Dr. Charles Drake: Medical Miracleworker

This year marks my 20th anniversary of getting into the corporate communications business. But before making the leap into the corporate world, I did work as a journalist for a few months. I was going through some old things recently and found this article, which was the first freelance story I had published after getting my journalism degree. It was published 20 years ago this week in a short-lived newspaper called The Forest City News, based in London, Ontario. It tells the story of a great Canadian who passed away in 1998. And two decades and millions of words later, it's probably my favourite thing I've written to-date... 

The Forest City News   May 25 – May 31, 1994

Dr. Charles Drake

Medical Miracleworker

by Warren Weeks

 Dr. Charles Drake

Dr. Charles Drake

Toronto General Hospital. 1944. A young Charles Drake is sharing an elevator with Kenneth McKenzie, Canada’s first neurosurgeon. Drake, fresh from The University of Western Ontario, is about to leave for his training in the infantry, having just completed the last rotation of his internship. As the two step off the elevator, McKenzie gestures to Drake and asks if he has enjoyed his time at the hospital and if he is interested in pursuing a career in neurosurgery. Drake answers “yessir” to both questions. “Well, if you’re still interested after the war, come back and see me,” the great surgeon said to his pupil. After that brief conversation, Charles Drake knew exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Half a century later, the 73-year-old Dr. Drake, sitting in a large chair in his seventh floor office in University Hospital, reflects on the path that brought him there. While fielding questions, he gazes out the window thoughtfully, gently massaging the bowl of his pipe. His secretary, Dorothy McManus, is typing busily in a corner of the office. A small, pleasant woman, she has helped organize his affairs for the past 21 years.

On his massive desk, three books are prominent: Webster’s English Dictionary, The Rules of Golf and the book that he is currently working on, a compilation of his life’s work on basilar aneurysms of the brain. It is that book and the occasional round of golf that has taken up much of his time since he stopped performing surgery two years ago.

On Friday, May 27, this world-renowned neurosurgeon will be inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame at a $100-a-plate dinner at the London Convention Centre. City council recently endorsed the hall of fame project by contributing $100,000 as a one-time show of support. Dr. Drake is one of 10 Canadians representing medical milestones who will be honoured at the dinner.

To realize the magnitude of Dr. Drake’s contribution to Canada’s medical landscape, one need only hear a few of the names of the other nominees, names like Sir Frederick Banting and Charles Best, the co-discoverers of insulin. So prestigious and comprehensive is the hall’s inaugural list, that only three of its 10 nominees remain alive today.

Dr. Drake is a quiet, modest man who readily admits that he would prefer not to talk about himself or his accomplishments. Despite his intensely private manner, however, the man exudes a sense of warmth and confidence that is inspiring. There is no way anyone could possibly tell, simply by talking to the man with the silver-grey hair, the twinkling eyes and the gruff voice, that he was a pioneer in the field of repairing aneurysms in the brain. But the procedure that most surgeons once considered an impossibility, Dr. Drake saw as a challenge.

Charles George Drake was born in Windsor, Ontario in 1920. His father died three months before he was born, the victim of a killer strain of influenza that was going around at the time. Two aunts raised him throughout the dark and trying days of the Depression, and although he says there was always food on the table, times were tough and there was really no money to speak of. As a boy, he earned his spending money doing odd jobs around the neighbourhood, like cleaning out the furnace for the lawyer who lived next door. Once he had saved up enough pennies, he would often watch the Tigers play baseball over in Detroit. The Tigers’ second baseman Charlie Garringer was one of his boyhood heroes. And it was in those same days that the hands of the future surgeon got their first real training, building model airplanes.

The doctor’s fascination with flight would only grow with time. The skies seemed to be calling to him from a tender age and he eventually got his pilot’s license, often flying his own airplane to and from out-of-town speaking engagements. One of his colleagues recounts a humourous tale that has become folklore around the halls of University Hospital. On one occasion, Dr. Drake, who had been giving a lecture in the United States, flew back to London on a commercial airliner, only to realize that he had unwittingly left his own plane back at the airport of the American city. It is precisely this example of apparent absent-mindedness, his colleague says, that underlines Dr. Drake’s total dedication to his work. “He had so much on his mind and devoted so much thought to his work that one of the common things simply passed by.”

Only one-fifth of all brain aneurysms are basilar, that is, occurring just in front of the brain stem. It was Dr. Drake who, in 1958, devised a method of getting to this extremely delicate area by entering in front of and above the ear. He was also the first to discover the importance of preserving the tiny blood vessels, called perforators, around the aneurysm, long before the days of CAT scans, which would have made such a discovery much easier. Never one to settle for the status quo, Dr. Drake also collaborated with an engineer to improve the design of the metal clips surgeons were using at the time to clip the necks of aneurysms. He has performed thousands of operations. His list of degrees, appointments, professorships, accomplishments and awards is seemingly endless. His discoveries and techniques are in use all around the world. In short, it’s probably fair to say Dr. Charles Drake may be as relevant to the field of neurosurgery as Galileo was to the world of astronomy.

Not unlike many others who grew up in Windsor in those days, Charles Drake says he anticipated a lifetime working in one of the automobile factories. It was his biology teacher from Kennedy Collegiate, a man named Fox, who was the first to persuade him to pursue something more after high school. Drake, who fancied himself a football player, opted for Western partly because of the marvelous reputation of its team. He played for Western’s junior squad, the Colts, until a shoulder injury forced him out of the lineup. “I was probably a better hockey player, anyway,” he says.

Contemplating his feelings on his recent nomination to the hall of fame, Dr. Drake puffs patiently on his pipe before putting them into words, a trail of grey smoke rising above his head. “Astonishment…almost to the point of disbelieve,” he says. “It’s a humbling experience when you think of the other people involved.” People like Wilder Penfield, co-founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute, who made major advances in the surgical treatment of epilepsy. And Harold Copp of British Columbia, credited with the discovery of calcitonin. And, of course, Banting and Best, just to name a few.

Anyone who knows Dr. Drake well feels compelled to remark on his unassuming nature. Allyn Taylor, chairman of the hall of fame steering committee, has known Dr. Drake for 20 years. “He is such a quiet and modest man,” Taylor says. “He has tremendous attributes of strength, skill and humanitarianism. I feel nothing but tremendous admiration and respect for him.”

Dr. Stephen Lownie, a neurosurgeon at University Hospital, considers himself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Drake. One of the things he admires most about him is his honesty. “He’s very up front. He doesn’t hesitate to ask something if he doesn’t know,” Lownie says. One might think that a renowned brain surgeon could be intimidated to ask questions of his peers for danger of revealing some area of ignorance. “But in this business,” Dr. Lownie say,” sometimes the most important thing is to ask the right question.” Dr. Drake will be attending a lecture somewhere. The speaker will pause and, suddenly, you’ll hear this voice, usually from the back of the room, ask a question. It will usually be phrased in five words or less and it will strike right to the heart of the matter. It will be the question that everyone else in the room might have been thinking, but was too intimidated to ask. That voice invariably belongs to Charles Drake.

Dr. Drake still remembers the thrill of seeing his first aneurysm under the microscope. “It opened up a whole new surgical world, to see something magnified like that,” he says. Since his first aneurysm surgery in 1958, Dr. Drake has performed operations on patients from all corners of the globe. Perhaps his most famous patient ever was singer Della Reese, who was diagnosed with a bleeding aneurysm after collapsing on the set of The Tonight Show in the late seventies. She was flown to London where Dr. Drake operated on her. Fully recovered, she was able to resume her singing career and returned several years later to do a benefit show for the man who had saved her life.

Walking around his office, Dr. Drake is surrounded by mementos from his life. More than a dozen diplomas and certificates hang from the walls. There are pictures of his family, of his airplane and of him hoisting prized fish in the air. There are also pictures of his teachers. His mentors. One is a black and white photograph of Kenneth McKenzie with a personal message to Charles Drake handwritten beneath it. It is dated 1951. Dr. Drake stands there, surveying the photographs, his hands on his hips and his pipe jutting from his mouth. “These are the men who influenced me,” he says. “Some people call them role models. I call them heroes.”

Ultimately, the same can be said about him.