Fifty years ago, the late Dr. Charles Drake, a world-renowned neurosurgeon, developed a life-saving surgical procedure for aneurysms at the base of the brain. Dr.Steve Lownie reflects on this achievement and on the career of Dr. Drake.


reaching the unreachable

The Order of Canada recognizes
lifetime achievement.

Of the three levels at which this order is awarded, member, officer and companion, companion is awarded for merit of the highest degree. It recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement, especially in service to Canada or to humanity at large.

The late Dr. Charles Drake was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1982, recognized as "one of the best neurosurgeons of our time." In 1998, the level of this honour was elevated, to that of companion. "One of the world's most distinguished neurosurgeons, he has established a reputation for excellence and innovation that is unparalleled. An international authority on brain aneurysms, he has pushed medical boundaries by finding ways to operate on areas of the brain that were previously considered unreachable," the honour read.

This year, London Health Sciences Centre marks the 50th anniversary of a world first in neurosurgery by one of its most highly renowned medical leaders. It was in 1958 that Dr. Charles Drake developed a surgical procedure for aneurysms at the base of the brain, called basilar aneurysms. Reflecting on this achievement, Dr. Steve Lownie, Co-Chair and Co-Chief of Neurosurgery, says boldness, motivated by compassion, was the driving force for this innovation. After four hemorrhages, the patient was running out of options, and facing near-certain death. Dr. Drake offered the patient the opportunity to try a new live-saving approach. It was the trust that Dr. Drake took great care to earn with his patient that helped the patient to choose a chance at life.

Was Dr. Drake a great surgeon and technical master? "That was not how he saw himself in comparison to others," says Dr. Lownie. "For Dr. Drake, the head and the heart were more important than the hands. He was totally open and honest with his patients. For this, he earned their trust."

Dr. Drake's career developed in the post-World War II era, before the advent of the advanced diagnostic technologies available to the neurosurgeon today. This made it difficult to determine when to operate, says Dr. Lownie, and as a result, other approaches were important.

"Dr. Drake became a very good neurologist," says Dr. Lownie. "He was very well respected by his colleagues who were not surgeons."

Dr. Drake was widely known in the hospital for his phenomenal work ethic, says Dr. Lownie. Neurosurgery operations are epic events, lasting many hours and requiring incredible stamina. Despite this, there was always time for personal interaction with the patient.

Dr. Lownie has long reflected on the qualities Dr. Drake brought to his work. One of these was integrity.

"‘You have to be so honest that it hurts,' he would tell us. He was always honest if something went wrong. This was his way of establishing trust."

Another quality was humility. "He never referred to himself as Dr. Drake," remembers Dr. Lownie. "He would walk into a room and say, ‘I'm Drake.'"

Making time for academic pursuits and keeping up to date contributed to Dr. Drake's success as an innovator. "He was not afraid to try something new, and if something new was developed elsewhere, he would bring it here." Dr. Drake, as editor of the Journal of Neurosurgery held a central role in his field.

Finally, "He was able to bring out the best in people. He had a way of helping people to do better than they'd ever done before, but by themselves."

Today, a neurosurgeon commonly accessesa basilar aneurysm by means of a catheter through the femoral artery. When this approach is not possible and surgery is indicated, the technique pioneered by Dr. Drake is the way to proceed.

The legacy of Dr. Drake is honoured at LHSC's University Hospital in a memorial garden, and a portrait that hangs outside of Auditorium A, a meeting place for medical education. In his own office, Dr. Lownie has a photograph of Dr. Drake positioned on an angle, so as to look over the entire room.

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