The film that Oscar-winning filmmaker Alison Snowden was working on when she nearly died last year has been completed and is winning awards around the world at animation film festivals.
The animated short film is dedicated to the Vancouver General Hospital medical professionals who saved her life. In a few months, Snowden and her husband, David Fine – her creative partner in filmmaking will learn if Animal Behaviour, a humorous film about a disparate group of animals in psychotherapy group therapy for various issues, will make a nomination shortlist for the 2019 Academy Awards.
The Vancouver-based husband and wife team, who met at film school in the U.K., won an Oscar in 1995 for their wry, slightly risque film short, Bob’s Birthday. The film about a man’s mid-life crisis, captured the Best Animated Short Film award.
To thank doctors, nurses and all the other health professionals who saved Snowden’s life when her lungs failed after she contracted a rare illness, the pair dedicated their latest digital hand-drawn film to the Vancouver General Hospital staff who took dogged, extreme steps to rescue Snowden from the brink.
The dedication to the health professionals appears at the end of the 12-minute film. The film was screened for staff at the hospital six months ago.
Just when Snowden and Fine were nearing completion of their latest short film last year, she developed a stubborn, non-specific virus that then led to a terrible lung infection and a rare autoimmune disease called acute respiratory pneumonitis (ARP).
The last thing she recalls before she was placed in a coma was watching the Academy Awards with David on their laptop while she laid in a hospital bed. Soon after, doctors realized how grave her condition was so Snowden was transferred to an isolation room in the intensive care unit.
Fine recalls pressing doctors for answers and when they candidly responded that they didn’t know how to treat his wife’s condition, “I fainted. I think because I was so terrified of what would come next.
Fine recalls intensivist Dr. Gord Finlayson taking out a big binder to show him the “cold hard facts” that Snowden wasn’t a good double lung transplant candidate because she’d been in a coma for weeks and that had rendered her too weak to survive.
But Finlayson would later pitch the idea of putting Snowden in an induced coma and connecting her to ECMO to buy some time while they explored options. It was the first time VGH had used ECMO for someone not yet on a transplant list.
The medical team had previously done this successfully on another patient in 2016. But that patient was not as gravely ill as Snowden. And it was a planned bridge to transplantation while Snowden’s case was more about getting Snowden to a point where she might be well enough to undergo a transplant, not to mention lucid enough to give consent.
“We were told her lungs were done. She would not recover. She would not come back,” said Fine, in an interview, adding: “It was all so horrific for me and our daughter to even grasp all of this.
“But then they called me with an idea, to push the envelope by waking her up and put her on ECMO,” Fine said, referring to extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, used in dire emergencies for patients with failing hearts or lungs, and as a bridge to transplantation when patients are in the queue.
With ECMO, blood is drained from the vascular system, circulated outside the body by a mechanical pump, and then re-infused into the patient. While outside the body, hemoglobin is fully saturated with oxygen and carbon dioxide is removed.
While she was on ECMO, Snowden did physiotherapy to rebuild her muscle strength, to convince the transplant team that she would be able to endure the marathon operation. On April 3 – her birthday – she was put on the transplant list and on April 11, a pair of lungs from an unidentified individual were flown from an undisclosed location three hours away. They were implanted by Dr. John Yee and a team.
Snowden spent the next several months recovering after the transplant and then slowly, she and Fine completed the film they had spent three years making. Besides Vancouver, it has been shown at film festivals in Toronto, Edinburgh, Brazil (where it won the Grand Prix), Germany (where it won audience best film), Los Angeles, Annecy in France, and in Manchester, England.
Snowden said after her health ordeal, traveling around the world to promote the film was initially daunting, but “you do get more confidence the more you do and my lungs feel great.”
The Snowden case is being used now to promote the activities of the VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation, in particular, the current Millionaire Lottery which uses money raised to purchase equipment like the ECMO and to fund research. Angela Chapman, senior vice president of the foundation, said Snowden’s lifesaving surgery and care is a reminder that “in our moment of need, we all want the very best care delivered by outstanding healthcare professionals with the most advanced tools and technology.
“In Alison’s case, whether it was in the operating room, or during recovery, there was medical equipment used, facilities required, and research that impacted her care that was funded through philanthropy and the proceeds of our lotteries. Thousands of donors every year give millions of dollars to support the vital healthcare delivered at VGH and UBC Hospital, and this ensures that all British Columbians benefit from the specialized care – such as a double lung transplant in Alison’s case – that Vancouver General Hospital can provide.”