“I heard a sound,” recalls Dr. Cham, “just like steak being seared.”
A wisp of smoke curled up from the baby’s groin. An aroma as of cooking meat filled the air.
A urologist was quickly summoned. On duty that morning was Dr. Earl K. Vann. He cleared the instruments and inspected the organ. It appeared oddly blanched in color. He felt the penis with his gloved hand and noticed that it had an unusual firmness. Vann took a probe and attempted to pass it through the urinary meatus—the hole at the end of the penis. The probe would not pass through. Vann told the operating room personnel that he would have to perform an emergency suprapubic cystotomy to place a catheter and thus enable the baby to pass urine. He made an incision below Bruce’s belly button, then threaded a length of tubing into the incision, through the muscle wall, and into the bladder. This was sewn into place. A bag to catch the child’s urine was affixed to the free end of the catheter. The baby was then wheeled out to the burn ward.
It was decided not to attempt to circumcise his twin brother.
On nights when Ron worked the late shift, the Reimers’ normal routine was for Janet to prepare dinner, which they would eat together when Ron got home from work shortly after midnight. They would talk about their day, maybe watch a little TV, and often not make it to bed until two or three in the morning. They’d usually sleep until noon or one. They were sleeping on the morning of 27 April when the phone rang.
Janet answered. It was the hospital calling.
“They said to come in and see the doctor,” Janet recalls. “They said there was a slight accident, and they needed to see us right away.” Ron took the phone and asked the person on the other end of the line what was going on. “They just said they wanted to see us,” Ron says. “They didn’t say there was anything wrong.”
But Ron and Janet could tell by the person’s tone of voice that something unusual was happening. They dressed and headed out to their car. Opening their front door, they discovered that the city, which for some weeks had been in the full delicious flood of early spring, had been hit by a freak blizzard. The pathway to the curb was completely obliterated by snow; the car was buried up to its bumpers. Flakes continued to sift down thickly from a bleached sky.
Ron dug the car out, and they began the slow journey through streets clogged and snarled with snowbound traffic. Five blocks north on St. Mary’s Road, then a right turn onto Tache Avenue and the eight blocks up to the hospital. Over the car radio they heard that the airport had been closed down. Seven inches were expected to fall over the course of the day. Already the weathermen were proclaiming it one of the worst blizzards in the city’s history. Longtime residents would recall the storm clearly more than thirty years later.
Having finally made it the one mile from their house to St. Boniface Hospital, Ron and Janet rushed inside, only to wait in the doctor’s office for what seemed a very long time. Dr. Huot entered. In a businesslike voice he told the Reimers that there had been an accident while circumcising baby Bruce.
“What do you mean, an accident?” Janet said.
Dr. Huot said that Bruce’s penis had been burned.
“I sort of froze,” Janet recalls. “I didn’t cry. It was just like I turned to stone.” When she finally gathered her wits enough to speak, Janet found herself asking if they had also burned her other child.
“No,” Dr. Huot replied. “We didn’t touch Brian.”
Ron and Janet asked to see their injured baby right away. The doctor said that Bruce was recovering from a surgical procedure to install a catheter. The Reimers were told not to worry, that they could see the child tomorrow. They collected their uninjured son, Brian, and drove home through the steadily falling snow.
The next day Ron and Janet returned to the hospital. Dr. Vann took them to see the baby. Janet’s first glimpse of her son is a memory that even three decades later causes her face to drain of blood. Standing over Bruce’s bassinet in the burn unit, she looked at his penis—or what was left of it.
“It was blackened, and it was sort of like a little string. And it was right up to the base, up to his body.” To Ron the penis looked “like a piece of charcoal. I knew it wasn’t going to come back to life after that.”
Nevertheless, Janet asked the urologist, “Will it still grow, and he’ll just have a little penis?”
The doctor shook his head. “I don’t think so. That’s not the way it works.”
Over the next few days, baby Bruce’s penis dried and broke away in pieces. It was not very long before all vestiges of the organ were gone completely.
Bruce remained in the hospital while Ron and Janet watched a parade of the city’s top local specialists examine him. The doctors gave little hope. Phallic reconstruction, a crude and makeshift expedient even today, was in its infancy in the 1960s—a fact made plain by the plastic surgeon, Dr. Desmond Kernahan, when he described the limitations of a penis that would be constructed from flesh farmed from Bruce’s thigh or abdomen. “Such a penis would not, of course, resemble a normal organ in color, texture, or erectile capability,” Kernahan wrote in his consultation report. “It would serve as a conduit for urine, but that is all.” Even that was optimistic, according to Dr. M. Schwartz, a urologist who also examined the child: “Insofar as the future outlook is concerned,” he wrote, “restoration of the penis as a functional organ is out of the question.” Dr. G. L. Adamson, head of the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry at the Winnipeg Clinic, evaluated Bruce’s projected psychological and emotional future. “One can predict,” Adamson wrote, “that he will be unable to live a normal sexual life from the time of adolescence: that he will be unable to consummate marriage or have normal heterosexual relations, in that he will have to recognize that he is incomplete, physically defective, and that he must live apart.”
Pediatrician Dr. Harry Medovoy was also called in to consult on the case. Though Medovoy had spent his entire career practicing in Manitoba, he had an international reputation. He was a member of the editorial board of the American journal Pediatrics and founder of a children’s hospital at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Center, which bears his name today. Though he was a relentless booster of Canadian medicine, it was Medovoy’s opinion that the child should be seen at one of the major American medical centers. He recommended the Mayo Clinic, a mere half-day’s train ride away in Rochester, Minnesota. Thus, upon Bruce’s release from the hospital on 7 June—six weeks after he was first admitted to St. Boniface—Ron and Janet took him on the train to Rochester.
At the Mayo Clinic the baby was examined by a team of doctors. They recommended that Bruce have an artificial phallus constructed at some time shortly before he began school. Like the Winnipeg doctors, the Mayo Clinic physicians explained that phalloplasties were by no means foolproof: they required multiple surgeries through childhood, and the cosmetic and functional results were not promising.
Ron and Janet could hardly believe that this was all the Mayo Clinic doctors could offer them. They wondered why they had bothered to go to the expense and trouble of coming all the way to this famous medical center merely to hear what they had heard back in Canada.
Feeling that they had now exhausted all their options, Ron and Janet returned to Winnipeg and tried to reconcile themselves to raising a son who, no matter how successful the phalloplasty, “must live apart.”
The Winnipeg Free-Press and its rival, the Tribune, soon got wind of the story. The newspapers each ran an article about a child whose penis was burned off at St. Boniface Hospital. The press did not print the Reimers’ name, however, so Ron and Janet were able to keep secret from their neighbors the dreadful accident that had befallen their child. When Janet accepted invitations from other young mothers in the neighborhood to come over for coffee, she sat silently while the others happily traded information about their babies. Only when she got home did she burst into tears and wail, “I hate you, God!” Her taciturn husband, typically, permitted himself no such outpouring of emotion. Ron had once tried to confide in a couple of friends at work about the accident, but the guys joked about it. “I stopped talking to those people,” Ron says. “I stopped talking to everybody, pretty much.” It only added to the young couple’s misery that Brian’s phimosis had long since cleared up by itself, his healthy penis a constant reminder that the disastrous circumcision on Bruce had been utterly unnecessary in the first place.