Gabe Abotossaway gets breakthrough surgery

by Alicia McCutcheon
SUDBURY—The photo of a smiling, bright-eyed Gabe Abotossaway with his parents, Beverly and Max Abotossaway, in his room in the intensive care unit (ICU) at the Sudbury Regional Hospital (SRH) says it all—his groundbreaking surgery went well and Gabe’s spirits are high.

Last Thursday, the 20-year-old underwent surgery to place a NeuRx Diaphragm Pacing System into his chest, which will eventually enable Gabe to breathe without the assistance of a ventilator.

The young man has been in hospital since May 21 when he was involved in a head-on collision on Highway 69, near Pickerel River, that saw him airlifted to hospital in Sudbury, then Toronto. After numerous surgeries, Gabe was again sent back to Sudbury where he remains in the ICU. It was here that doctors discovered that the right side of Gabe’s diaphragm was not working at all—serious trouble if he was to clear the pneumonia that had been plaguing him since being placed on a ventilator.

Dr. Stephan Sauve at the SRH did some research and discovered the innovative new pacing system that had only been performed on eight patients in Canada and all by one doctor—Dr. Raymond Onders of the Case Medical Centre in Cleveland.

When approached, Dr. Onders agreed to come to Sudbury to oversee the surgery for just the cost of his flight and hotel. The cost of the surgery itself, upwards of $35,000 US, would have to be covered, however, with the money fronted by the Abotossaway’s community of Aundeck Omni Kaning until other means could be determined.

“His surgery started at about 9 am on Thursday and we didn’t get to see him until close to 1 pm,” said his mother, Beverly Abotossaway on Monday. “Those few hours seemed like forever.”

She said that Dr. Onders “was all smiles” when he met with the family following the procedure and told them it went as well as was expected, she explained.

The device, about the size of an iPhone, sends electric impulses to Gabe’s diaphragm, causing it to inflate and deflate, and will eventually allow him to get off the ventilator. The procedure, performed by Sudbury surgeons Dr. John Snider and Dr. Fabio Luison, and overseen by Dr. Onders, was done laparoscopically with a small television-like camera.

After the surgery, at around 2 pm, the doctors calibrated the pacemaker. “It was a bit of a painful process for Gabe, but eventually he won’t even feel it,” Gabe’s mother explained.

“The next day,” she continued, “they paced him for about five minutes, with some tweaking involved, and did it every hour for about five minutes. The second day, they paced him for 10 minutes at a higher amperage. He’s now up to 15 minutes at an even higher amperage.”

“It’s a lot of work for him and it’s exhausting,” Ms. Abotossaway continued, explaining that the left side of his diaphragm needs to have its muscle redeveloped after two months of not working.

She said doctors did not know how long it would take for Gabe to get accustomed to the pacemaker, as it all depended on how his body tolerates it, but were hoping for close to two months. “He still might have to require night time ventilation,” Ms. Abotossaway said.

“Dr. Onders was a very aggressive surgeon,” she said, noting that the hospital was gently chided for not having Gabe eating solid foods yet, and not having him on a different kind of tracheal tube—one that can allow for speech and food.

“We’re hoping he can be eating soon and he’s looking forward to that,” she said. “He said the first thing he wanted was McDonald’s fries and a Pepsi,” she chuckled, noting that he cannot smell or taste now, but those senses will come back.

Ms. Abotossaway said that the media coverage was “quite overwhelming” but said that Gabe wanted to get the word out about the device. He’s always been outgoing, so he didn’t mind the attention.”

“He knows he has a lot of work to do yet and he’s committed,” she continued.

The next step is for Gabe to be “fully paced.”

He’s also looking forward to the conversation he will soon be able to have with family and friends. “Our conversations are currently like ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but soon he’ll be the one doing all the talking and all we’ll get to do is nod every now and then.”

“People shouldn’t be afraid to come by and visit him,” Ms. Abotossaway encouraged. “The more encouragement he gets from other people is good for his health too. When I leave him now, I’m not so apprehensive. I feel that I don’t have to be at the hospital 100 percent of the time, I’m taking a little time for myself too, but I’m not leaving until he comes home, even if that means having to move to Toronto with him.”

“I love both my boys very much and Wes has been a big part of Gabe’s recovery,” she continued. “We’ve become a stronger family unit and it will continue to stay that way.”

The Abotossaway family has set up a trust account at TD Canada Trust. Those wishing to donate to cover the costs involved with Gabe’s hospital stay and to contribute to the cost of his life-saving surgery and do so by dropping by any TD Canada Trust and asking to donate to the Gabe Abotossaway Trust Fund.