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Dave Williams flew to space but faced biggest challenges on solid ground

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  • MONTREAL — As he was training in 2004 for his second space flight to help in the construction of the International Space Station, a routine visit to the doctor almost cut short Dave Williams’ career as an astronaut.

    Williams, a physician himself, had gone for his annual checkup to maintain his flight status as an astronaut and pilot when a blood test revealed he had prostate cancer.

    He was three years away from the planned 2007 space station mission, but suddenly everything was on hold.

    Williams titles his new memoir, ‘Defying Limits – Lessons from the Edge of the Universe’, but the book reveals it was back on Earth that he faced some of his greatest challenges.

    “I sort of forgot that I was a doctor when I heard the news. All of a sudden I had the feeling that ‘Oh, my goodness, I’ve got cancer, I’m going to die’,” Williams, 64, told The Canadian Press.

    “Fortunately, the rational part of me sort of kicked in, and I started to approach this as I would if I was another patient — even though the patient was myself.”

    NASA found a surgeon for Williams at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and he had his prostate removed in August 2004.

    While performing the procedure, doctors discovered the tumour had spread, but they were able to get it all. Williams was given the green light to continue training for his space voyage.

    The cancer scare came the year after another trauma for Williams. In February 2003, the U.S. space shuttle Columbia broke up while returning to Earth, killing seven astronauts — all close friends of Williams.

    He took part in recovery efforts searching for debris, and recounting that chapter of his life was tough.

    “I’d write a couple of paragraphs and then I’d quite literally have to take a break and go do something else and come back to continue writing,” he said. “It was a very sad time for us in the program.”

    During his 2007 space station visit, Williams helped installed a truss on the orbiting laboratory and performed a Canadian record of three spacewalks.

    It was during his second sortie, perched on the Canadarm, that he gazed down at Earth awestruck. He realized he was “looking at this incredible four-and-a-half-billion-year-old planet upon which the entire history of the human species had taken place,” he said in the interview.

    His first space mission was on board the shuttle Columbia in April, 1998 — the same orbiter that blew up five years later. During the 16-day flight, while serving as a mission specialist, Williams carried out neuroscience experiments that focused on the effects of microgravity on the brain and nervous system.

    Born in Saskatoon, Williams grew up in Montreal. His dream of becoming an astronaut began just before his seventh birthday when he watched on a black-and-white TV as astronaut Alan Shepard took a sub-orbital flight in May 1961, becoming the first American in space.

    His book recounts setbacks large and small that he experienced as he pursued his dream. In Grade 5, while living in suburban Montreal, he was struck by a car on his bike while headed to school but escaped without serious injury. Later as a teenager in the Royal Canadian Army cadets, he was thrown from a military truck when it overturned, but he managed to walk away with some scrapes and aches.

    A more sobering moment came during the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut selection process in 1992, when an eye exam revealed Williams had a degenerative condition of the retina. The degeneration turned out to be mild, and the Canadian Space Agency selected Williams and three others to join the astronaut corps.

    Williams met his wife Cathy, who went on to become an airline pilot, at a swimming pool in a Montreal suburb in 1978. 

    He recounts how despite his busy schedule, he tried to stay in touch, even at the most improbable moments. During his first space trip, Williams sent a message directly to his wife’s Air Canada cockpit while she was co-piloting a flight between Montreal and Toronto.

    “We are having a great time orbiting the Earth at Mach 25 much higher than flight levels,” it read. “Please extend best wishes … to the captain, the crew and all passengers.”

    The captain flicked on the plane’s PA system and read the message to the entire plane, prompting a round of applause.

    Williams has a daughter Olivia and a son Evan as well as a nephew Theo, who came to live with the family after losing both of his parents to cancer. Evan was diagnosed with Down syndrome when he was born in 1994, but for the Canadian astronaut it was just another personal challenge.

    “Life is full of adversity, and I don’t think I’m unique in that way,” Williams said in the interview.

    “I think most people in their lives have had challenges at one point or another, and I think it is how we respond to those challenges that, in part, brings meaning to our life.”

    The book, which was released Oct. 30, is published by Simon and Schuster Canada.

    Peter Rakobowchuk, The Canadian Press


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    Health

    Suspected carbon monoxide leak leads to hospitalization of 43 from Montreal school

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  • MONTREAL — A suspected carbon monoxide leak at a Montreal primary school led to the hospitalization of 35 children and eight adults Monday.

    A spokesman for the ambulance service said students at Ecole des Decouvreurs in the city’s LaSalle neighbourhood reported nausea, dizziness and vomiting. Between 15 and 20 people, including one adult, were initially affected.

    But after the school was evacuated and children were moved to a neighbouring school, another wave of children and teachers complained of symptoms.

    The illness could be related to carbon monoxide poisoning, but the cause has not been confirmed, Stephane Smith of Urgences-Sante said. In a letter to parents published online, the school administration raised the possibility of a problem “related to the heating system.”

    At around 12:30 p.m., Montreal Children’s Hospital declared a code orange, which is used for an emergency situation with multiple victims. Dr. Robert Barnes, the hospital’s associate director of professional services, said the 12 patients received there were in stable condition and under observation in the emergency room.

    He could not confirm whether they would be discharged Monday.

    Ste-Justine Hospital, Montreal’s other pediatric facility, reported that it had received 22 students from the school, none of whom was in serious condition.

    Firefighters inspected the school, but the school administration could not say Monday afternoon whether it would reopen Tuesday.

    The Canadian Press


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    Health

    Sen. Rand Paul scheduled to have hernia surgery in a private Ontario hospital

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  • LOUISVILLE, Ky. — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul plans to undergo hernia surgery at a private hospital in Canada because of injuries he suffered when a neighbour tackled him while he was doing yard work at his Kentucky home.

    The Republican lawmaker is scheduled to cross the border for outpatient surgery scheduled sometime during the week of Jan. 21 at a hospital in Thornhill, Ont., his attorneys said in a recent filing in Paul’s lawsuit against Rene Boucher, who attacked Paul while the senator was doing yard work.

    The surgery is related to the 2017 attack, the court document says. Boucher pleaded guilty to assaulting a member of Congress and was sentenced to 30 days in prison. Federal prosecutors are appealing the sentence, saying 21-months would have been appropriate.

    Paul is scheduled for surgery at Shouldice Hospital, which touts itself as a world leader in “non-mesh hernia repair.”

    “This is a private, world-renowned hospital separate from any system and people come from around the world to pay cash for their services,” Paul spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper said in an email Monday.

    In choosing Shouldice, Paul will receive care in a country that offers its citizens a publicly funded, universal health care system that runs counter to Paul’s approach to American health care policy. Paul, who ran for president in 2016, touts private-market approaches for U.S. health care problems.

    Paul’s chief strategist, Doug Stafford, pointed to Shouldice Hospital’s private status in pushing back against media reports about the senator going to Canada for treatment. “It’s literally the opposite of socialized medicine,” he tweeted.

    The hernia procedure is estimated to cost $5,000 to $8,000, the court document said.

    Paul suffered multiple broken ribs in the incident. Boucher has said the attack was triggered by Paul stacking debris near their property line in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and that he “lost his temper.”

    Paul sued Boucher last year seeking damages for physical pain and mental suffering from the attack. A jury trial is scheduled to begin late this month in Bowling Green.

    “After presenting our evidence to the court and jury, we will ask the jury to carefully consider all evidence and to make a fair allowance based upon the entirety of the facts and circumstances related to this attack and plaintiff’s injuries,” Paul’s attorneys said in the filing.

    Paul’s lawyers also said that a biomechanics expert is prepared to testify that Paul’s injuries were similar to those from a 40 km/h car crash.

    Boucher’s attorney, Matt Baker, said Monday that “we’re in the process of getting ready for trial.”

    Baker said that Boucher has made a $30,000 offer of judgment to Paul.

    Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press


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