At the end of November, one of the world’s most celebrated gender reassignment surgeons retired after more than 30 years of performing genital reconstruction and other transition-oriented surgeries. His work has profoundly changed the lives of thousands of trans men and women all over the world.
“We take care of them as if they were our children, our brothers and our sisters,” Dr Yvon Ménard once said of his team at Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS) Montreal.
Skills of Ménard’s calibre aren’t developed overnight. He has earned an international reputation for his surgical innovations, having refined his techniques year by year, since first encountering genital reconstruction during his surgical residency in 1971.
At the time, it was difficult to find a place to do genital reconstruction, as hospital administrators often looked unfavourably on a surgeon’s decision to undertake the work. But Ménard felt strongly about the positive effects the surgeries could have on the quality of life of his patients; he carried on despite the challenges.
In the ’70s, Ménard did only a few transition-related surgeries. By the ’80s, he had many more trans patients — word began to spread about the care he took in his surgical work and his welcoming and compassionate bedside manner.
Since 1996, gender reassignment surgeries have made up the lion’s share of Ménard’s work — in fact, that year he had to hire a second surgeon, Dr Pierre Brassard, to keep up with the demand.
The combined full- and part-time staff at GRS Montreal’s facilities now numbers about 70 people.
These days, GRS Montreal’s facilities are consolidated in a three-building strip on a quiet sidestreet in Montreal’s north end. Patients need only walk — or take a short wheelchair ride — about 50 yards to get from the hospital to the nearby recovery facility, a two-storey red-brick building reminiscent of a bed and breakfast. This is a dorm of sorts — where meals, stories, hopes and fears are shared leading up to surgery and during recovery.
“The whole thing was a great experience, from beginning to end,” says Catherine Purdie, tearing up as she talks about the community she encountered during her recovery from bottom surgery at GRS Montreal in 2008.
“There was a lady from Manitoba who had surgery the same day I did. On the Tuesday, there was a young woman from Texas and a lady from California. Each of us, at some point, went through a tough time, and everybody supported everybody. We created a little community there. I felt very sad leaving — it felt like a home away from home… just a big family.”
“While I was there, I met trans women from all over Canada, the US and Europe who were there to see Dr Ménard and Dr Brassard,” says Charlie Hoo, a trans man living in Ottawa, about his 2006 experience of top surgery at GRS Montreal. “I think that’s when I realized just how important the clinic was. People travelled across the ocean to have surgery there.”
Despite the sense of loss that Ménard’s retirement might stir up in the community, the services at GRS Montreal will continue. Now 69 years old, Ménard is handing the reins over to Brassard, who studied with Ménard during his surgical residency at Montreal’s Hôpital Sainte-Justine in 1986 and has worked alongside Ménard as his business partner and protégé for the last 13 years.