors and nurses not washing their hands or the hospital bed that might not have been properly disinfected,” he writes. “The doctor in charge told my wife that my chances were slim that I would make it through, since so many things had gone wrong. He advised her that she should prepare for the worst, so she sat down and wrote my death notice—not a pleasant thing to do.”
Fotheringham, who also spent many years as a Vancouver Sun columnist, never sued the hospital. His greatest praise is for his wife, who spent 10 hours a day for 145 consecutive days in hospital in a mask, gloves, and hospital gown, inspecting every medication and ensuring that medical staff washed their hands. “She, and she alone, saved my life,” he writes.
In the bar at the Wedgewood, before ordering a gin and tonic, Fotheringham says he’s now up to 140 pounds. He flashes that trademark grin and slyly lets on that he plays tennis three mornings a week. “I’m completely fit,” he states. “I’m the luckiest bugger in the world.”
The new book is much more than a recounting of his health challenges, which take up only one of the 31 chapters. Boy From Nowhere regales readers with tales of his encounters with prime ministers, presidents, and royalty. There’s also a sizable section on his poor childhood—his father died when he was two and his mother was left widowed in a tiny Saskatchewan town with four children in the middle of the Depression. She washed clothes, gave violin lessons, and later turned the family home into the local post office. Fotheringham recalls his mom telling him that he would read travel brochures that came into the postal outlet, which fuelled his desire to see the world.
“The greatest invention in the history of mankind was the expense account,” he quips. “I’ve seen 91 countries on someone else’s money.”
At the time of the colonoscopy, Fotheringham was covering the trial of media baron Conrad Black in Chicago. The columnist decided to return to Toronto for the quick test, not realizing that it would almost kill him. Fotheringham says he contacted Black earlier this year when the former newspaper magnate was out on bail, and they agreed to meet for a “liquid dinner”.
However, Black lost his appeal and is back in the slammer. “This meant two things,” Fotheringham says with a mischievous smile. “First of all, our liquid dinner will be delayed once again, and secondly Conrad Lord Black will miss my book launch.”
The saddest event in Fotheringham’s life occurred in August, when his oldest son, Brady, 47, died of a heart attack in South Korea. Brady was an adventurer who wrote a book about his motorcycle ride to retrace the 13th-century travels of Marco Polo. “He went to Korea to teach school there because he could see if he tried to continue his adult life as a journalist in Canada, he would always be compared to his father,” Fotheringham says. “He was a great guy—the bravest man I ever met.”