COVER

THE FIGHT OF HIS LIFE

Bouchard's brush with death might enhance his status

BARRY CAME December 12 1994
COVER

THE FIGHT OF HIS LIFE

Bouchard's brush with death might enhance his status

BARRY CAME December 12 1994

THE FIGHT OF HIS LIFE

COVER

Bouchard's brush with death might enhance his status

BARRY CAME

In a terrifying ordeal, it may well have been the most difficult moment of all. It came late last Wednesday evening, when Lucien Bouchard confronted a stark choice. The doctors had gathered in his private room in the intensive care unit on the fourth floor of Montreal’s Saint-Luc Hospital to tell the Bloc Québécois leader that he was in imminent danger of losing his battle with the ferocious bacteria that was rapidly devouring the muscle and flesh of his left leg. In order to halt the rampaging microbes from swarming upward into his abdomen and chest, the doctors told Bouchard that they needed permission to slice off his ravaged leg. “He seemed stunned for a few seconds,” recalled SaintLuc’s chief internist, Dr. Patrick D’Amico, as he recounted the harrowing incident. “After that, he turned to his wife and they both mentioned to me that Monsieur Bouchard’s life was more important than his leg.”

Within minutes, Bouchard was wheeled out of his room and down the corridor to the hospital’s operating theatre. By the early hours of the following morning, the diseased leg had been removed, amputated at mid-thigh. It was, according to Saint-Luc surgeon Dr. Pierre Gohsn, the “most painful” of four major surgical interventions that Bouchard endured in the space of three difficult days last week. But in the end, it proved successful. For the operation finally managed to stem a seemingly relentless tide of infection that had very nearly engulfed him. He was well enough in the hours after his surgery to insist on asking his doctors for pen and paper to draft a brief message to well-wishers. “Que l’on continue. Merci," he wrote from his hospital bed (roughly, “Carry on. Thank you.”) And by the end of the week, a much-relieved D’Amico was able to declare that while the pre-eminent leader of the Quebec separatist movement was “not yet out of the woods,” he was nevertheless “almost there.”

If D’Amico’s prognosis proves accurate, Bouchard faces the prospect of a long and trying period of recovery—but not an impossible one. His doctors predicted at week’s end that he would remain in intensive care for another ten days, followed by a further month in hospital while he is fitted with a prosthetic leg and begins physiotherapy to learn to walk again. “If there are no setbacks and all goes well, he could be back at work in as soon as three to four months’ time,” said D’Amico. That he survived at all, however, is something of a miracle. For Bouchard was struck by a rare but deadly killer, a disease that claims, according to the medical team at Saint-Luc, 80 per cent of its victims. A virulent strain of the otherwise common streptococcus bacteria, the illness works its devastating effects by burrowing under the skin, consuming muscle and fatty tissue until the skin itself is cut off from its blood supply and dies. Labelled necrotizing myositis by medical science, it is more popularly known, when it is known at all, as the “flesh-eating disease” (page 20).

The news of Bouchard’s recovery, delivered live on television before a nationwide audience, prompted a well-nigh audible collective sigh of relief in Quebec and, indeed, right across Canada. Both friend and foe alike had watched in shocked fascination as Bouchard’s plight unfolded, almost as rapidly as the disease itself. Less than a week earlier, the Bloc leader had appeared in fighting trim, preparing his troops for battle in Quebec’s upcoming independence referendum with a rousing speech and a lively jig at a late-night dinner and dance at Mont Ste-Anne near Quebec City. The next day, though, he appeared weary, and his staff said he had been fighting off the flu. Two days later, he was in a Montreal hospital, diagnosed as suffering from nothing more serious than a case of phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins, in his left leg. But two days after that, he was suddenly, inexplicably on the brink of death, having already lost his leg. And then, in yet another stunning turn of events, he was, as his separatist ally and Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau eloquently remarked, “back from the abyss.”

While Bouchard’s life hung in the balance last week, much of Quebec seemed to be caught in the grip of his struggle. Distraught callers flooded open-line radio shows. Trafficbound commuters intently monitored broadcast news reports. Shoppers clustered around television sets in malls. Emotions ran highest among Bouchard’s friends and allies in the separatist camp. Former PQ cabinet minister Clément Richard reported that he had to pull his car to a stop when he first heard the news on his vehicle’s radio. like virtually every other member of the Parti Québécois government, Parizeau was visibly shaken when he spoke about what he described as “the terrible news” of Bouchard’s perilous condition. “My old friend, hang on,” the premier said when he met reporters at the national assembly in Quebec City. “Show the same courage that you’ve shown so often in the past, and I hope that soon it will have just been a very bad dream. Hang on, old friend.” As Parizeau spoke, his wife, Lisette Lapointe, and his press attaché, Marie-Josée Gagnon, stood by his side. Tears flooded the eyes of both women.

Even longtime political rivals were moved. In Paris, where he was on a four-day visit, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, once described by Bouchard as an “arch-foe,” said: “At moments like this, we have to put aside political differences to express our personal solidarity with the suffering of a fellow human being.” Back in Canada, Quebec opposition leader Daniel Johnson expressed his “profound dismay.” And Reform Leader Preston Manning, informed of Bouchard’s illness on his way into a meeting in Halifax, promptly remarked: “I want to tell him that our thoughts and prayers are with him.”

The tragedy that struck Bouchard could not have occurred at a more inopportune moment for the sovereigntist movement (page 18). It came on the eve of the launch of the separatists’ referendum campaign, a program that

Parizeau was scheduled to announce this week. And while few of Bouchard’s allies in the movement were willing to admit as much publicly, at least part of the widespread despair at Bouchard’s critical condition was surely connected with the fact that the separatists faced the loss of their most effective weapon in the struggle for independence just as the referendum campaign was about to get under way. Quebec’s Municipal Affairs Minister Guy Chevrette, a key PQ strategist, conceded the point. “This is a hard blow for Quebec,” he remarked, struggling to maintain control over his emotions. “I simply can’t believe it. It’s so unfair. Quebec needs Lucien Bouchard right now. He has a major role to play in the historic turn we are about to take.”

Significantly, those comments came during Bouchard’s darkest hours, when it was not yet clear that he would survive his ordeal. The situation underwent a dramatic change after his doctors announced on Friday morning that Bouchard was on the way to recovery. Once again, official separatist voices remained largely mute on the political impact that a recovering Bouchard might have on the referendum outcome. Parizeau himself impatiently dismissed all such questions as “inappropriate right now.” But the fact remains that the Bloc Québécois leader was the most admired politician in the province before he fell ill, a charismatic presence with an uncanny ability to rouse the emotions of Quebecers of all political stripes. And his ordeal is not likely to diminish his influence; indeed, the reverse is almost certainly true. “He’s going to be back, and when he does come back he’s going to be stronger than ever,” Bloc MP Nie Leblanc confidently predicted last week as he stood outside Saint-Luc Hospital only moments after Bouchard’s doctors delivered their encouraging news.

Claude Charron, a longtime friend of Bouchard who is currently a prominent television personality and was formerly a Quebec cabinet minister in René Lévesque’s first PQ government, agreed. Charron, in fact, said that Bouchard is about to be elevated from being merely “the most loved politician in Quebec” to some higher, “almost mythic” level of veneration as a direct result of the terrible events that overtook him last week. “We always sensed that he could have a profound effect on the destiny of Quebec,” said Charron. “Now, we’re sure of it.” Bouchard’s

hospital-bed message to “carry on” was immediately interpreted by sovereigntists as an inspirational political call—whatever the Bloc leader might have meant by it.

Whether Charron’s prediction comes to pass will likely depend as much on Bouchard himself as it does on events in Quebec. Despite the widespread outpouring of affection for the man, it remains true that

‘He’s going to be back, and he’s going to be stronger than ever’

he has just experienced trauma of the most corrosive sort. And while his doctors expect him to recover, there are bound to be scars, both the obvious physical ones as well as less apparent psychological wounds. Aside from the debilitating effects of his baffling disease, Bouchard was under a surgeon’s knife four times in three days last week. On Wednesday morning, they cut into his left leg to relieve the pressure on his muscles and blood vessels. Late the same day, his leg was amputated. On Thursday, his abdomen and chest cavity were opened to excise infected muscle and fat, to ensure that the disease did not spread further. And on Friday, the surgeons again went into his chest and abdomen to drain the area and make sure that the infection had been brought under control. Late last week, his doctors, despite their optimism, cautioned

that Bouchard’s condition remained critical and pointed out that he continued to suffer from swelling and inflammation in his lower body and throughout his chest cavity.

Clearly, Bouchard has some distance to travel before his recovery is anywhere near complete. Even for a young man, the healing process would not be easy. But Bouchard will be 56 on Dec. 22. And while it seems unlikely that he would willingly abandon his part in the struggle for Quebec independence, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Bouchard has often complained of the price he must pay for a life in politics, both in terms of lost income as well as demands on the time that could be spent with his American-born wife, Audrey, 34, and his two young sons, Alexandre, who is 5, and Simon, 3. Indeed, one of the prime reasons for the devotion that he inspires seems to be based on the fact that he is widely perceived by Quebec voters to be a reluctant politician, drawn into the political arena for reasons of principle rather than for the tawdry pursuit of personal goals. Only last week, during his speech to Bloc Québécois supporters at Mont Ste-Anne, he once again ruminated on the issue, claiming that the impending referendum was likely to be “my last battle.”

But whatever Bouchard’s future plans, his immediate survival was enthusiastically welcomed. Not surprisingly, the separatist camp was most outspoken in their praise for the man and his personal courage. Parizeau greeted the news of his fellow separatist’s recovery by happily describing the event as “a superb celebration of life.” Bouchard’s political opponents were almost as effusive. Even former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who regarded Bouchard’s departure from his Conservative cabinet in 1990 when the Meech Lake constitutional accord was about to fail as a personal act of betrayal, was moved to offer condolences, although the two men have not spoken in the past four years. Mulroney and his wife, Mila, sent the Bouchards a handwritten note, expressing, according to the former prime minister’s office, their “deep sadness” at Bouchard’s plight, as well as a “warm personal support message” for Audrey Bouchard and her two young children.

The mood may soon pass, but for one brief moment last week, Bouchard’s personal tragedy did manage the often difficult task of uniting Canadians. □