Lifesaving surgery planned for youthful accident victim

by Alicia McCutcheon

SUDBURY—On a balmy Sunday afternoon this past weekend, the support of members of the Aundeck Omni Kaning (AOK) First Nation reverberated through the Sudbury Regional Hospital as they arrived en masse to show their love and care as one of their own battles through a catastrophic injury in the intensive care unit upstairs in that very hospital.

On Monday, Gabriel Abotossaway, or Gabe as he is usually called, turned 20-years-old in his room of the ICU. Wanting to help him celebrate, a busload of eager supporters headed to Sudbury the day before, complete with banners and balloons, to wish the young man a happy birthday. Lining the far side of Paris Street, over 50 well-wishers raised banners spelling out ‘Happy Birthday Gabe! We love you!’, sending balloons into sunny skies. Gabe, all the while, watched from his window with the help of his parents and nursing staff, preparing to make his first trip outside in 50 days to briefly bask in the warmth of the sun and in the love of his family and friends.

Gabe is considered a C4-5 quadriplegic, meaning he can move his head and shrug his shoulders, but not any of his limbs, and it’s been a rough battle to date. The injuries he received in a car accident have also caused the removal of his spleen, broken legs and ribs, injury to his liver, heart failure and, most pressing right now, the failure to breathe without the assistance of a ventilator. Patients on long-term ventilation often face the risk of pneumonia and Gabe was no different. Pneumonia eventually settled into his chest and he has not been able to shake it. Doctors have explained to the family that unless Gabe gets off the ventilator, fighting infection will remain a very hard task. Coupled with this was the discovery that the left side of his diaphragm was not functioning at all, which came after doctors, trying to wean him off the ventilator, realized this was causing Gabe exhaustion.

Research by Dr. Stephan Sauve at the Sudbury Regional Hospital revealed an innovative new treatment that is pending approval in Canada. A diaphragmatic pacing system would stimulate the diaphragm the same way a pacemaker for a heart would, sending impulses to inflate and deflate.

The cost for this device is $35,000 US and Dr. R. Onders, from Case Western Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, has agreed to perform the surgery in Sudbury for just the cost of his flights and hotel. The family is hoping their insurance company will pull through, but the community is ready to rally in a hurry to raise the funds if needed.

Gabe’s mom, Beverly Abotossaway, said that July 21 may be the date of the big surgery and the family has their hopes high.

On May 21, the Seneca College student was heading to his house in Barrie before traveling up the Bruce Peninsula to Tobermory where a doctor was set to perform a bone density test needed to get into the underwater skills program he was so looking forward to. While heading south on a straight stretch of Highway 69 near Pickerel River, Gabe’s car crossed into oncoming traffic, hitting a pickup truck head-on. His father, Max Abotossaway, explained that Gabe doesn’t remember what happened and the cause of the accident remains a mystery.

His parents and younger brother were heading home from a funeral in Georgetown when they received a phone call from the OPP, telling them their son had been in an accident and was being airlifted to Sudbury.

“It took them an hour to get him out of the car,” Mr. Abotossaway explained.

The family had the double whammy of needing to race home to get to Gabe while knowing the highway was closed because of that same accident. Members of the North Bay and Powassan detachments of the OPP came to the aid of Ms. Abotossaway, racing her to the Sudbury General as fast as they could.

When she arrived at the hospital, Gabe was undergoing surgery to stabilize him before being airlifted once again to St. Michael’s hospital in Toronto where he remained until two weeks ago before being sent back to Sudbury.

“They told me that he had a neck injury and at that time, he was able to move certain parts of his body like his hands and his feet,” Ms. Abotossaway explained. “When we were in Toronto, his heart stopped on four occasions and he had to have a temporary pacemaker put in. He’s had countless procedures and four surgeries.”

The parents explained that even moving Gabe would send his heart rate and blood pressure plummeting. “It was so frightening and scary,” she said. “We would just hold our breath.”

While in Toronto the doctors also discovered that Gabe was bleeding down his spinal cord, which means that as long as blood is in the way, the spinal cord has no room to swell which then causes a crushing effect. “There’s no going back from that,” explained Mr. Abotossaway. “It’s not like the spinal cord can regenerate itself.”

If the surgery goes ahead later this month, Gabe would be the first patient in Northern Ontario to have this procedure as well as only one of nine in Canada.

“Time is of the essence for Gabe—he needs this to save his life right now,” explained Mr. Abotossaway.

“Gabe is fighting so hard and looking forward to the future, no matter what it is,” added his mom, wiping tears from her eyes as she spoke. “We are so thankful for all the support from our family, friends and community. We also thank the emergency personnel at the accident scene, Sudbury Regional health care team, St. Michael’s trauma team and nurses and especially family, friends, AOK and the Manitoulin Island community for the thoughts and continued prayers as he still has a few hurdles to overcome to begin his rehabilitation. Gabe is really looking forward to coming back to Manitoulin.”

Once out of the ICU, the family hopes to get Gabe to the Lyndhurst Centre—a part of Toronto Rehab—with its mission to “develop solutions for people living with the consequences of illness, injury and aging through excellence, innovation and the integration of discovery and care.”

The family explained that in the beginning, Gabe was obviously depressed and although he can’t speak because of the tracheotomy—he mouths words, can shake is head for yes and no and points to the alphabet with a long q-tip-like stick in his mouth—it was evident through his eyes. He has since rallied with a more positive outlook, as he knows it’s crucial for his life, they said.

Gabe will also always run the risk of blood clots and will probably be on blood thinners for the rest of his life, his dad said. Doctors discovered a clot on his abdomen and in the artery between his liver and heart. He will also always run the risk on infection since his spleen has been removed—the organ responsible for the destruction and recycling of old red-blood cells.

As the crowd gathered in front of the hospital entrance downstairs, they caused quite a stir in the busy hustle and bustle of the lobby where people stopped to pay attention as the group placed their banners against the window, readying themselves for Gabe’s arrival.

As staff and family wheeled Gabe out into the hot summer air, the well-wishers sang him a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ with plenty of cheers and whistles too. Gabe mouthed a “thank you” to the group as they took turns wishing him a happy birthday and sharing words of encouragement.

“You’ll be home soon, baby, you’ll be home soon!” one woman shouted out. Gabe’s eyes sought her out and he nodded a slow, sure nod.