Watching Natalie’s story unfold this season has given us all a shred of knowing what it’s like to be sick. From biopsies to drug trials, these day-by-day processes have delivered a practical but ultimately eye-opening representation of the minutiae of our medical system. We’ve been through a lot, but not everything. It’s with this curiosity that I decided to check out the McGill University Health Centre, Montreal’s newish super hospital, to get a behind-the-scenes peek at life-saving researchers in their newly-furnished habitat.
Just in getting there, everyone’s faced with a startling contrast. Amidst a crumbling highway interchange and the bright lights of downtown sits this superhospital, perched atop a hill, with each of its buildings etched and coloured like Lego blocks. It’s the kind of building whose publicly funded price tag is all but spray painted on the front doors.
Step through the main entrance and it quickly becomes clear that this place wins the award for “nicest place I’d never actually want to be in.” The usual crampedness of Montreal’s now consolidated 19th century Catholic-run hospitals was replaced by this colourful, well lit, and breathable web of medicine.
I had no time to gawk, though. I came here to meet a real-life Dr. Lyle, a prominent researcher, adjunct professor, clinician, and surgeon at the hospital.
Dr. George Zogopoulos, MD, PhD, FRCSC, FACS (he legit has that many honorifics), meets me at the security desk at the Research Institute, where many life-saving discoveries are being made.
He quickly buzzes me in as we make our way to his corner office, which is spruced up by a round Montreal Canadiens teddy. “I must admit I know nothing about the show [This Life],” he says with a tentative smile. And after our two hour conversation, I discover that that’s just about the only thing he doesn’t know. Unlike Dr. Lyle, his area of research is focused on studying the genetics and genomics of pancreatic cancer, rather than renal cell carcinoma.
At the hospital he manages a lab, sits on a tumour board, and is conducting groundbreaking research in his field. “People like to call it personalized medicine,” he told me, “but I like to call [what we do here] precision medicine.” An average week for Dr. Zogopoulos might include anywhere from one to three surgeries (his specialty is transplanting livers), two to three days of clinical work, a lecture or two at the university, hours of data analysis, coordinating or overseeing drug trials, getting patients on trial, and much more.
With all that in mind I had to ask: why focus one’s entire life’s work on an illness that will take the lives of 90% of their patients? He looked at me and said, “because it does.” He began to break it all down using a Sharpie and his wall-mounted tableau.
His job is to decode molecular signs like cellular mutations and co-opt them into destroying themselves. Turn the bad guy/tumour cell against itself, in other words. Sometimes that requires a specific antigen. Turns out, an umbrella term like pancreatic cancer really contains a multitude of different kinds of pancreatic cancer. Kind of like snowflakes. Still following? Good. He and his team have used data from biopsies to build up a province-wide pancreatic cancer registry, containing unique molecular forms of the same cancer. So far the registry contains analysis from over 700 patients and counting.
After his impromptu lecture, I tried to get a better understanding about the man behind the theory. Dr. Zogopoulos was born and raised in Ville Saint Laurent in Montreal, a prominent Greek burrough of the city. From there he became the first of his family to graduate from med school at McGill and then went on to work in Toronto for sixteen years. In 2011, he was recruited by his alma mater and has been chugging along ever since. That’s not to say there haven’t been any challenges...
He can communicate with his Francophone patients in their native tongue almost perfectly, offering very technical diagnoses in a snap, but, “[...] when my wife and I go to the restaurant I have trouble ordering off the menu,” he said with a broad smile. Mastery of layman French aside, we opted for a walk around.
Beyond the science labs, bottling lines of blood samples, mechanical tanks filled with cellular samples, discreet autopsy rooms, semi-covert animal testing labs, and the suspended sculpture of a hemoglobin is Cedars Cancer Centre. The MUHC is a buzzing place. You can’t round a hallway or open a door without running into a staff member or patient; here at the Cedars, the place is packed with people awaiting treatment.
“It’s like this every day,” Dr. Zogopoulos whispered as we weaved through the harrowing centre. That’s not to say hope wasn’t abound. Here, natural light streams through windows. Colours mark the floor, robbing it of that all-too-common antiseptic hospital feel. People are quickly processed and checked-in on by an army of staff and volunteers.
Dr. Zogopoulos checked his phone as we made our way past the clinic examination rooms. He was being paged about something important. We said goodbye and shook hands. Off he went, back to the work of saving lives as droves of patients, staff, and volunteers flooded the space in his wake. We at This Life are grateful to be given the chance to tell some of the stories of these real life players. Truth is, you don’t have to tour a super hospital to begin to comprehend the gravity of their courage and complexity in the face of life-altering challenges. Keep on inspiring, everyone - we’re with you.
I'm Max Morin, Junior Writer, Story Coordinator and your official insider for all things THIS LIFE.