After experiencing vision problems, severe headaches, and repeated transient ischemic attacks (TIA’s) –mini-strokes, John Fairchild was diagnosed with a tumour on his pituitary gland. With each TIA being potentially fatal or causing paralysis, and with surgery being high-risk, John began making detailed plans to help his wife carry on without him.

That was until September 2015, when minimally invasive brain surgery at The Ottawa Hospital saved his life.

In 2011, John had been told by a doctor in Edmonton that he had a tumour in his pituitary gland and the operation to remove it was too risky. The doctor advised him to wait several years until the procedure had been improved.

Five years later, John and his wife Suzanne had moved to Ottawa, and he was having regular TIA’s. During these mini strokes, his vision was reduced to seeing through a small hole, and his memory and speech were impaired. The 71-year-old was referred to see Neurosurgeon Dr. Fahad Alkherayf at The Ottawa Hospital. Dr. Alkherayf recommended John undergo the newly available minimally invasive brain surgery. With this technique, his tumour, which was benign, would be removed through his nostrils instead of the traditional more radical and risky surgery, which required opening up his skull.

The benefits of minimally invasive brain surgery

“It is a new field in neurosurgery,” said Dr. Alkherayf, who has advanced minimally invasive brain surgery techniques in recent years. “There are no incisions in the skull, no cut in the skin. Everything is done through the nose.”

This operation is safer with surgery time greatly reduced. It means patients not only spend less time in the operating room, but they go home sooner. They experience less complications and better recovery.

John Fairchild at home following his minimally invasive brain surgery at The Ottawa Hospital.
John Fairchild at home following his surgery

Vision and hope restored

“I believed there was some risk of being blind or dead after the operation, as it was so new,” said John. “I spent two months before the operation, training to carry on being blind. I taught my wife how to use the snow blower and handle the finances.

“When I opened my eyes in the recovery room, I could see a clock on the wall, and I could see the time! I wasn’t blind.”

 — John Fairchild

The Ottawa Hospital is a North American leader in this procedure.

“We have been asked for consultations internationally,” said Dr. Fahad Alkherayf. “It’s a very exciting technique that has definitely improved patient care during these surgeries.”

A bright future

In the year since the operation, John has resumed his active life.

“Thanks to The Ottawa Hospital’s virtuoso surgery team, I am again now in vital good health – curling, skiing, golfing — with excellent vision and no headaches. I am extremely grateful for the extraordinary care I received in the hospital, and wonderful after-care.”

“I am so well now, you’d never know anything was ever wrong with me. I am very proud of the hospital and the medical team. You guys saved my life.”

— John Fairchild

They were born at The Ottawa Hospital on December 22, 2006, three and a half months premature. Rhys was 1 lb 8 oz, his identical twin Cullen was 1 lb 4 oz, brother Liam was 1 lb 10 oz, and his identical twin Daniel was 1 lb 3 oz.

“We knew it was quadruplets when I had the first ultrasound at eight weeks. There were four heart beats,” said Nora Shipton, the boys’ mother. “We had two sets of identical twins born by caesarean section. There was an amazing team of 25 people in the delivery room.”

The boys were born exceptionally early at 26 weeks and two days. Babies born before 35 weeks are considered high risk—their lungs and hearts aren’t fully developed yet.

Specialized Care at The Ottawa Hospital

Liam and Rhys at 2.5 months old
Liam and Rhys at 2.5 months old

When the White quadruplets were admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at The Ottawa Hospital’s General Campus, making sure they kept breathing was critical. Liam didn’t need a tube to open his airway but received oxygen through a nose tube instead. The other three boys, however needed to be intubated (a breathing tube needed to be inserted). On top of breathing problems, Rhys and Liam also had heart surgery to correct faulty heart valves and were operated on the same day.

Sadly, despite every effort brother Cullen passed away on January 16, 2007 and brother Daniel two days later.

“The care that we received at the NICU was beyond excellent. The nurses and the doctors were so caring and attentive and helped us through the roller coaster that all NICU parents ride. We will forever be grateful to them for the love and the care that they gave to all of our babies.”     

– Nora Shipton

A Bittersweet Return Home

Liam spent 88 days and Rhys 98 days in the NICU. It was bittersweet for Nora and Rob when Liam and Rhys finally came home.

Three months after losing two of their sons, Nora and Rob White decided that they wanted to give back; to help support the NICU team who had helped Liam and Rhys survive their early entry into the world. Initially, they were inspired to contribute towards a twin water bed that was needed. The boys were in individual water beds but co-sleeping was proven to help healing. They realized, however that the water bed was a one-time gift and preferred something that would continue to give over time, as a need would arise. Nora’s late father, Ralph Shipton, researched Legacy Endowment Funds, it was just the thing they were looking for. The family then created the Cullen James and Daniel Morgan White Legacy Endowment Fund, which would contribute over the long term to meet the endless needs of the NICU.

The NICU graduates today

Liam and Rhys on the first day of Grade 7.

At 13, the boys are active and busy. They enjoy downhill skiing, swimming and camping. Their grandparents own a farm, so they like to go out on their ATVsdrive the tractors and fish. Rhys is a voracious reader and loves swimming. Liam also enjoys swimming and does horseback riding. Like many children, they struggle in math a little bit. They are happy, healthy boys. 

Running for a Reason

In May 2020, Liam and Rhys are doing something extraordinary for The Ottawa Hospital NICU. They are running 5kms as a family-team in the Ottawa Race Weekend. On top of doing something fun and healthy, they are running to raise money for the NICU and running for their two brothers Cullen and Daniel, in the hope of keeping future families like theirs together. 

Money that is raised through the Cullen James and Daniel Morgan White Legacy Endowment Fund (aka Preemies 4 Preemies), gets put towards things that the babies need.  It may go towards helping purchase a large item like an incubator or a waterbed, which helps maintain a baby’s body temperature when they come out of the incubator, or smaller items like waterless milk bottle warmers, positioning aids, cell phone sterilizers or kangaroo care chairs. The endowment fund was set up in memory of Cullen and Daniel and it will continue to help other families who will need the latest, most innovative care for their preemies. Thanks to the forward thinking of their grandfather, their brothers’ Legacy Endowment Fund can keep on giving into the future. 

A parent’s worst nightmare

14-year-old Spencer’s eye became reddish and tearing for more than a week; and this strange blockage was protruding from his nose. Despite repeated efforts, it would not come out.

That’s when Spencer’s mom, Ellen, knew he needed help and they would ultimately end up in CHEO’s emergency department. Doctors ordered a CT scan. It was around midnight; Ellen recalls when the results came in.

“A gravely concerned looking doctor asked me, ‘Did you know that Spencer has a tumour in his head?’”

It was not the news any parent wants to hear. 

The growth, which was protruding from Spencer’s nose, was biopsied. While benign, that tumour was resulting in the quick deterioration of Spencer’s health. When Ellen asked to see the CT scan, she recalls searching the picture for a grape or golf ball sized image attached to a nose growth.  

“I didn’t see any and asked where it was.  ‘It’s the grey area’, the doctor said.” 

The grey area was over half of his face. 

“I didn’t even want to think about what his face would end up looking like after all the cutting they’d have to do to remove so much material, but I had to ask.” 

The doctor revealed the tumour was larger than any he had ever worked with. It was for that reason and the fact it was reaching up to the floor of the brain, he told Spencer’s parents they couldn’t perform the surgery. 

This type of tumour would need a specialized team of an ear, nose and throat doctor along with a neurosurgeon working together.  Ellen recalls thinking she would take her son anywhere in the country to get the help he needed.

Specialized care at The Ottawa Hospital

However, the specialized care was nearby at The Ottawa Hospital. A highly skilled team would perform minimally invasive surgery and remove the tumour through Spencer’s nose.

Just over a week later, with his condition worsening, Spencer was to be admitted to The Ottawa Hospital. He had another CT, an MRI, and the specialized team was monitoring his optic nerve behind his bulging eye to ensure it wasn’t being severed by the growing tumour.

Two days later Spencer underwent a 4-hour surgery, which helped stop 80% of the blood flow feeding the tumour. The remaining 20% would maintain blood flow to his brain.

The next day the highly skilled team, which included Drs. Fahad Alkherayf and Shaun Kilty performed an eight-hour surgery. With expert precision, and state-of-the-art technology, they would remove the large tumour from Spencer’s face and base layer of the brain. They also rebuilt that layer to prevent the fluids that protect the brain from leaking out.   

This minimally invasive surgery, removing the tumour and rebuilding the layer, was performed through Spencer’s nose by Dr. Alkherayf who has the greatest number of surgical hours of training for this procedure in Canada. 

A Canadian Medical First

In order to rebuild the brain layer, 3D printing technology also aided doctors during the surgery. Ellen says it’s remarkable. “It’s really pretty cool the advancements which have been made to help patients in our community.”  In 2016, The Ottawa Hospital became the first hospital in Canada to have an integrated medical 3D printer.

Ellen says her initial concerns of recovery completely faded thanks to this minimally invasive technique. “It was incredible. Spencer was home again only three days after surgery!” 

When she thinks back to the fear of the initial diagnosis to where Spencer is today, back at school and active, several thoughts comes to mind. 

I was immensely grateful to God and The Ottawa Hospital, and I truly feel that we were in the best hands.”

A bystander only sees neurosurgeon Dr. Adam Sachs wearing large goggles, looking at the air between the two wands he moves back and forth in front of him. What Dr. Sachs sees is a three-dimensional image of a patient’s brain, with its electrical activity superimposed. This isn’t a video game. It’s the cutting-edge of deep brain stimulation and neurosurgery technology.

Wearing virtual reality goggles, Dr. Sachs can view an accurate, computer-generated 3-D image of a patient’s brain with Parkinson’s disease, created using the patient’s own MRIs. The patients’ brain activity recorded from microelectrodes can be visualized in this virtual world. With the two wands, or joysticks, he can move the three-dimensional brain around, seeing it from all angles. He can also remove layers of the brain to look inside at the exact spot where he will place a DBS electrode during deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery. He is hoping to soon use this technology in the operating room.

Dr. Adam Sachs
Neurosurgeon Dr. Adam Sachs is planning to use 3D virtual reality in his deep brain surgery for patients with Parkinson’s.

This medical 3-D virtual reality system was developed at The Ottawa Hospital, and is expected to be the first of its kind in the world to be used for deep brain stimulation surgery. Drs. Justin Sutherland and Daniel La Russa are clinical medical physicists in the hospital’s radiation oncology department. The two used their imaging expertise to develop a virtual reality system that combines a patient’s MRIs and CT scans to create a 3-D image of a patient’s organ or body part to give surgeons a detailed, accurate representation of the surgical area.

Historically, medical virtual reality programs were used by patients mainly for rehabilitation. Patients would wear VR-goggles to help relearn how to move through and cope with different environments. Until recently, the technology wasn’t good enough to create images of organs or tissue that could be used by clinicians in a manner that improves on current practice.

“What we are trying to do in our virtual reality lab is come up with new ways to leverage technology to help doctors and nurses, or any medical professional, do what they do better.  And how better than with 3-D visualization,” said Dr. Sutherland who is also an assistant professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of Radiology. “We think the technology has only reached that point now. We’re now at a place where we want to pursue the avenue of clinicians-as-users.”

“Nowhere else in the world are they using virtual reality in this fashion.”

One Ottawa Hospital surgeon interested in using 3-D virtual reality was Dr. Sachs, who performs deep brain stimulation surgery for people with Parkinson’s. During this procedure, a microelectrode, no wider than a human hair, is implanted into a very specific area of the brain. The microelectrode then records activity from and stimulates that part of the brain and alleviates some of the patient’s symptoms, such as tremors and akinesia or the loss of ability to move their muscles voluntarily. The virtual reality system allows the electrical activity, stimulation effects and the MRI to be visualized together.

“In deep brain stimulation surgery, because the target is very small and in the middle of the brain this leaves the surgeon with the problem of how to visualize the person’s brain to understand the area and where to put the electrode,” said Dr. Sachs.

Dr. Adam Sachs holding 3D virtual reality wands.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Adam Sachs uses virtual reality wands to manipulate a 3D image of the brain.

He said neurosurgeons use MRIs and brain atlases to get a mental image of what the patient’s brain looks like. The problem is these atlases are maps created from many different people’s brains, but each patient’s brain is unique. As well, the brain atlases are only two-dimensional, while the brain is three-dimensional. This makes it difficult to place the microelectrode in the exact spot in the patient’s brain where it will have the best chance of halting or reducing the Parkinson’s tremors.

Dr. Chadwick Boulay, a senior research associate in the neuroscience program, understands the challenges faced by neurosurgeons when implanting an electrode at the optimal position in the brain. When Dr. Boulay learned about the 3-D virtual reality technology being developed at The Ottawa Hospital, he realized the potential this had for increasing the accuracy of deep brain stimulation surgery. He and Dr. Sachs worked with Drs. Sutherland and La Russa to develop a virtual reality program that would enable them to see the patient’s brain in three dimensions.

“This is really exciting,” said Dr. Sachs. “The deep brain stimulation electrodes will be more precisely placed because we’ll be able to integrate accurate images from the patient’s anatomy and visualize it in three dimensions,” said Dr. Sachs.

He anticipates that the resulting precision of the placement of the electrode will improve outcomes for patients with Parkinson’s disease, but this will be confirmed through research. About 15 people undergo deep brain stimulation surgery at The Ottawa Hospital every year.

“We’re excited about working with the Sachs Lab because it is a perfect clinical example of using 3-D visualization to better understand a spatial problem,” said Dr. Sutherland. “In this case, actually seeing a target for deep brain stimulation removes the burden on the surgeons of trying to create a 3-D model in their head.”

Drs. Daniel LaRussa, Justin Sutherland, and Chadwick Boulay
Drs. Daniel LaRussa, Justin Sutherland, and Chadwick Boulay have teamed up to design a 3D virtual reality program for Dr. Adam Sachs’ deep brain stimulation surgery.

Dr. Sutherland foresees that this 3-D virtual reality technology will one day be in every department throughout the hospital. He says the overall system is surprisingly inexpensive, as the computer that runs it and the goggles only cost a few thousand dollars. The possibilities for this technology are endless. He said it has huge potential for education—teaching medical anatomy—and for surgical planning. Dr. Sutherland sees Dr. Sachs’ endorsement of this system as a shining example of how doctors can use this technology to improve what they do.

“Nowhere else in the world are they using virtual reality in this fashion,” said Dr. Sachs.

The Ottawa Hospital is quickly being positioned as leaders in 3-D virtual reality technology and has already gained international attention. Drs. Sutherland and La Russa have given demonstrations and been invited to talk at large medical conferences, and other institutions have contacted them with interest in using this technology.

June 20, 2017, was a day like any other on the construction site, until the 14-inch diamond blade on Adrian Molloy’s power saw jammed in the concrete he was cutting and kicked back into his arm, slicing through to the bone. Though he was not particularly close The Ottawa Hospital’s Trauma Centre at the time, a new 60-minute bypass initiative brought him straight there to an assembled team of trauma experts who were ready for him.

The 40-year-old contractor had been using power saws on the job for 20 years. He was down in a hole cutting concrete when the saw kicked back. He was covered in dust so couldn’t see his arm, but knew he’d hit himself. He grabbed his right arm above the elbow, and his fingers landed on bone. Adrian knew it was a serious injury, and managed to get out of the hole and head to the road for help. His arm was bleeding badly.

“It happened so quickly, I didn’t even know I was injured,” Adrian said.

Adrian Molloy
Contractor Adrian Molloy underwent two four-and-a-half-hour surgeries to repair his partially severed arm.

Quick thinking

At the road, two Hydro One workers were sitting in their truck getting ready to leave. When they saw Adrian, the passenger called 911. The driver jumped out, and quickly took off his belt and tightened it around Adrian’s arm in a tourniquet. He was calm, and kept Adrian talking until the ambulance arrived.

In the ambulance, Adrian heard the paramedics talking with the dispatch.

“I knew they were looking to bypass Kemptville, but didn’t know what was going on,” said Adrian. “I knew my best hope was The Ottawa Hospital, so was happy they said we were heading to the Trauma Centre at the Civic. I was going somewhere where they could handle my injury.”

60-minute bypass initiative

What Adrian didn’t realize was that he was one of the first patients to be part of a quality improvement initiative that the Ottawa Regional Trauma Program was testing in an effort to get patients to trauma care and provide more successful outcomes.

“Adrian was a direct recipient of our 60-minute bypass initiative,” said Mathieu LeBreton, Trauma Coordinator of the Ottawa Regional Trauma Program at The Ottawa Hospital. “Provincially, paramedics have rules that can permit them to bypass local hospitals to get to a lead trauma hospital if they are within 30 minutes of getting to a trauma centre. With the approval of all regional community hospitals, we expanded it to 60 minutes. Much of the literature suggests the sooner a patient receives definitive trauma care, the better.”

Where Adrian was injured was about a 45-minute ambulance drive to the Trauma Centre. Previously, he would’ve had to go to the nearest community hospital. LeBreton said trauma patients who need resuscitation from life-threatening injury need very resource-intensive care. They require more medical staff, access to operating rooms, imaging capabilities, more blood, and other resources that community hospitals do not have in their emergency departments. There is a team of health-care professionals at the Civic Campus specifically trained to deal with trauma situations.

Trauma team assembles

When paramedics notify the Civic Campus Emergency Department that they are bringing in a patient with multiple or life-threatening injuries, a Code 1 Trauma is called over the hospital’s intercom. This alerts the trauma team, which includes trauma surgeons, emergency physicians, nurses, anaesthesiologists, respiratory therapists, and trauma coordinator Mathieu LeBreton, to prepare for the patient’s arrival. A Code 1 Trauma also notifies the blood lab, radiology department, and operating room staff that blood-work, X-Rays, CT scans, and surgery may be needed.

“Sometimes a trauma code comes in without advance notice, and then we’re reacting to it in the moment,” said Kelly Barnett, Clinical Manager of the Trauma Unit. “Everyone has a job, and it’s a code that runs smoothly to diagnose, triage, and save the patient.”

“I’d never been to a hospital injured like this before,” said Adrian. As he lay in the ambulance, his mind raced with concerns. “I asked, ‘Do they know I’m coming? Are they ready for me?’”

Rushed to surgery

The answer was yes. The trauma team was ready and waiting for him when the ambulance arrived. When he was rushed through the emergency room doors, Adrian said he couldn’t believe, “You can get so many people in one room for one patient.” He was in the operating room within 47 minutes from the time he entered the emergency department.

“I knew my best hope was The Ottawa Hospital, so was happy they said we were heading to the Trauma Centre at the Civic. I was going somewhere where they could handle my injury.”

The power saw had cut 75 percent of his right bicep, two arteries and a nerve. In the operating room, surgeons reattached his arm. The four-and-a-half-hour surgery repaired arteries and his severed nerve. He underwent a second four-hour surgery to repair the damaged bicep with a donor muscle in November 2017.

The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus is the adult lead trauma hospital for eastern Ontario. This takes in an area of 1.3 million people that includes Ottawa, stretches west to Pembroke and east to Hawkesbury. People with life-threatening injuries from Gatineau and western Quebec, as well as patients from Baffin Island and eastern Nunavut are brought to the Trauma Centre. Twenty percent of the population it serves lives in a rural area.

The Centre treated 856 trauma cases last year. One hundred and ninety-two of those patients benefited from the extended time guidelines from accident scene to trauma centre, with the average transfer time being 42 minutes.

Trauma care for 1.3 million people

The power saw had cut 75 percent of his right bicep, two arteries and a nerve. In the operating room, surgeons reattached his arm. The four-and-a-half-hour surgery repaired arteries and his severed nerve. He underwent a second four-hour surgery to repair the damaged bicep with a donor muscle in November 2017.

The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus is the adult lead trauma hospital for eastern Ontario. This takes in an area of 1.3 million people that includes Ottawa, stretches west to Pembroke and east to Hawkesbury. People with life-threatening injuries from Gatineau and western Quebec, as well as patients from Baffin Island and eastern Nunavut are brought to the Trauma Centre. Twenty percent of the population it serves lives in a rural area.

The Centre treated 856 trauma cases last year. One hundred and ninety-two of those patients benefited from the extended time guidelines from accident scene to trauma centre, with the average transfer time being 42 minutes.

The eight-bed trauma unit is dedicated to patients who have multiple injuries. This could include head or brain trauma, limb loss, vascular, spinal cord, internal organs, multiple broken bones, broken spine, or neck injuries.

“Patients come into trauma from emerge [emergency department], and once they are stabilized, they then move through the hospital, as soon as possible, in order to get them back home, into rehab, or somewhere they can convalesce,” said Kelly.

Kelly said a patient’s length of stay in the trauma unit can be as short as 24 hours or as long as several months, depending on the severity of the injury and the ability to recover and heal. The health professionals in the Centre plan the patient’s follow up care or work closely with physiotherapy, and rehabilitation services to assess their need for rehabilitation.

“I know we often compare ourselves to similar standards from regional trauma perspectives: other hospitals we benchmark against in standardizing trauma care. We look to hospitals like St. Mikes [St. Michael’s Hospital] in Toronto to see their practices, and share ideas and common goals that we are trying to achieve,” said Kelly.

The Ottawa Hospital is part of the Trauma Association of Canada where members from across the country share vibrant practices about ways to improve patient care.

Hamilton and Kingston also have trauma centres, though The Ottawa Hospital is bigger because of the larger area patients come from.

The Ottawa Hospital has one of the largest trauma centres in the province, with Sunnybrook and St. Michael’s as the two largest. However, both Toronto hospitals cater to a dense urban population. The Ottawa Hospital covers a larger geographical area, so the timing to get patients to the trauma centre from a distance and the reason why the 60-minute bypass initiative is critical.

“What we found is there have been no negative outcomes yet. People like Adrian have benefitted directly from this,” Mathieu said.

Back to work

A year later, Adrian is back on the construction site with full use of his right arm and hand.

“I lost the motion for using a screwdriver. I use it as an excuse to get out of work I don’t like. I use it to my advantage now,” laughed Adrian. “I’m doing everything I was doing before.”

Adrian Molloy with his wife Shelly
Adrian Molloy stands with his wife Shelly outside their home.

Patients don’t need to have a metal halo screwed into their skull when they receive radiation treatment with the CyberKnife. That was one of the appealing factors for neurosurgeon Dr. John Sinclair to bring the radiosurgery robot to The Ottawa Hospital.

With other radiosurgery, patients with brain tumours had to have their head held perfectly still during treatment. A metal frame or “halo” was screwed into their skull and then fastened to the table they’d lie on for treatment.

However, patients do not need to be held still when receiving CyberKnife radiosurgery. The robot uses x-rays and complex precision software to accurately track the tumour. It gives a high dose of radiation to the precise location of the brain tumour while the patient, who is fitted with a custom-made plastic mask, lies on the table.

“CyberKnife has an advantage over regular radiation because it is so much more accurate; its precision is less than a millimetre,” said Dr. Sinclair, Director of Cerebrovascular Surgery at The Ottawa Hospital. “You can give very high doses of radiation right to the lesion [tumour] and get almost no spill over to normal tissue. And as a result, we see greatly improved responses to this type of treatment compared to regular radiation.”

Dr. John Sinclair leaning against bed in the operating room
Dr. John Sinclair was instrumental in bringing the CyberKnife to The Ottawa Hospital.

Dr. Sinclair was first introduced to the CyberKnife when he did a fellowship at Stanford Medical Center in California. CyberKnife was invented at Stanford, so the neurosurgeon was one of the first to see the benefits of this frameless radiosurgery treatment.

When Dr. Sinclair was recruited to The Ottawa Hospital in 2005, he had hoped to bring this novel technology to patients here. At the time, it was a technology that wasn’t approved by Health Canada. So, Dr. Sinclair and his team made a case for robotic radiosurgery, presenting scientific data that validated its success.

The Ottawa Hospital was eventually one of two health research centres in Ontario allowed to test the CyberKnife. However, there was no government funding available to purchase the machine. The hospital appealed to the community, which pulled together and generously raised the entire $4 million to purchase it. CyberKnife began treating patients at The Ottawa Hospital in September 2010.

“Because it’s delivering a high dose, it’s considered similar to surgery without using a scalpel, so patients experience no blood loss, no pain, no ICU stay, or recovery time,” said Dr. Vimoj Nair, one of the radiation oncologists trained to prescribe CyberKnife treatment. “So CyberKnife radiosurgery does provide an option where people can be treated with outpatient techniques.”

With regular radiation, the daily doses were lower and patients had to come to the clinic for more radiation treatments overall. Regular radiation treatment could range from five to six weeks. With CyberKnife, radiation is focused precisely on the tumour, allowing larger doses to be given daily, therefore giving the total treatment in one to six days. The hospital’s CyberKnife has gained a reputation for improving treatment of various tumours. Dr. Nair said that because it is one of only three in Canada, patients from British Columbia to the Maritimes are occasionally referred to The Ottawa Hospital for treatment.

“At first, we would treat one tumour,” said Dr. Sinclair. “Now, we treat five or six individual tumours at a time and spare the rest of the brain. We’re sending radiation only to those metastatic tumours. There is a proportion of patients who develop cognitive problems a few months after whole-brain radiation. But with radiosurgery, because we give a higher dose of radiation only to the actual tumours, patients have improved outcomes, and so their quality of life is better.”

This has meant an increase in the number of patients having multiple tumours treated in the same session.

“Treating several tumours at once helps keep the patient’s clinic visits to a minimum,” said Radiation Therapist Julie Gratton, who has worked with CyberKnife since it was installed at The Ottawa Hospital. “Targeting individual tumours rather than treating the whole organ helps spare healthy tissues and reduce side effects.”

The CyberKnife robot
The CyberKnife at The Ottawa Hospital is one of only three in Canada.
Julie Gratton stands in front of the CyberKnife.
Radiation Therapist Julie Gratton has given CyberKnife treatments to patients since 2010.

Until 2017, 1,825 patients had been  treated with the CyberKnife. In 2018, 359 patients received 1,824 CyberKnife treatments. Gratton said that because more tumours are being treated at once in each patient, the number of treatments given per year has increased as expected.

Although 90 percent of CyberKnife treatments are for malignant or benign brain tumours, CyberKnife is also being used to treat tumours in other parts of the body. Because it doesn’t require a frame to keep the area receiving radiation still, CyberKnife’s image guidance system is used to treat tumours in organs that move constantly, such as the lungs, kidneys, liver, prostate gland, and lymph nodes. CyberKnife can precisely align the radiation beam to the tumour even when it moves. The method of tracking tumours in organs and soft tissue has been improved by research at The Ottawa Hospital.

Read more about how our team is increasing the success rate of this already powerful and precise treatment.

The “seeds” are one millimetre by three millimetres, a third the size of a grain of rice, and made of platinum. These tiny seeds, created by researchers at The Ottawa Hospital, improve the CyberKnife robot’s accuracy in detecting and delivering precise doses of radiation to tumours in the brain and body.

Hand holding a grain of rice and platinum seed
Platinum seeds, a third the size of a grain of rice, are improving the accuracy of CyberKnife treatments.

CyberKnife uses X-rays and complex precision software to track and focus radiation directly to the tumour. With accuracy of less than a millimetre, there is virtually no radiation spill over to normal tissue. As a result, patients have much better responses to this type of treatment compared with traditional radiation where a larger area is targeted.

“Because CyberKnife delivers a high dose, it’s considered similar to surgery without using a scalpel, so no blood loss, no pain, no ICU stay, or recovery time,” said Dr. Vimoj Nair, one of the radiation oncologists trained to prescribe CyberKnife treatment.

Ninety percent of CyberKnife treatments are for malignant or benign brain tumours, but CyberKnife’s image guidance system can also treat tumours in organs that move constantly, such as the lungs, kidneys, liver, prostate gland, and lymph nodes. It can precisely align the radiation beam to the tumour even when it moves. But radiation oncologists and researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are refining techniques to further enhance the performance of this state-of-the-art technology to improve patients’ outcomes. These techniques are ultimately changing radiosurgery practice.

Dr. Vimoj Nair
Radiation oncologist Dr. Vimoj Nair said platinum seeds improve the accuracy of CyberKnife radiosurgery.

“One unique thing that the CyberKnife research team at The Ottawa Hospital has come up with are in-house designed platinum MRI-compatible seeds that can be implanted around the moving tumour,” said Dr. Nair, who is also a clinician investigator at The Ottawa Hospital and an assistant professor at University of Ottawa. “We can see the tumour and the seeds better on the MRI, and the CyberKnife software can detect and track the motion of the tumour with the help of these seeds. The robotic arm of the CyberKnife matches the target motion to treat the tumour more accurately while the patient breaths normally.”

The Ottawa Hospital is one of the first centres in North America to use these platinum seeds. In the past, oncologists used tiny gold seeds, but they were difficult to see in the MRI sequences used to view the tumour. This made the treatment planning less accurate. Dr. Janos Szanto, medical physicist, and Dr. Len Avruch, radiologist (now retired), were the initial brains who took platinum wire (otherwise destined to be jewelry), cut it into minute pieces, and then put through a sterilization process to ensure the seeds were appropriate for insertion into the human body. It worked. They were visible to the naked eye, more visible in an MRI than the gold seeds, and could be detected by CyberKnife.

Julie Gratton with patient beside CyberKnife robot
Radiation therapist Julie has delivered CyberKnife treatments since 2010.

“The benefit of this technique is we see both our target and seeds more clearly together, which provides the best use of advanced imaging and improves the accuracy,” said Dr. Nair, who called the discovery novel research and application that positions The Ottawa Hospital very favourably on the world stage.

Dr. Nair was the first author on the research paper published about the platinum seeds. He said that researchers and clinicians are continually sharing innovative CyberKnife techniques they’ve developed, like this one, at conferences and with other health centres across Canada and globally. In September 2018, he gave presentations on The Ottawa Hospital practices on clinical uses of CyberKnife at a conference in India.

“We can see the tumour and the seeds better on the MRI, and the CyberKnife software can detect and track the motion of the tumour with the help of these seeds.”

Read more about the history of the community-funded CyberKnife at The Ottawa Hospital.

The uterus fits in the palm of Dr. Sony Singh’s hand. The large pink lumps inside the clear, plastic 3D-printed model are fibroids, or tumours, and there are more than 50 of them. To ensure his patient could carry a child in the future, Dr. Singh had to do something that had never been done before.

Maureen had suffered for years with abdominal pain. Over the past six years, she was told by five doctors that she had so many fibroids in her uterus, her only option was to have a hysterectomy – complete removal of her womb. She refused this option.

“I will die with my womb. Nobody will touch it,” said Maureen (who did not want her last name used).

She was referred to the Shirley E. Greenberg Women’s Health Centre at The Ottawa Hospital, where she saw the Minimally Invasive Gynecology team of doctors and nurses. Dr. Singh, a surgeon and the Elaine Jolly Research Chair in Surgical Gynecology, told Maureen he could remove all the fibroids, and she would not need a hysterectomy.

Dr. Sony Singh uses 3D printed model for complex surgery.
Holding the 3D printed model of Maureen’s uterus, Dr. Sony Singh examined the MRIs and 3D renderings – the images that appear on the operating room screens that doctors can move to get a 3D view of the surgical area.

“Maureen had close to 50 fibroids and we wanted to make sure her uterus was able to carry a baby in the future and function normally,” said Dr. Singh. “But we needed help to plan the complicated surgery to remove them.”

Dr. Teresa Flaxman, Research Associate at The Ottawa Hospital, said it was difficult to see tumours in the patient’s uterus on an MRI. So, she contacted the hospital’s 3D Printing Lab. She had heard how 3D-printed models were helping orthopaedic surgeons see exactly what they were operating on, so they could better plan the surgery.

In 2016, thanks to a donor’s generosity, The Ottawa Hospital acquired a medical 3D printer that uses acrylics and plastics to create exact replicas of patients’ bones and organs from a CT scan or MRI. With the opening of the 3D Printing Lab in February 2017, the hospital became the first in Canada to have an integrated medical 3D-printing program for pre-surgical planning and education.

Dr. Adnan Sheikh, Director of The Ottawa Hospital’s 3D Printing Program, said the Department of Orthopaedics is one of the main users of the lab, which prints models for orthopaedic oncology surgeons to plan operations in advance, reducing surgery times and costs.

“3D printing is revolutionizing the way we look at anatomy,” said Orthopaedic Surgeon and Oncologist Dr. Joel Werier, who has used 3D-printed models of his patients’ hips and bones since the lab opened. “It adds another perspective to how we view tumours, how we plan our surgery techniques, and our ability to offer precision surgery.”

Bones are relatively easy to create from CT scans and MRIs, said Dr. Flaxman. However, soft tissues, such as uterine tissue, is harder to identify, and a model hadn’t been made of one before.

“We’re going to be one of the first hospitals internationally to study how we can provide this improved care by using 3D-printed models in planning surgery for women’s health.”

Dr. Flaxman and other researchers from the Women’s Health Centre worked with Waleed Althobaity and Olivier Miguel at the 3D Printing Lab to create 3D images from an MRI of Maureen’s uterus. Then the lab printed a model that allowed them to see exactly where the fibroids and the lining of the uterus were located.

“This was a very challenging case,” said Dr. Sheikh. “The multiple fibroids within the uterine cavity made it very difficult to print, and we had to identify each one of them, in order to replicate the exact anatomy on a 3D-printed model. We used a softer, flexible material to create the model that was more consistent with uterine tissue.”

The model took 14 hours to print. Although the model was scaled to eight times smaller than her actual uterus, her fibroid-filled uterus was 20 times bigger than normal. Having a 3D-printed model was a huge asset to the gynecological surgery team, which included surgeons Drs. Singh and Innie Chen.

“This model helped to provide a good visual aspect. To have a model in my hands during surgery was incredible,” said Dr. Singh. “At the same time, we also had 3D images that I could look at on a TV screen in the operating room. It seems very futuristic, but in the operating room I was able to turn the image of the uterus at any angle or degree that I wanted, so I could see it from different perspectives, which helped during surgery.”

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but a 3D version is worth a million words. The 3D-printed models are not only helping surgeons, but also helping patients like Maureen understand their illness and prepare for their surgery. For patients, seeing a 3D model of the problem inside their bodies makes it tangible and real.

“Just before my surgery, Dr. Singh brought the model to me,” said Maureen. “He explained how he could use it in the surgery to see where the fibroids are, and he asked my permission to use it during the operation.”

She agreed, knowing that it would help other women suffering similar experiences. Dr. Singh successfully removed the fibroids, sparing Maureen from having a hysterectomy.

“We wanted to save her uterus in hopes that she can carry a pregnancy in the future, which wasn’t a hope for her up until this point,” said Dr. Singh.

“By working together with the 3D Printing Lab at The Ottawa Hospital, we’re going to be one of the first hospitals internationally to study how we can provide this improved care by using 3D-printed models in planning surgery for women’s health,” said Dr. Flaxman.

Dr. Sheikh said that, since the success of this first use of a 3D-printed model for gynecological surgery, the 3D Printing Lab is already working on a couple of other similar projects with the Minimally Invasive Gynecology team to offer other women alternatives to major surgery in the future.

Maureen was so grateful the gynecology team was able to spare her uterus, that she donated to the Gratitude Award Program to thank them.

When a routine mammogram identified a small tumour, Rita Nattkemper was given an innovative option to mark its location for the surgery. A radioactive seed, the size of a pinhead, was injected directly into the tumour in her breast.

“All I have to say is it’s a painless procedure to get this radioactive seed in and it helps the doctor with accuracy,” said Rita. “And as he removes the mass, he’ll be removing the seed at the same time.”

For the last 20 years, when a woman had a breast cancer tumour that was too small to feel or be seen in surgery (called a non-palpable tumour), she had to have a wire (known as a harpoon) implanted at the tumour site to locate it for the surgeon. The wire, which stuck out of the woman’s breast, had to be inserted the morning of her surgery. Then, women had to wait uncomfortably for surgery with the wire sticking out of their breast. To add to the discomfort, many women had to fast overnight to prepare for surgery, causing many to faint in the radiology suite at the sight of the wire protruding from their breast.

The procedure also posed other problems.

“Sometimes the wire moved. And sometimes, because of the location of the tumour, the wire might overshoot or undershoot the tumour, so ultimately there was an enormous amount of guess work involved in taking out a breast cancer tumour properly,” said Dr. Carolyn Nessim, surgical oncologist, and clinician-investigator in the Cancer Therapeutics Program at The Ottawa Hospital.

Dr. Nessim, and other breast oncology surgeons, wanted to find a better option.

That was where radioactive seeds came in. Radioactive seeds have been used for many years to treat prostate cancer. Multiple seeds are implanted in the prostate, where they emit radiation and kill the cancer. Then a procedure was developed for breast cancer patients using a radioactive seed to mark the exact location of small breast-cancer tumours. Using a mammogram for guidance, a radiologist places one seed, so tiny it can be safely injected with a needle, inside the tumour. It emits a very small amount of radiation that is picked up in the operating room with a small, handheld Geiger counter. After the piece of breast tissue with the radioactive seed is removed, the seed is separated from the tissue and appropriately disposed of, with every seed being accounted for.

Realizing the benefits of this procedure, The Ottawa Hospital began a radioactive seed program in 2015. One of the main benefits is that the seed can be placed up to a week before surgery, which makes the day of the operation easier for patients. A woman doesn’t have to wait for surgery with a wire sticking out her breast. From a logistical point of view, it’s easier to organize the procedure days in advance, and means more efficiency in the operating room. Dr. Nessim led a research study comparing seeds to wires, which showed the benefit of seeds.

“The results of the radioactive seed program have been uniformly excellent,” said Dr. Erin Cordeiro, breast surgical oncologist and senior clinician-investigator at The Ottawa Hospital. “We did a study that found that radioactive seeds were more cost effective and decreased wait times for patients on the day of surgery when compared to wires. And the patient experience has also been wonderful. Patients are very supportive of this.”

Rita agrees. She said the surgeon and radiologist both explained the procedure and put her at ease about it.

“I felt a minor pinch, and that was all I felt,” Rita said immediately after the procedure. “And the radiologist had the screen turned, so I could see where she put in the needle and left the seed. It was very easy, very quick, and very painless.”

Dr. Cordeiro said women are often concerned about the seed’s radioactivity, but the staff reassures patients the procedure is completely safe. The amount of radiation that is emitted in the week the patient has the implanted seed is less than having two mammograms.

“A woman can continue to hug her children and do everything in life she would normally do,” said Dr. Cordeiro. “No concerns from that point of view. It’s an extremely safe procedure. The vast majority of women have no concerns.”

Over the past year, 355 radioactive seed procedures have been performed at The Ottawa Hospital. Only two patients have refused the seeds and opted for the traditional wire instead.

Because of the program’s radioactive element, there were stringent guidelines around starting the program.

A multidisciplinary team of nuclear medicine, radiation safety experts, radiologists, pathologists, surgeons, technicians, and nurses were involved.

Key members of the team, led by Dr. Nessim, went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, N.Y., to learn how to implement the program. They then ran 15 training sessions for staff at The Ottawa Hospital. The radioactive seed program now “runs like a well-oiled machine,” said Dr. Nessim.

The Ottawa Hospital was the third centre in Canada to have a radioactive seed program, and is a leader in the procedure. Other health centres across the country are now adopting it and looking to The Ottawa Hospital for guidance in successfully implementing their program.