The Arthritis Newsletter

Spring 2012

The Voice of Mary Pack lives on through the Vancouver Community Group and Members of Beta Sigma Phi

Written by: Sheila Kerr


“Never surrender” is a phrase that aptly describes the attitude of Mary Pack. Mary was passionate about preventing a lifetime of crippling and dependency in people diagnosed with arthritis. Her motivation stemmed from her job as a home schooling teacher in the 1940s where she met young students with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Her mother was debilitated by an adult form of this disease. Against all odds and after navigating an endless string of barriers, her vision to improve the lives of those with arthritis in British Columbia became a reality. She was the Founder of The Canadian Arthritis and Rheumatism Society’s (CARS) first division, which was opened in British Columbia in 1948 and the key player in the establishment of the Vancouver Arthritis Centre (renamed the Mary Pack Arthritis Centre in 1994).


Members of the Consumer Advisory Board met with Anne Sainas, Barbara Dawson and Ann Gabrielson, long time members of the Vancouver Community Group (VCG) to hear stories about their years of volunteerism, which in the case of Ann Gabrielson began in 1948! This group was formerly the Auxiliary of the BC branch of CARS. They spoke fondly about Mary Pack’s charisma, determination and endless hard work that put arthritis on the federal health care agenda (Paul Martin Senior chaired the first arthritis conference in 1947 when he was the Minister of Health and Welfare). After many years of community building, engagement, lobbying, and arm-twisting the Mary Pack Arthritis Centre opened in 1969.


Mary Pack, the executive director of CARS, was a master at engaging local communities to improve the lives of those less fortunate. According to current members of the VCG, she was so charming that they would have done anything for Mary – saying no was not an option!  Stories were told of Mary asking everyone “What have you done for the patients?” She would write endless streams of notes on small scraps of paper outlining what needed to be done. Mary would also recruit volunteer communities to fill the gaps that the tight budget could not support. There were no “Handy Dart” cabs at the time so volunteers would drive patients to their appointments. Some patients in those days suffered from severe deformities and could only be transported on stretchers. The police, firefighters or ambulance drivers would volunteer to carry these patients on stretchers out of their homes and into vans so that they could attend treatments at the centre. Over time, as arthritis treatments improved, the person on the stretcher became a person in a wheelchair and then a person walking.


Initially, volunteers at the centre helped with the pool programs, sewing weight bags and providing patient support services. The landscape changed in the 80s when the unions grieved having volunteers helping patients; however, the consequence was that the community group began concentrating their efforts on educating the public and fundraising.  The Auxiliary’s Public Forums were attended by up to 250 people who came to hear rheumatologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers and others. The need for the training of more rheumatologists was identified and this remains a priority.


Many current members of the VCG are affiliated with the sorority Beta Sigma Phi. Mary initially approached the sorority in 1948 and this group has supported the cause of arthritis consistently since then.  Stories were told of the members of Beta Sigma Phi, in the 1950s and 60s proudly wearing their gold jackets while raising money for arthritis by selling programs at the BC Lions games.


In addition, the wives of local physicians became the first members of the CARS Auxiliary in 1950. The two groups held galas and used high-end clothing sales, casinos were staffed, lottery tickets sold, fundraising dinners catered (one was held in Mary Pack’s modest apartment which didn’t have a full kitchen). In the early days the husbands were enlisted to use their networks to raise awareness about arthritis and to fundraise. The husbands of the auxiliary also helped with activities such as outfitting the sorority’s newly purchased workshop vans that occupational and physical therapists drove around the province as part of the mobile services. These therapists made splints, raised toilets seats, and other adaptive equipment and delivered the best quality care to reduce disability and improve functioning of those with arthritis. The Consumer Advisory Board is grateful to the Vancouver Community Group for their annual donation to the Arthritis Research Centre of Canada’s Round Table on Arthritis Research (ROAR) event.


Mary’s vision was to have an arthritis centre of excellence for treatment, research, education and outreach planning, ensuring that those with arthritis received the most up-to-date care given by experts in the field. For those outside of the lower mainland, she spearheaded the establishment of a hostel to accommodate patients who needed bouts of concentrated care at the centre in Vancouver. The Auxiliary furnished the lodge and Mary “tackled” Rufus Gibbs to support the purchase of the building.


What tools did Mary use to accomplish these lofty goals? Those who knew Mary would say that her strength was in her charisma and in her ability to engage local communities – to never surrender. Her determination and the determination of others often stemmed from knowing someone living with arthritis. She was persistent even when obstacles seemed insurmountable. She continued to approach business, industry and community groups well into her 80s. She received many honours for her work including the Order of Canada in 1974. What an inspiration!


Thanks to the Vancouver Community Group and Beta Sigma Phi for their ongoing support to the cause of improving the lives of those with arthritis and for keeping the vision and history of Mary Pack alive. We can learn a lot from these bright women who built a community of lifelong friends while doing something important.

We would like to acknowledge Joyce Ma, a member of the Consumer Advisory Board and the Vancouver Community Group for introducing us to Anne, Barbara, and Ann.  Joyce runs the Bluebird Shop at the Mary Pack Arthritis Centre.

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