Former federal lab director Plummer has ‘new life’ after brain surgery to treat alcoholism

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In public, Dr. Frank Plummer was the microbiologist who headed the federal microbiology laboratory that helped create the Ebola vaccine and the researcher who conducted HIV/AIDS studies in Africa for two decades.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/12/2019 (1076 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In public, Dr. Frank Plummer was the microbiologist who headed the federal microbiology laboratory that helped create the Ebola vaccine and the researcher who conducted HIV/AIDS studies in Africa for two decades.

But in private, the stress involved with Plummer’s jobs would result in him going home to unwind with a drink of whisky. And then another. And another.

Plummer, the former scientific director of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory, admits he is an alcoholic who has tried numerous ways to recover, but none of them helped until he had brain surgery a year ago to become the first participant in a research study investigating deep-brain stimulation to treat alcohol-use disorder.

Dr. Frank Plummer, the former scientific director of Winnipeg's National Microbiology Laboratory, admits he is an alcoholic who has tried numerous ways to recover, but none of them helped until he had brain surgery a year ago. (John Woods / Canadian Press files)

“When I walked out of the hospital I had a new life,” the Officer of the Order of Canada and Order of Manitoba said Monday. “I had more energy. I started writing my book. I’m working on a really exciting HIV vaccine.

“Seeing a bottle doesn’t bother me. I just don’t think about it.”

The research study is based at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Plummer was the first of an expected half-dozen patients to be part of it.

Dr. Nir Lipsman, the neurosurgeon and scientist who is heading the study, said two more participants have since joined the study, but Plummer is the first to get past the one-year mark since two electrodes were surgically implanted in his brain. The electrodes are connected to a battery unit implanted in his chest.

Lipsman said they hope that once this study — which is designed to ensure it is safe to insert the electrodes — is complete, another study will begin to see if the deep-brain stimulation can help alcoholics.

“It’s still early, but we are seeing some promising signs,” he said.

“It’s another potential tool in the toolbox that could be used with people who have tried everything available and it hasn’t worked.”

Plummer, 67, said his alcohol problems began when he was in Africa researching HIV/AIDS with two dozen sex workers who weren’t infected and appeared to have a resistance to it.

“I was the one responsible for the whole project, including the jobs of 40 people,” he said. “The health of two dozen sex workers depended on me. I had to get the money. I was constantly looking for money.

“There was constant pressure. When I came back, I’d relax in Winnipeg and have a drink. And normally more drinks.”

Then Plummer became head of the microbiology lab.

"I tried residential therapy, individual counselling, and AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) — a lot of AA. They all helped for a while, but then I'd slip back," Plummer said. (John Woods / Canadian Press files)

“We were 24/7 protecting the community against SARS and H1N1 — and not just the community but the globe… it was a pretty stressful job. I loved it, but there was a lot of stress.”

Plummer said he tried tackling his drinking problem, but with no long-term success.

“I was never drunk at work and I never showed up drunk,” he said.

“I tried residential therapy, individual counselling, and AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) — a lot of AA. They all helped for a while, but then I’d slip back.”

That’s when Plummer heard about the research study. Now he’s hopeful his life has permanently changed for the better.

“Both my wife and I were waiting for me to die,” he said. “I never wanted to kill myself, but I was waiting to die.

“Now I’m looking forward to our lives.”

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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Updated on Tuesday, December 17, 2019 8:06 AM CST: Corrects typo

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