Dr. Ketan R. Bulsara examines seminarian Norbert Tibeau during a follow-up visit. (Photo ©Robert A. Lisak, 2011)
BLOOMFIELD – Seminarian Norbert Tibeau is convinced that the thing that could have killed him is the very thing that saved his life.
Now he is trying to figure out why.
"I like to think it is so the work of God can manifest itself in me," said Mr. Tibeau in French on June 24 at St. Thomas Seminary, where he has been recuperating from surgery on an aneurysm, or widening portion of an artery, in his brain. Mathieu Isaac, a native of Haiti who now is studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Hartford, translated.
Mr. Tibeau, 28, was studying to be a Montfort Missionary in Haiti when headaches that he had suffered since 2001 became stronger, lasted longer and were more debilitating, eventually impairing his vision or forcing him to bed in pain. After he underwent an MRI in Port-au-Prince in 2008, doctors thought Mr. Tibeau had a tumor in his pituitary gland.
Enter Dr. Michael R. Page, a doctor who specializes in emergency medicine at Holland Hospital in western Michigan, who first met Mr. Tibeau in December 2009 on a parish medical mission to Haiti. One of the seminary’s superiors approached Dr. Page and said, "We have a seminarian who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Could you help?"
Dr. Page said that he knew further testing would be needed and that no Haitian hospitals had the required equipment. He called friends at Partners in Health, the international medical organization. Through Partners in Health, Mr. Tibeau traveled to the nearby Dominican Republic, which had equipment capable of generating images of blood vessels, so that doctors could decide how to treat him.
The testing saved his life in more ways than one.
He was in the Dominican Republic when the earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, hit Haiti. All nine of his seminary classmates were killed when the underground parking lot they were in collapsed. A seminarian from Peru, who had gone to Haiti for some time off with other seminarians, also died.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Tibeau learned that the scans from that trip showed that he had an aneurysm near his pituitary gland and optic nerve that could kill him or leave him neurologically ravaged.
That left the problem of finding and funding the expensive surgery Mr. Tibeau needed, Dr. Page said.
"You’re kind of left with: What do you do now? So, you pray about it," Dr. Page said. One day at Mass, he was inspired to approach the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops with a fund-raising idea.
He quickly learned that a group of Catholic bishops from the United States was heading to Haiti to assess humanitarian and religious needs. Online, he found the cell phone number for Oblate Father Andrew Small, director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Church in Latin America, and called him to try to set up a meeting between Mr. Tibeau and the visiting bishops.
"I just figured it was worth a call," Dr. Page recalled with a laugh. It worked, and the bishops met the seminarian and heard his story.
"They said, ‘Let’s see what we could do to help.’ They indicated their ability to help financially, but we still needed some medical organization to take his case," he added.
Eventually, Partners in Health located a neurosurgeon who was willing to donate his skills at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Yale Medical Group and medical device manufacturers also donated.
Dr. Ketan R. Bulsara, an associate professor of neurosurgery at Yale, is one of very few doctors in the United States who specialize in endovascular neurosurgery and skull base microsurgery.
In a telephone interview on July 8, he recalled hearing "about the plight of this young Haitian priest and the devastating story of the seminary being wiped out by the earthquake, and [that] the only reason he had survived was because he himself was getting really bad news of a different [type] … that he had this almost inoperable aneurysm.
"The more I read about what Mr. Tibeau had gone through and about his problem," Dr. Bulsara said, "I don’t know if there was a way that I wouldn’t be able to help or try to do something for him."
Mr. Tibeau was transported to this country by Right to Health Care, a division of Partners in Health.
On April 26, Dr. Bulsara inserted a catheter into an artery in Mr. Tibeau’s thigh, and, with the help of real-time X-rays, snaked a platinum coil through the seminarian’s body to the base of the skull and into the aneurysm, blocking off the blood flow.
Without treatment, the surgeon said, the risk of the aneurysm’s bleeding over the course of five years would be 50 percent. Of those that do bleed, 60 to 70 percent of patients die or are left with devastating impairments, he added.
Mr. Tibeau recalled awakening after the surgery, which he had been told could be dangerous.
"I felt like a newborn," he said. "I live again. I am raised up from death."
Three days later, he was welcomed to St. Thomas Seminary. Father Small had told Archbishop Henry J. Mansell earlier about Mr. Tibeau’s scheduled surgery, and the invitation to stay at the seminary was extended.
"He’s been doing any number of things, like helping with the retired priests and serving Mass on a regular basis," said Msgr. Gerard G. Schmitz, rector of the seminary.
Mr. Tibeau spent some days with the Montfort priests in Litchfield, and, more recently, visited New York City and went to Boston for Fourth of July fireworks.
He said he is grateful to the Archbishop, Msgr. Schmitz and the seminarians for the welcome he has received. He described Mr. Isaac, his translator, as "my brother."
He will return within weeks to Haiti, where he will be ordained a transitional deacon, after a final follow-up appointment in New Haven. After six months, he will be ordained to the priesthood and be assigned to a parish in Haiti.
His ministry will be one of example.
"My life is not a fiction. It’s a real experience with God. By this experience, I can testify [about] what God can and could do."
Dr. Page visited Mr. Tibeau on July 4 and 5 in Bloomfield as he made his way back to Michigan from Haiti. Describing himself as "a link in a chain" of people who helped Mr. Tibeau, he said his role in the seminarian’s life has strengthened his faith.
"For me, the thing I’m blessed with is being able to be part of this and saying, ‘Wow. Look how faithful God is,’" he said.