Like an iceberg, 1997 cont.: “Brain surgery in POV”
As I continued to work in the North, I often reported on stories that I heard for years afterwards, again and again — Arctic versions of those so-called urban legends about unbelievable events in cities far to the south.
The facts related by my stories that took place in the North would remain essentially correct, but usually my byline disappeared when the stories were cited.
For example, there was that story about brain surgery performed with a hand drill in a remote Arctic community.
But this is exactly what took place on July 24, 1997, when Luc Larouche underwent emergency brain surgery at Puvirnituq’s Inuulitsivik hospital in Nunavik, not long after he received a blow from a stone on the right side of his head.
His wife’s angry lover allegedly threw the stone at Larouche. And when Larouche reported the incident to the police, he collapsed at the police station.
Dr. Roman Andrusiak, a family physician at Inuulitsivik, ended up performing brain surgery on Larouche. The surgery, the first of its kind ever performed in northern Quebec — or anywhere else in the Canadian Arctic, as far as I have ever heard since — was accomplished with an ordinary, battery-operated hand drill.
“I’m very happy about the performance of the doctors,” Larouche told me a couple of days after the surgery.
I had called his room at the Montreal General Hospital, and felt shock when Larouche answered the telephone himself.
“They did everything to save me,” Larouche said. “They didn’t have the proper equipment, but they did what they could.”
Andrusiak later told me what happened after Larouche arrived at Inuulitsivik.
When Andrusiak first examined Larouche, the hospital’s director of personnel, he found his patient’s condition was relatively stable. So, plans were quickly made to medevac Larouche out.
“I called the neurosurgeon, and he said to ship him down to Montreal,” Andrusiak said.
But not long afterwards, everything changed: The pupil of Larouche’s left eye began to expand, “a sign of impending doom,” according to the doctor.
The stone’s impact had broken an artery that was spilling blood into Larouche’s skull. And brain damage — or even death — can quickly result when the brain is under this kind of extreme pressure.
So, here’s what happened next. With no surgical equipment handy, Andrusiak and a medical technician picked out a quarter-inch drill bit for the handheld drill, and sterilize it.
Andrusiak, who was about to perform brain surgery, had only assisted at a couple of caesarians during his residency. But an emergency operation, he said, was the best option, if Larouche was to survive at all.
“It’s crazy,” Andrusiak said. “But I felt that this was the logical alternative. I went by instinct.”
Midway during the operation, a neurologist from the Montreal General Hospital called, and, drill in hand, Andrusiak briefly consulted with him.
The emergency room, where the impromptu operation took place, was filled with hospital staff, one of whom held Andrusiak’s elbow steady as he drilled delicately through Larouche’s skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. Another held Larouche’s head to make sure that it stayed in place when pieces of his skull had to be forcibly pulled off.
“I never breathed a sigh of relief,” said the doctor. “That is, until he [Larouche] was transferred on to a Challenger [jet] in Kuujjuaraapik. The pressure was gone, but he still had a gaping wound on the side of his head. It was a spectacular transfer.”
Overall, the experience was a positive one for Andrusiak.
“Most of the time you don’t get to make a difference. Sometimes you just watch people suffer,” he said.
“In medicine, there is so much to learn. One time you succeed, the next time you may flop. You have to stay on your toes.”
Andrusiak went on to practice in Montreal — but Larouche, when I met him 15 years after his brain surgery, was still living in Nunavik, in Kuujjuaq, where he worked at Tulattavik Health Centre.
When I ran into him on a flight from Montreal to Kuujjuaq, I recognized him instantly: he hadn’t changed at all despite the passage of time and the brain surgery many years earlier.
As for the effects of that emergency operation? Not many, Larouche said — and he said he was still grateful with how everything turned out.
The next instalment of Like an iceberg goes live May 12.
You can read earlier instalments here:
Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic
Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.
Like an iceberg, 1991…more
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark”
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”
Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”
Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”
Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”
Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”
Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”
Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”
Like an iceberg, 1995, cont. “Secrets”
Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”
Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Working together”
Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “At the edge of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1996, more “At the edge of the world”
Like an iceberg, 1996, cont. “Choices”
Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq”
Like an iceberg, 1997, more “Qaggiq”
Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq” cont.
Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Qaggiq and hockey”