Now & Then: Helke and Robert Ferrie MD

Bob and Helke in 2017 with their poochie pal.

Helke and Robert Ferrie MD

This professional couple became enamoured with Manitoulin (just as they had with each other, when they first met in India in 1969) it was ‘love at first sight.’ One summer morning in 1979 they woke up to the panoramic view at Ten Mile Point. “We had arrived very late the night before, from Burlington. It was our first time on the Island. I am not a camper, so we looked for a rental cabin,” Helke shares. “We booked one of George Wigle’s cabins. When we saw that terrific view from our window, we were hooked; we both knew that this magic place would become our home.” (What was then a resort with a panoramic view overlooking Georgian Bay is now Ten Mile Point Gallery, featuring Indigenous artwork.)

Bob, a fifth generation Scot hailing from Glasgow, was born on April 21, 1937 to Dr. Kenneth and Mary Mann Ferrie. “This happens to be the same birthday as Adolf Hitler and Elizabeth, Queen of England,” Helke adds, grinning. Bob continues, “The son of Adam Ferrie, my great-great grandfather, Colin Campbell Ferrie, was Hamilton’s first mayor in the 1840s. He died during a cholera outbreak.” 

“I grew up in Toronto and Georgian Bay, and I must have given my parents a bit of a challenge. I remember my mother tying me and my trike up to keep me off the road. By the time I was 12, I joined a group on a university tour and came to Europe by boat. I remember roaming the streets of Paris and even got on the Metro, alone. It was a memorable adventure, especially at that early age.” 

“My mother had spent years helping dad through medical school and then wanted to go into medicine herself, but my father did not like this idea. Because of this, they separated. Mother got her BA but, unfortunately, she died in her early 50s.” Later, son Bob graduated in medicine from the University of Toronto. He worked in surgery and became the chief of urology at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington.

Bob and his first wife summered at his parents’ island at Go Home Bay near Honey Harbour. “I was conceived on the water, so naturally loved being in this element. We explored the area with the catamaran I had built myself. It was the same area that Gordon Lightfoot had travelled in his first boat ‘Sundown’ and others over the years. We sailed across Georgian Bay to Killarney, Wiikwemkoong, the Bruce Peninsula and Parry Sound in just a few days. This exploration piqued my interest in Manitoulin Island.” 

In this 1950 photo, Helke as a child in India, with her mother, her Aya (nursemaid), a visiting dentist (sitting) and their cook (standing, right).

In the 1980s, a decade after he had met and married his second wife, Helke, a tragic accident killed Bob’s 14-year-old son from his first marriage. This catastrophic event changed Bob’s outlook on life. Later, his new area of specialization became EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) psychotherapy, a way of dealing with traumatic events not dependent on psychotropic drugs. Bob became a member of the EMDR Canada Association. He remains certified in EMDR and still works in this field now near Sheguiandah four days a week.

Helke was born on February 5, 1948, to Otto and Hanna Wolff, both theologians and co-founders of Bishop Niemoller’s resistance movement against the Nazis. This was in the university town of Tübingen, Germany. Otto taught at the university there and, in 1937, the couple left for India to work in the Gossner Mission in British India. He was interned by the Allies there as a prisoner of war during WWll in India. During these years, he learned Sanskrit, studied Hinduism and began to write about India. He wrote several books, mainly on Mahatma Gandhi. Hanna, who spoke nine languages, was a lawyer first, then a theologian and lastly a Jungian psychotherapist. They remained there as POWs for seven years, two years longer than the war because they had to wait for a ship to become available to take them back to post-war Germany. After five years, they returned to an independent India with three-year-old Helke. 

India became her home and Helke grew to appreciate the cultural aspects and foods of this ancient country and learned Hindi as her first language. She attended the international American school, Woodstock, in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. After graduation, she joined Zurich University in Switzerland. Her first job in 1968 at 20 was with a publishing company. By 1969, Helke’s parents had returned to Germany and Helke joined Benares Hindu University in what is now called Varanasi, India’s ancient sacred city, on the banks of the Ganges. There she met her future husband.

Helke was dressed in a traditional Tibetan outfit when she first met Bob outside a bank. She asked, “What are you studying here?” Offering clarification, he responded, “I am a visiting doctor, a surgeon, not a student.” As mentioned, it was ‘love at first sight’ for both. “We made a date for the next day,” Helke added. “Even though Bob was a little fearful of some of the inner city, including the pungent smells, the roaming goats and cattle and the masses of people, he did become more comfortable in time.” 

A grand pyramid consisting of Bob, Melanie, Savitri, Arpana, Ashoka, Bryce, Thien, Manu, John, Chinh and Josie, circa 1978.

That first date was a bit strange because Helke took Bob to see the burning ghats, the place where the dead are burned on funeral pyres. The ashes are spread into the Ganges River. Three days after this trial by fire, they were looking for carpets. The couple was wed in Burlington, Ontario, on December 5, 1970, after Bob’s divorce was settled. His three-year old son, John, joined them at the ceremony. “I wore a red velvet dress for the wedding; red is the wedding colour in India and white is exclusively worn by widows and people in mourning. I could not bring myself to wear white.” 

“After settling in Burlington, I was invited to lunch by other doctors’ wives, about 10 in all. Six or seven wives also had been born in Germany before WWII. The event was frosty when they realized I came from parents who had co-founded the resistance movement. I was not popular with many of them, especially when we started adopting orphans from Asia.” The Ferries moved into an 1810 stone farmhouse, some 5,000 square feet in size, on Appleby Line. It was large enough to accommodate their three biological and subsequently their 10 adopted children.

Helke worked for international adoption for about a decade and then went to the University of Toronto when all the kids were in high school or had left home. She studied ancient near eastern and Greek archaeology and earned a master’s degree in paleo-anthropology and prehistoric archaeology from the University of Toronto. Her interests were in the history of disease. Before coming to Manitoulin, she ran Kos Publishing Inc., dedicated to the politics of medicine. 

She has written some books including ‘What Part of No! Don’t They Understand? Rescuing Food and Medicine from Government Abuse: A Manifesto’ and ‘Ending Denial – The Lyme Disease Epidemic, A Canadian Public Health Disaster.’ She published several books by doctors specializing in asthma, environmental medicine, psychiatry, and infertility. The book on Lyme disease helped to change legislation federally in Canada.  

The Ferries became interested in international adoptions in 1971 when the Bangladesh civil war was happening. “When we applied to adopt orphaned children from that war-torn country the Child Welfare director for Ontario was Betty Graham. She blocked any application for international adoption, despite this being explicitly legal in provincial and federal law. For that Stephen Lewis, then the leader of Ontario’s NDP opposition party, caused her to be fired.” 

“I had to go on a hunger strike to show the government I was serious about these adoptions,” Helke said. 

Bob hired a Pinkerton guard to have a witness that Helke was on a hunger strike, which turned out to be a five-day event. Helke was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi who dealt with the British government by hunger strikes. The Toronto Star came up with its own version of the process with the headline, ‘Doctor hires security guard to stop wife from eating.’ The hunger strike was successful. Ontario policy came in line with the existing laws and eventually many families in Canada adopted from abroad. Today, about 1,000 such adoptions occur in Canada annually and are co-ordinated by Foreign Affairs. 

In 1979 an amendment was passed to the Child Welfare Act which made bringing into Ontario orphans illegal if conducted by a private agency; this law affected only us as we ran the only international adoption agency, the Kuan Yin Foundation, at that time in Ontario. The Kuan Yin Foundation was suddenly illegal and local Children’s Aid Societies had no programs for international adoption. A colleague in Michigan came to the rescue. He was the head of the state’s child welfare department. He appointed Helke as part of the Michigan State Department for Child Welfare. This status allowed her to complete all pending adoptions from orphanages in the courts in India and get them to their adoptive parents in the West. Kuan Yin Foundation specialized in getting handicapped orphans, usually afflicted by polio, in those days. 

In addition to son John, from Bob’s first marriage and the two children born to Helke, they adopted several kids, most of them older at the time they joined the family. Their daughter Savitri was a two-pound baby when she came to their attention in Bangladesh following the independence war there in 1971. She and Ashoka, a boy, four pounds at birth, also came from Bangladesh. Thien, then six, was handicapped by polio. He and Chinh, aged seven, both came from Vietnam during the last phase of the Vietnam War. Michael, 12, came from an orphanage in India. 

The wedding day in all its grand splendour.

Manu, 14, also a boy, had been abandoned to Mother Theresa’s orphanage in Calcutta. He had a heart condition since birth and died at age 23. Josie, 14, an Afro-Canadian, was afflicted by fetal alcohol syndrome. She was featured in Helen Allan’s Today’s Child weekly Toronto Star column. She died in her 50s. “We spread her ashes near the Mississagi Lighthouse.” Rhett, 14, was also from a Canadian group home. Debbie, 18, now in Kitchener, works for the Ontario government. The last two children were also from India, Melanie, four, had autism and Arpana, four, had aplastic anemia from DDT used on crops, to which she was exposed as a baby. She died at the age of 15 in Burlington.

Unfortunately, one of the grandchildren became infected with Lyme disease in India and this was transferred to Helke and Bob. Helke explains: “It is an ancient disease that can be found in the bones of a 50,000-year-old human fossil and even in several million-year-old dinosaur fossils.” MP Elizabeth May tabled and succeeded in passing a federal bill in 2014 mandating treatment of the disease in Canada. However, there still are no internationally validated tests available for it here; they are available in the US and Europe.

In the 1920s, penicillin was used to treat Lyme disease. Today, penicillin rarely works for it. “I was sick with Lyme disease four times since 2010,” Helke states. “To date I have been cured four times.”

The Ferries built their Manitoulin cottage overlooking the North Channel near Ten Mile Point in 1986, having already vacationed on the Island every summer since 1979. “Our first family vacation was in Meldrum Bay. We booked the lighthousekeeper’s cabin. A week after arriving there, we discovered that the cabin we had rented was not for rent because it belonged to the Canadian Coastguard. We also found out that all the buildings were slated to be demolished and that many Islanders protested this. Thankfully, the Manitoulin Tourism Association took over and saved the lighthouse and the buildings.”

“The following year, 1980, we came back to Ten Mile Point where we rented cottages for a couple of years. Unfortunately, when we brought our internationally mixed family of many colours the American lady who was co-owner did not feel comfortable with so many ‘coloured’ kids. We moved to Turtle Creek Lodge and later Fred’s Camp.” 

At Turtle Creek, only adults were allowed in the main lodge, but the children soon got permission to enter. “Our daughter Arpana, then 12, who was treated with monthly blood transfusions for her aplastic anemia, approached the owners and said, ‘We don’t want to make trouble. I am going to die soon. I need blood transfusions every four weeks. Please let us use your lodge. We’ll be good.’ The surprised owner responded, ‘Come whenever you like’. The children were very well behaved. On the way up, we had stopped at a McDonald’s where the staff were so impressed with their conduct, they issued gift cards to our entire family for future use.” 

Another summer, Bob and his 14-year-old son John were able to spend some precious time together at Fred’s Camp and do some sailing. Sadly, the young lad died a short while later when he was run over by a gravel truck in Burlington. 

The cottage became an all-season home in 2015. Rainwater comes from two large cement tanks under the house and originally only oil lamps provided light. “We still use rainwater and truck in extra when needed. Our water filtration system looks like it came from Star Wars. I miss the magical oil lamps, but we need computers now. We are totally off the grid, using solar power and propane, and wood, of course. We have never had a television, but we have cell phones, internet and electricity. Bob likes to listen to classical music on YouTube. Our library was once composed of 11,000 volumes and after we moved here permanently, it was reduced to about 5,000. We read a lot. We do watch some movies on my computer screen.”

Helke spent 25 years writing articles on the politics of medicine, mostly for ‘Vitality’ magazine. Some of her articles are collected in a book ‘Dispatches from the War Zone of Environmental Health’ (Kos 2004). She wrote mostly about cancer, environmental causes of neurological diseases such as from mercury amalgam tooth fillings now mandated through the World Health Organization to be finally outlawed within about five years.

The great-grandchildren have blessed Helke and Bob’s lives.

“I had myasthenia gravis (MG), but after the amalgams were removed, the MG was gone within a year. The thymus gland plays an important role in recovery. I have spoken to the MG Association about my experience.”

After raising their own large family, Bob and Helke also raised three grandchildren, “our second family.” The grandchildren have spent almost all their summers on Manitoulin since birth. “Our favourite spots for hikes and picnics are the Mississagi Lighthouse and Misery Bay.” 

Today, Bob and Helke live in their expanded cottage near Ten Mile Point with their menagerie: a golden retriever, a Rottweiler-Sher Pei mix with three legs who gets around amazingly well, four cats, many visiting racoons, sundry squirrels and birds on their back deck. “Our tripod dog was to be euthanized after her car accident, but the vet cut off the destroyed leg. We found out about her, so she became a part of our family.”

“Regrets? Just that we didn’t come to Manitoulin sooner. Important events? Meeting Helke and training in EMDR,” Bob shares. “Most major mental disorders seem to be rooted in trauma. I enjoy working on Manitoulin. There are so many interesting people here.” 

“Our strengths? Dogged determination. I feel passionate about the topics for which we advocated, with some success,” Helke adds. After briefly considering the topic, she continues, a twinkle in her eye, “Blind obedience is the only crime.” Bob interjects, grinning, “Stubbornness helps with that initiative. As for me, trauma-focused psychotherapy is my main interest now.” 

“What would we still like to do? See our great-grandchildren grow up and write my autobiography,” Helke offers. Bob continues, “I would like to learn more about treatment that works for avoidance in trauma therapy.” 

“What are we most proud of? Never giving up and doing what we did with enthusiasm. We also wanted to help those children, who we knew were dying, to leave peacefully. Little Arpana died laughing.” Four of the Ferrie children died in the 80s and 90s. “What are we most afraid of?” Bob hesitates, then whispers, “You dying before me.”

“People who have inspired us?” Bob resumes, “Stephen Batchelor and his book ‘After Buddhism’ which is a vision of Buddhism for our age. (Yale University Press 2018). Carl Jung, whose work we studied for many years, and Francine Shapiro, the American psychologist who developed EMDR. One of Helke’s heroines is Beverly McLaughlin, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. She wrote several books about human rights issues, especially First Nations rights.”

Their legacy? Published books for Helke, and for Bob “the EMDR work will hopefully leave a legacy of less pain in the minds of patients and their children, and then their children.”

“Manitoulin is where we have come home,” both say. “I enjoyed biking and sailing here” adds Bob. “Helke does not like sailing, but that causes no problems because the kids and grandkids do like this sport. Hiking on the Island has always been fun for both of us. Greg’s Nevin’s Schoolhouse Restaurant and GG’s in Evansville are our favourite dining places. Life is good to us on the Island.”