Disabled journalist was a favourite with all
Orthopaedic surgeon Colin Fitzpatrick hung the photo of only one patient on his wall. That patient was Peter Douglas, a tiny, disabled but greatly loved sub-editor at The Press.
Doctors told Douglas's parents soon after his birth that he would not live more than a few weeks. They forgot to tell Douglas. He lived for 35 years. An invasive cancer took his life on Christmas Eve.
Douglas loved life with an infectious enthusiasm. Yet the disease osteogenesis imperfecta threatened to make every day his last. The rare condition was manifest in brittle bones. But he accepted it as his lot. His father, Rob, says he took the view that all are born different - some with red hair some with black. He just had a severe disability.
Barely the size of a 6-year-old, confined to a wheelchair from the age of 3, with impaired use of hands and arms, Douglas fitted in even among the tough rugby types at Waitaki Boys' High School. Rob says he was sociable and much admired for his attitude of making the best out of life. "He struck a rapport with the boys without the need to be macho," Rob says. He took academic prizes and became a prefect.
His sociability in adult years extended to buzzing into bars on his electric wheelchair and showing "amazing ability to pull the birds", his father says.
Speaking at the funeral, Fitzpatrick, who treated Douglas for many years, said he was a "real" person. Unable to impress with an athlete's body, a film star's face, or driving a flashy car, he was just "Peter", always.
He spent babyhood in traction to keep his bones straight and avoid fractures. His parents spotted a mobile traction device advertised by the Brittle Bones Association of Great Britain and asked Fitzpatrick to try it. First he had to operate to insert rods in Douglas's bones. Then he was placed in the upright device. It enabled him to sit up in a wheelchair.
Rob was a teacher and the family moved from Taieri Mouth to Karitane, where Douglas started school. He then attended Oamaru North School and Oamaru Intermediate before moving on to Waitaki Boys' High.
Leaving the family home in Oamaru, Douglas returned to the former maternity hospital where he had been born, in Dunedin. It had been converted to a student hostel. Douglas liked the taste of independence.
In three years at Otago University he graduated BA, majoring in history. He moved to Christchurch and the journalism course at the University of Canterbury. Course director at the time, Jim Tully, says the university made changes to lecture spaces and facilities to accommodate Douglas. But the only concession made for his disability was to waive the requirement to learn shorthand, as Douglas was unable to wield a pen fast enough. He compensated with his speed as a typist.
Tully says Douglas was "incredibly tenacious" and was an inspiration to fellow students. He was popular and took a full part in the group's social life.
"He had a wonderful sense of humour. He lived life to the full as much as he was able. He was the life and soul of social activities. He did not let anything get in his way. He was a fabulous little man who cast a huge shadow," Tully says.
It was clear that sub-editing would suit Douglas. Completing the one-year course he was accepted at The Press for work experience in 2002. This led quickly to a fulltime position in the newsroom.
After a stroke, Douglas needed nursing care and had to leave The Press in 2004. For the next three years he lived at the Laura Fergusson home in Burnside. As his condition improved, he moved to a Housing NZ house at Russley.
Always keen to be active, Douglas worked for the students' disability office at Canterbury University, converting study texts to formats accessible by people with disabilities. He did voluntary service for Citizens Advice Bureau for several months before becoming ill last year. A cancerous tumour was found.
Parents Rob and Sue say Douglas was always close to his older brother, David. He was close to many others, too. The vicar of St Luke's in Oamaru had never seen the church so full as at his funeral. Donations at the service to the Nurse Maude Hospice reached more than $1400.
Douglas had taken life in his stride, had never complained. He even joked about his death - "My wheels are falling off," he said shortly before he died. MIKE CREAN
Peter Robert Douglas, born Dunedin, May 15, 1978; died Christchurch, December 24, 2013.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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