Bravery and Heroism at Seven Oaks
Meet the Physician who Intervened During a Violent Attack
by Arpena Babaian
Much has been written about Dr. Ken Hahlweg since a chance encounter in the atrium of Seven Oaks Hospital brought him celebrity of a kind he neither expected nor sought.
Instinctively opting for fight instead of natural flight or freeze reactions, Dr. Hahlweg prevented a murder. He earned the title of hero, but it is an honour he consistently deflects.
“My colleagues would have done the same,” he is quick to note.
He makes a valid point. Given the dire circumstances faced by doctors during the pandemic, heroic is an apt descriptor for the entire profession. Caring for patients, exposing themselves to danger, pivoting to new strategies and treatments, absorbing rapidly evolving research, and advocating for best practices in public health, doctors have been heroic, too often at the cost of their own well-being. The enormity of the mission is staggering.
And yet, what Dr. Hahlweg did goes beyond the “everyday heroism” of doctors. Taking care of those in need rarely involves tackling a man wielding a knife. What flashed through Dr. Hahlweg’s mind – “I’m not going to let him murder her!” – embodies exceptional heroism: defending what is right, moral, and just by putting his own life in jeopardy.
“I was able to stop the attacker quickly, before he could kill this woman and perhaps others. I was willing to take the risk of tackling him, like a linebacker according to one of the police officers, and chasing him to give him no opportunity to continue using the knife in his hand.”
The entire encounter lasted 47 seconds. But it proved to have lasting effects on many, including Dr. Hahlweg. He returned to work the next day to attend the critical incident meeting, and to check in with his staff and colleagues, all of whom had experienced the Code Blue call and aftermath. He even saw some patients.
But soon he recognized symptoms of his own trauma.
“I realized that I wasn’t myself,” he explains. “I felt like my brain had short-circuited. It was taking me longer to think things through. I had trouble recalling details in the correct order. The memories got tangled.”
Dr. Hahlweg availed himself of the counselling he was offered.
“I found it very helpful to speak about what happened. There is no benefit in holding things in. In fact, this is a detriment to recovery. Counselling provided me a safe place to share. This gave me the traction to move forward instead of spinning my wheels.”
So perhaps Dr. Hahlweg will accept that he is a Hero, with a capital H. And a homegrown one at that. He laughingly notes that he hasn’t gone far in life: he is practicing in the city in which he was born, raised, educated, and trained as a physician.
“It was always a profession I admired. But as a first generation Canadian with no doctors in the family, it seemed like an unreachable goal. I was interested in both science and arts and so decided to take some aptitude tests. Physician was one of the suggestions, and it would allow me to apply both arts and science. Although I had a degree in biology, medical school was definitely a challenge. But I feel that my arts background has helped me become my own best version of a doctor.”
So too, did Dr. Hahlweg’s career path. He began as a rural physician providing cradle to grave care in Teulon, Manitoba, gaining wide-ranging experience. Later he did some ER stints in Winnipeg.
“I must admit that I didn’t love ER work: I found it extremely exhausting because of the constant flow of adrenalin.”
Dr. Hahlweg has found his niche. Being a family physician while also serving as the medical lead at the Northern Connection Medical Centre at Seven Oaks, and Assistant Professor at the U of M, has certainly called upon his full range of talents. As a family physician he works to find out what makes each patient tick.
“Patients trust and confide in you when they realize that you get them.” He carries that approach into his teaching and mentorship roles in the northern residency program, underlining the necessity of fostering caring relationships and open communication.
A strong social conscience underpins his practice and his pedagogy.
“Teaching gratitude rather than entitlement is something I learned from my grandparents, immigrants who were so grateful for the freedom, educational opportunities and social safety net in Canada,” Dr. Hahlweg explains. He sees values-based education as the antidote to recent erosions of Canada’s identity as a caring, generous nation.
“We ought to help young people understand the full spectrum of politics, and how history has shaped our society, and that includes facing up to the many harms and injustices. Without that exposure, judgements are bound to be superficial and too often misguided.”
Given Dr. Hahlweg’s mindset, perhaps risking his life to save another’s is not entirely surprising. Yes, his training was essential, but so too was his deep compassion and his urge to prevent a wrong. Medical training instilled not just the impulse to act, but the ability to do so without hesitation and with the type of creativity learned in trauma situations.
But there was an important moral computation, too. Dr. Hahlweg decided that a knife in his back would be lesser than what was about to happen to his colleague, nursing supervisor Candyce Szkwarek.
Intense altruism led to an extraordinary act of heroism.
Dr. Hahlweg is a reluctant hero, but even he has come to recognize that some good has somehow emerged from this terrible event. Beyond the excellent institutional response of Seven Oaks, he appreciates the relief and pride of his family, the warm gestures of colleagues, the many cards and gifts, and being seen in a special light by his patients.
He is proud that the excellent care rendered on the scene by his Seven Oaks colleagues and later those at HSC saved Candyce Szkwarek’s life. She is making steady progress in her recovery.
After giving the hero label some thought, Dr. Hahlweg again sees his actions as a symptom of the very foundation for all who pursue a calling in medicine.
“The caring nature we all bring to our work as physicians is a powerful tool. In recognizing that we are a privileged part of society and in using our gifts in the service of others, we all have the capacity to be heroic.”
Dr. Hahlweg did the thing that had to be done and became a capitol H hero. The pandemic may have cramped everyone’s horizons, but his heroic deed has helped people look up and remember the best of human possibility.