2015 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

Saving Cyla


About the Project

“Saving Cyla” brings readers into the operating room to witness an innovative medical technique whereby doctors wake up a patient mid-surgery to test speech, reading and writing skills in order to remove a deep-seated tumour.

To explain this complex procedure, we used a chapter-based approach that layered video, text and photos with 3D graphics.

In her work as The Globe’s health reporter, Kelly Grant learned that an international team of surgeons at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital was carrying out the longest awake craniotomies ever recorded in medical literature. The longer a patient can be kept awake safely, the easier it is for surgeons to determine the safest route to the tumour – one that won’t inadvertently damage other crucial parts of a patient’s brain.

The key to performing long – but still safe and comfortable – awake craniotomies was a newly approved intravenous sedative called dexmedetomidine, which one of the hospital’s Italian resident anesthesiologists recommended the team try on a man with softball-size tumour lodged deep in an essential part of his brain. That successful surgery lasted an astonishing nine hours.

Ms. Grant met with Dr. Sunit Das, the neurosurgeon who removed that man’s tumour, several times over the next six months in hopes of finding a brain-tumour patient who would be willing to open up to The Globe.

Enter Cyla Daniels. The 23-year-old student gave us unprecedented access to document this remarkable procedure. She allowed us to be in the operating room for the nearly six-hour procedure, including some of her most vulnerable moments.

The project took us three months to complete. We visited Cyla, her parents and her doctors ahead of the surgery several times to establish trust and ground rules. For instance, we had to figure out how visual journalist Patrick Dell was going to juggle capturing stills and video using three different cameras plus a microphone while avoiding contact with any of the sterile items in the already crammed operating room.

We then dissected our many hours of footage, including a half dozen interviews, to build a multimedia presentation that seamlessly wove text, videos and interactive graphics into one rich narrative.

To accomplish this goal, we examined each segment of the narrative and chose the medium (eg video, text, photo or graphic) best suited to that particular part of the story.

With the graphic, for example, we wanted to be able to explain the procedure through a series of steps without interrupting the flow of the story. We did this by creating an interactive graphic that was triggered by scrolling so that the user could navigate the graphic without having to change their interaction. For the same reason, on desktop we autoplayed the videos so users could just scroll and be presented with content in different mediums that wove in and out of each other.

On mobile devices we had to take a slightly different approach.

We broke down the scrolling graphic into a simpler series of stills that filled the screen for a clearer small screen experience.

Video on mobile devices requires user interaction (tap) to begin playing, so to account for the possibility that some mobile users might not watch the videos, we wrote the story text so that it made sense both with and without the videos. Videos and text were able to tell the story independently without relying on each other to complete the narrative. This technique allowed us to accommodate multiple mobile reading styles by allowing the reader to choose their preferred medium.

Reaction to the piece was incredible. Users described it as “unique,” “thought-provoking” and said it was “fascinating to get such an in-depth look at what Cyla and the doctors went through.”