Benjamin Edward LaMontagne was not like most teenagers.
He relished early mornings, pulling lobster traps from a skiff by hand. Passionate for an uncommon instrument, he spent his pocket money on exotic sheet music from Europe. And on too many days to count, he spent languid afternoons mulling the meaning of life over hot tea in his favorite cafe, sometimes knitting for relaxation.
Before he died Saturday after routine oral surgery, LaMontagne, an 18-year-old senior at Cheverus High School in Portland, was known as an independent, compassionate young man who constantly pushed himself to be better.
“The best part about him was that he did his own thing, he went his own way,” said Christian Cilley, 18, LaMontagne’s closest friend. “You could either jump on the train or watch it fly by.”
LaMontagne’s death stunned his school community and the tight group of families on Long Island in Casco Bay, where LaMontagne lived with his parents and four siblings.
Peter and Lynn LaMontagne said their son had impacted wisdom teeth removed on Feb. 19 and had typical post-operative pain and swelling. On Friday night, two days after the surgery, his condition deteriorated. He awoke in the early morning hours Saturday and, soon after, died in his mother’s arms.
His parents said rescue workers tried to revive him but were unsuccessful. An autopsy is pending.
His parents say they believe he died from complications of his surgery. They would not say who did the procedure, or if their son had an underlying medical condition.
“If anybody could say they had a complete life after 18 short years, it was Benjamin, which makes it all the more painful to have him taken from us so soon,” said his father.
If his death is confirmed to be from complications of the surgery, it will be extraordinarily rare, said two oral surgeons.
“The frequency of death is so low that it can’t be accurately estimated,” said Dr. Thomas Dodson, professor and chair of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has not reviewed the details of LaMontagne’s death but has examined the risk factors for wisdom tooth extraction.
For more than 15 years, Dodson taught surgery at Harvard Dental School in Boston and was an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. He said that in 20 years of surveys completed by every oral surgeon in Massachusetts – 150 to 200 surgeons in all – not a single death was recorded among patients who had wisdom teeth extracted.
“I’m trained as an epidemiologist, and I can’t say I’ve even ever read (about a death) anywhere,” he said. “It’s kind of one of these things that, when we do studies and we enroll 10,000 patients, death doesn’t happen. You’d need to probably enroll hundreds of thousands of patients to assess the rate of death.”
Estimates of patients who have complications that require hospitalization are low – about 2 or 3 per 100,000, Dodson said.
Dr. Eric Geist, president of the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, said that after wisdom tooth extractions, allergies to medication are a common source of adverse reactions, such as itching, rashes, hives or, in extreme cases of anaphylactic shock, swelling of the airway or rapid drops in heart rate or blood pressure.
“That would not be a reaction to the surgery, but to some sort of medication,” Geist said. “There’s not many ways that this type of surgery can go wrong.”
LaMontagne’s parents said they are not focusing on the cause of their son’s death, but only on laying him to rest and celebrating his life.
In all the things he did, LaMontagne brought intensity and joy, said his family and friends, and an uncommon self-assuredness.
He loved the outdoors and explored every inch of the island that was his home, his father said. He was a sharp student, but also enjoyed working on the water, walking a half-mile each summer morning to work as a sternman on a lobster boat.
He sailed for Cheverus High’s sailing team and, by his senior year, began composing his own musical, in which he was expected to perform this summer.
Music was by far his strongest passion, said his family and friends.
LaMontagne began playing the clarinet in the fourth grade, but chose later to play the bass clarinet, an uncommon instrument to take up early in life. After he entered high school, his passion for music intensified and he learned to play trumpet, bassoon, saxophone and English concertina.
He was one of just two students who received merit scholarships to attend the Sunderman Conservatory at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he looked forward to pushing the boundaries of his traditionally classical bass clarinet toward jazz.
Julia Frothingham, who taught LaMontagne bass clarinet for six years, watched him evolve from a somewhat unfocused sixth-grader into a serious musician who was eager to explore new instruments and styles.
“I know he’s not my son, but I feel like I watched him grow up,” said Frothingham, who has a 5-year-old son.
She said that she and LaMontagne talked about all that lay ahead for him at college, the bands he would join, the music he would play, the mentors he would meet. He agreed to send her recordings. She agreed to stay in touch.
“I’ll miss not being able to see where he goes from here,” Frothingham said. “I hope my son would grow up to be like him.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: