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Dr. Drake saves Della Reese

by Communications Staff | January 13, 2015


Pioneering physician and world-renowned neurosurgeon Charles Drake, MD’44, MSc’47, DSc’87, Past Chair of the Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences at Western,
was in demand in his career as he perfected, documented and taught surgical

Perhaps his most famous patient ever was singer Della Reese, who was diagnosed with a bleeding aneurysm after collapsing on the set of The Tonight Show in October 1979 when Richard Dawson was guest hosting for Johnny Carson. She was flown to London where Dr. Drake operated on her.

After two successful surgeries performed by Dr. Drake, she was able to make a full recovery. “He had so much talent, humility, seriousness, inner joy, kindness and knowledge to share. This is my rightful honour to be here to help celebrate,” said Reese on a visit to London in 2003.

From an interview in May 2014 with Melissa Parker, Reese recalled her arrival in London for her treatment: “I got there at night. The next morning, the doctor there came to speak to me. He looked at the x-ray and said, ‘There is nothing wrong with this x-ray. You’ve got a normal female aneurysm.’ I said, ‘I’m glad about that because I don’t want no man stuff up in my brain.’ He laughed, and we laughed together. He set up the operation for 7:00 in the morning, and at that time, he leaned down beside me and whispered in my ear, ‘I don’t do this alone. God holds my hand.’ I said, ‘Then you may cut me wherever you want to.’”

Reese played an angel in the television show, Touched By an Angel, from 1994 to 2003. She’s always been very spiritual and is now an ordained minister.

Twenty-four years later, in October 2003, she returned to the place where she had her life-saving operation.


Ruth Drake-Alloway, wife of the late Dr. Charles Drake, and actress and singer, Della Reese, unveiled a new memorial sculpture in front of the University campus of the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) in honour of Dr. Charles Drake. The sculpture was done by Ivar Mendez, MD’86, PhD’94.

“I’m so proud to have been a part of his work,” says Reese, whose initial prognosis was grim.

“For the first 36 to 48 hours she hovered near death,” says her physician, Dr. Jack Wohlstadter. Doctors couldn’t be sure what had happened, and Della, 48 at the time, was terrified by their uncertainty. Not until a week later did an arteriogram reveal that an aneurysm had ruptured in the right side of her brain. Two others, on the left side, lay near her optic nerve and threatened her vision. “Even if an operation were successful,” she remembers being told, “I could have ended up as a vegetable.”

Bill Brady, LLD’90, a member of The Charles Drake Memorial Committee said, “The Dr. Charles George Drake Memorial Garden honours a great Canadian whose innovative surgical skill attracted patients from all over the world. As a teacher, he inspired dozens of young medical students to enter the demanding field of neurosurgery and aspire to excellence.”

To commemorate the many contributions Dr. Drake made to the education of residents, fellows and neurosurgeons, the names of the many members of “The Drake School of Neurosurgery” are etched into the base of the memorial.

The sculpture and gardens can be found outside the front entrance of the University Campus of LHSC.

Dr. Drake passed away Sept. 15, 1998.

With notes from Karmen Dowling, BA’96

This article appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Alumni Gazette
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