Bill Lougheed: a legacy of brains, boats, and benevolence!

There he sat, a short, round-faced, pleasant young man, hunched over the dining room table, various strips of plasticene in hand. To his right, his wife’s sewing kit, threads, needles, scissors etc. To his left, an xray of a brain. With painstaking patience, this young surgeon recreated that brain, blood vessels, arteries, tissue et al. Deliberately, he tested needle entry angles, complexities of reach and retrieval.

With the ‘test’ over, he left the house for Toronto General Hospital, and entered his operating theatre to pioneer yet again micro neurosurgery on a patient facing death.

When Dr. Bill passed away at his home in Barrie this fall, he left a legacy larger than his own life. In the wake of his professional career thrive some of the country’s finest neurosurgeons. His legacy? First, surgeon. Then, teacher of medical residents with a passion for concentrated, stressful, challenging medical experience. Then, researcher. Then, publisher of medical papers which shifted the world of neuro surgery, building on the disciplines of early mentors, and pushing the practice of neurosurgery to a new, world, height.

Strategic among excellent teachers is the ability to stand back and let students learn. Even in life-and-death operating room experiences, Dr. Bill had the ability to “navigate residents through the most complex neurosurgical procedures with heroic patience” and achieve the impossible: a positive outcome, and a medical resident’s pride of achievement intact.

Dr. Max Findlay is one of Dr. Bill’s grateful students whose faces light up at the sound of the name of their mentor: Dr. Bill Lougheed. The country’s (and some around the world) medical geniuses pay tribute to the man with the growly voice, the unique Operating Room workboots, the ability to relate a procedure involving minute operations on the brain or the building of a boat. Bill’s kids grew up watching their father ‘operate’ on the Christmas turkey. Precision, instruction–doled out with humour and candor–were the trademark style of the man whose life work has saved thousands of lives.

From Canada’s first neurosurgeon, Dr. K.G. McKenzie, Bill acquired a flair for technical aspects and decided to pursue research into the blood vessels of the brain, disorders that his mentor, Dr. Harry Botterell, considered solvable. Consider his firsts: Canada’s first (and one of the world’s first) neurosurgeon to use the microscope in the operating theatre; designer of the world’s innovative, life-saving, aneurysm clip; performer of the world’s first long-vein artery bypass for the brain, and on and on. During his lifetime he became, according to Dr. Findlay, a neurosurgical superstar.

Bill, the son and brother and husband of doctors, thought like an engineer. He’d solve a problem with a patient by testing, and looking ahead rather than looking back at what hadn’t worked before.

In his lifetime he managed to skirt around the frustrating limitations of hospital and university administration to protect his time to do what mattered most: his work, his patients, his residents, his family. A man with several ‘communities’ Bill balanced, often precariously, the needs of a vibrant neurosurgical practice, his incredibly demanding operating schedule, his teaching position which enabled him to pass on processes, a cottage community where his love of boats could be plied with full cooperation of his family.

A visionary, for sure. We all know how popular kayaks are today, in 2004. In 1934, at age 11, Bill built his first kayak, a well crafted, tippy affair that challenged the balance of anyone who ever used it. Determined to build a ‘punt’ from a single sheet of marine plywood, Bill was the visionary who built an 8′ boat for each of his grandchildren as they arrived. By the time each was three, they were rowing green or yellow punts, with one, or two friends, all life-jacketed on board. They would connect up and down the waters of Georgian Bay, calling on their friends as awestruck parents looked on.

He believed that potential surgeons should be graded as stringently on their woodworking as they were on science. He used the same approach in his remarkable garage as he used in his research labs. First, make a model. Then test it. Really test it. Rebuild it. Retest it. Don’t use the marine mahoghany until you’re sure it’s going to work.

Bill Lougheed was a man with a respect for people at every level and walk of life. He respected his operating room nurses as much as his surgical residents. He gave the same attention to the operator of the marina where he kept his boat as he did to the head of ‘his’ hospital. He paid his dues. He expected others to do the same.

Bill met his wife, Grace Cruikshank, in medical school and while Grace concentrated on his career and their family of five, she remained a force behind his work that enhanced his ability to reach for the highest branch. Together they were impulsive, creative, full of humour, and full of forgiveness. When Bill retired in 1991, he and Grace moved to Barrie to be near children and grandchildren. It was here that Grace died in 1995. And in the same living room, as the sailboats plied the bay outside Bill’s front window, he took his own leave on the last day of September. When a doctor is dying, the challenges facing the family are enormous… the doctor knows what’s happening to his body, long before the kids know. It becomes a question of who’s leading whom?

Bill’s kids celebrated his life with a community that was as broad as it was esteemed. Lots of medical heroes, from Toronto General, University of Toronto, Western Hospital affiliations. Lots of medical colleagues from his cottage community at Go Home Bay. Lots of now middle-aged people who frollicked at the Lougheed cottage, playing pranks they’d learned from the master prank-player! Lots of the retired fellows who gathered for coffee and breakfast at East End Variety, guys Bill affectionately dubbed “The Liars Club.” People who are alive today because of the work of this man. His later life partner, Margot Mackay, professor of biomedical communications at U of T.

It takes great patience to sit still, very still in a chair and wait, wait, wait for the animals to come out to play. Dr. Bill was as thorough in his later-life hobbies as he was in building boats and redefining neurosurgery.

He waited. Peanut a yard away. A foot away. On his shoe. On the arm of his lawn chair. To his hand. To his shoulder. The peanut in his pocket. Will they come in? If I make a tiny hole, shore it up around the screen, then maybe they’ll come in to the porch. Ah, they will. Will they eat from my hand in the porch? Ah, they will. Will they come into the living room? Yes, that too.

Patiently, Dr. Bill created in his retirement a wonderland for squirrels, for bluejays, for cardinals, for tiny finches. They came. They went. His last years were full of the same wonderment of the power of a kind voice and a kind hand. When he passed away, the squirrels were at the height of nestbuilding and nutstoring. They, too, appreciated the remarkable, simple, caring man who took time and patience, for them.

Goodbye, Dr. Bill. And thanks.