Ruth Arnold
After 40 years at UHN, Ruth Arnold is looking forward to a rest and pursuing other hobbies, but she leaves the door open to any part times opportunities at the organization. (Photo: UHN)

They say life is a journey, one that can have many twists and turns and lead you to the most unlikely places.

Ruth Arnold's life followed that adage, taking a few unexpected turns that eventually brought her to UHN – where she recently celebrated 40 years of service and soon embarks on a well-earned retirement.

But before she found that road, she was a stay-at-home mother of three sons in Boston one moment, and the next her family was contemplating packing up and moving to Toronto.

"My youngest son was deaf from birth," Ruth recalls. "There weren't any educational programs in United States at the time that could help him, but we heard of an experimental program in Canada that he might benefit from.

"When someone said the program was in Toronto, I thought 'where's that?'" she chuckles, the hint of a New England accent still discernible.

"Back then I only thought of Canada as mukluks and snow. I really had no clue!"

Still, the myths of eternal winter hardship didn't deter Ruth. Her husband sold his business and the family packed up and headed to Toronto in 1969, moving into an apartment in Forest Hill. But once settled and organized with her husband working, her sons at school and her youngest thriving in the new program, Ruth needed something to do.

'I decided to teach myself to ice skate'

"I got bored," says Ruth. "There's only so much you can do in an apartment and I'm not one to stay home and do nothing."

Which is where, in a funny twist, Canada's winter came to the rescue.

"I decided to teach myself to ice skate," she says. "I would go to the local rink, lace up my skates and work on gliding around the rink."

Not only did she learn to skate, but Ruth also met other ladies from the neighbourhood with whom she became friendly. One day she casually inquired about opportunities for part time jobs, and soon found herself working as a secretary in an orthodontist's office.

The work and the milieu suited her and, after seven years, her path took another turn when she saw an ad in the newspaper for a job at Toronto General Hospital's (TGH) original location on College Street. And so it came to be that Ruth took her place among the UHN family as a secretary in the Medical Directorate's Office in 1977.

The position required her to be in contact with all the surgeons who worked at the hospital, which led her to eventually change roles again, helping a new plastic surgeon, Dr. Ray Martin, set up his practice. She worked with him for 12 years, even following him when he left the hospital to establish a private practice. But the departure was short-lived.

The past 23 years working for Dr. Fred Gentili

"I enjoyed working for Dr. Martin, he was so nice," Ruth says. "But I missed the hospital very much: the people, the activity, being downtown. I had to go back."

By then, TGH and Toronto Western Hospital (TWH) had amalgamated to become divisions of The Toronto Hospital, and Ruth was now set on the career path of physician's secretary. Her return to UHN began at TWH where she worked for a urologist, then a gastroenterologist back at TGH.

She also diligently worked every Monday night for many years on all of the correspondence and transcriptions for Dr. Walter Peters, a plastic surgeon who cared for all the patients on TGH's burn unit.  

Finally, in the mid-1990s, she went to work for Dr. Fred Gentili in TWH's Neurosurgery department where she has been for the past 23 years.

Ruth at desk in the 1990s
Ruth in her office in the late 1990s, a few years into her role as physician secretary for Dr. Fred Gentili. (Photo: Courtesy Ruth Arnold)

"Dr. Gentili is wonderful to work for, to know him is just a pleasure," she says about her boss. "Working with him is indeed a privilege as he is truly one of the most outstanding surgeons of his time, and the excellent recognition that he receives tells his story." 

Now 81, Ruth's reflections on UHN exude the satisfaction she takes in her work providing support and managing Dr. Gentili's time so he can do his job well. Over the years, scheduling of operating time, clinics, and travel became more crucial as Dr. Gentili got busier, but it's this aspect of the job she will miss the most along with her involvement and interactions with patients.

"It's not a question of having a love for work, it's just part of me, it's second nature," she says. "But of course, when a patient is happy and their case has a good outcome, it's a good feeling."

Ruth has yet to make plans for retirement, she knows she needs some rest and is thinking of attending classes at Ryerson University and taking up the piano again. She also has four grandchildren to keep her busy. She's not yet ready to venture back to the United States to live, though she may eventually return.

She speaks fondly of Dr. Gentili and her fellow administrators in the Neurosurgery department with whom she's enjoyed a wonderful camaraderie, she will miss the daily interactions with her colleagues and the congenial relationships they share. But though she is venturing off the path of her career in the direction of new adventures, it sounds like she may one day wend her way back.

"I would continue working, I like working, but I think it's time for a rest," Ruth says. "Although I did tell Dr. Gentili that if he needs me, I'll be here part time."​

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