Category Archives: Patient Stories

A collection of all the patient stories.

Your Body Knows Best: Listen to your Heart

Local entrepreneur Doug Assaly didn’t seem a likely candidate for heart disease.

As the owner of Honey Construction and founder of The Fuel Bar, Doug was passionate about eating well and staying fit, and was a competitive kickboxer.

But in late 2015, at age 54, Doug began experiencing occasional chest pains.

“I’d only feel them when I was training or running, but I was in great shape so I thought the problem was just my lungs—that I needed to train harder to improve my cardio, and I was just hitting a wall. I kind of ignored it,” he says.

During an appointment with his physician, Doug decided to mention the pains in passing.

“I told him pretty much as I was heading out the door—I had barely given it a second thought,” he recalls. “But my doctor took it seriously and decided to send me to the Heart Institute for tests.”



Preliminary tests at the Heart Institute determined that Doug’s heart rate was not recovering properly after exercise.

Then, using 3D imaging, they identified blood flow issues around his heart.

An angioplasty was scheduled for February 2016. Doug had two artery blockages at 90%, with his main artery at 60% blockage.

“Although they were thinking of using stents to hold the arteries open,” says Doug, “they realized that wasn’t the preferred procedure in my case.”

And so, Doug was scheduled for open-heart triple bypass surgery in May 2016.



Doug’s first reaction to learning he needed surgery was disbelief.

“I do come from a family with high cholesterol and heart disease—one of my brothers even had surgery. But I really didn’t think I’d be impacted,” he explains. “I was in really good shape, a very healthy eater, and able to do these extreme sports. I was even the most fit of my friends. Everyone was shocked.”

However, he decided to accept the situation. “In the whole process, my main concern was leaving my 10-year-old son behind,” he says. “That was my greatest fear, so I played it down in front of my son.”



Doug was put on medication to slow his heart and keep him in a temporarily healthier state and took part in a two hour workshop to learn about the procedure and recovery.

Despite the seriousness of the upcoming surgery, Doug remained calm. He credits the Heart Institute’s staff for keeping him continuously informed and educated.

“The Heart Institute is full of very nice, warm and caring people who explained everything to me, all through the process,” he says. “Never did they leave me hanging or wondering about things. If I had a question, it was answered. In fact, they often gave me answers before I really had a chance to ask!”

The night before his surgery, Dr. Fraser Rubens visited him in his hospital room.

“My doctor wanted to be sure I was okay—and his level of confidence made me feel relaxed, right up to the point where I was wheeled into the operating room the next day.”



That ongoing communication between professionals and patient continued following Doug’s surgery.

“The nurses were extremely knowledgeable—and particularly after surgery, they were fantastic, explaining things and telling me why they were doing certain things. It was really comforting.”

Within a day of surgery, Doug was up and walking.

Within 10 weeks, Doug was able to return to exercising. Within 14 weeks, he was “pretty much going full blast, although not to the level I would have been at, had I not gone through the surgery.”

By September 2016, Doug was even strong enough to travel to Disney World with his son.

“I wasn’t 100% but I was good enough to spend time in Florida for seven days, doing the waterparks and rides and everything,” he says.

Today, Doug is back to work full-time and kickboxing and weight training three times a week.



Recently, Doug joined Leaders at Heart 2020: a group of community volunteers with strong personal ties to the Heart Institute who are working together to develop future volunteer and philanthropic leadership, and raise funds for the Heart Institute.

“This group is supporting the expansion of the Heart Institute, including the equipment required, to expand the services they already have,” says Doug. “The Heart Institute staff does such great work, but if they have the funds to do surgery more quickly or even better than they are currently doing, that would be wonderful.”

Doug has personally donated to the Heart Institute, as has his company.



Since his heart experience, Doug has been encouraging others to pay attention to their own bodies.

“They say heart disease is a silent killer, which is so true. I only experienced pain when I was training, but I didn’t have any other symptoms,” says Doug. “Thankfully I stopped training—but if I hadn’t, I might have had a heart attack or stroke. That’s the reality— heart disease doesn’t always rear its ugly head the same way for everybody.”

“So if you experience any kind of symptom, pay attention and talk to your doctor about it. If you have symptoms of anything, just mention it. Because if I hadn’t mentioned those pains to my own doctor in passing, who knows where I’d be today.”




Home for the Holidays

My name is Eric Auger.

This Christmas, I’m excited to say I will be home for the holidays, able to see my son’s face as he opens his presents. And I’ll be able to give him a hug and kiss.

I wasn’t able to do that last year.

That’s because, after a seven-month wait of being on a transplant list, I received a call on December 11, 2016—telling me a heart had been found for me.

Within 48 hours, I not only had a new heart—but an entirely new lease on life.


A rough start

I was born with congenital heart disease and—prior to my heart surgery—had 13 surgeries in the first three decades of my life. I also had a pacemaker by the time I was 12!

I was only 14 months old when I had my first heart operation. During surgery, I didn’t get enough oxygen to my brain, which caused some brain damage and a mild case of cerebral palsy.

At age three or four, doctors told my mother that I wouldn’t ever be able to walk.

However, my mom wouldn’t put me in a wheelchair. She believed I would walk again. And she was right. I didn’t start walking until I was six…but I still did it.


A pretty normal childhood

You may be surprised by this, but I didn’t really feel physical pain when I was younger. My heart condition was quite manageable.

Still, growing up, kids weren’t always nice to me. They basically laughed at me because my cerebral palsy made me shake so much.

I also had a very small frame and because of my condition, wasn’t really able to do much physical activity. However, I could sometimes play road hockey, soccer and baseball with my closest friends, who understood I had a heart condition (they took it a bit easier on me.)

Life was actually pretty normal. Keep in mind, I was used to having this condition and dealt with it very much on my own, asking for a little help here and there…but not very much.

By the time I was a teenager, you could say I had a pretty typical life: partying, and hanging out with friends and girlfriends. I wasn’t as good with taking my medication as I could have been, but life was pretty good.

It really wasn’t until adulthood that things changed.


Cardiac arrest

In my mid-20s, I was beginning to slow down a lot, and didn’t know what was wrong with me.

I didn’t tell anyone. But I should have—because at age 29, I had my first cardiac arrest.

I died that day: they actually pronounced me dead for an hour.

I had no brain activity, no oxygen, no nothing. I was told that the paramedics worked on me for an hour straight.

I went into a coma at the Heart Institute for almost two weeks.

Somehow, I pulled out of it and went back to feeling perfectly normal.

But that was just temporary. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of my troubles.


Total hell

I had three more heart attacks over the next 4-5 years—and was pronounced dead two more of those times.

I refer to that period of my life as total hell—for me, as well as my family, who had to see me suffer.

Eventually, the team at the Heart Institute said I had two options: either put my name on the transplant list, or die slowly.

I was only 34.

It may surprise you, but it was a hard decision in a way. The main reason is my heart flipped upside-down when I was born—so all my arteries, vessels and blood flow were backward. Basically, my anatomy is different than most.

Despite this, I decided to go on the transplant list in early 2016. But by September of last year, I had been in and out of the hospital every month.

As a result, my name was accelerated closer to the top of the list.


The phone call

I got the call on December 11, 2016: a new heart was available.

I literally think if I hadn’t gotten that phone call, I wouldn’t have made it past Christmas. I was so sick by that time, I could barely walk up two stairs without catching my breath.

I went to the Heart Institute the next day.

I was warned there was a possibility I could die on the table. But I had already been at peace even before I heard a heart was available. Sitting in there in the bed, waiting to be wheeled down to the operating room at the Heart Institute…I was ready. It was either I live or I die.

Thankfully, with help from the Heart Institute, I survived—and thrived.


When I woke up, I had a lot of chest discomfort because the surgeons had to break a couple ribs to get in there. It hurt a lot!

But the staff got me up and moving within two days.

And in less than a month, I was able to return home.

It probably took about three months before I could actually move and do stuff. (My wife wouldn’t let me do anything!)

But over time, my health began to improve.

It’s been over a year now, and I continue to go to the Heart Institute for biopsies, which measure how my heart is doing. I used to go for biopsies twice a week for four weeks. Then it was once a week. Then, once a month. Now, it’s every three months.

If all goes well, I won’t have to have another biopsy for six months. And then, I will only have to have one every year.

The Heart Institute has been great in terms of the care I’ve received. I know most of the nurses there—they’ve been great and helped me out a lot. Once, I even received a personal email from one of them, just checking in on me. It’s a great feeling to know that people there actually care about you and want to help you.

I also have to give credit to my wife and mother for their support through all this. To my mom, who never put me in that wheelchair and kept me going. And to my wife, who kept picking me up when I was down. Any time I wanted to give up, she kept picking me up, dusting me off and getting me going. If not for both of them, I don’t think I would be here today.

And of course, I am very grateful to the person whose heart I now have. While I don’t know them, I feel very honoured and thankful for this second chance at life.


Back to life

Today, I am feeling 100% better, healthier, and much more energetic.

I no longer have congenital heart disease. No more pacemaker, defibrillator or bad heart. They took out everything, and now I’m normal—for the first time in my life.

Now, I can play sports. I even volunteered this past summer as an assistant coach for my son’s baseball team.

And this past August, I went with my wife, son and parents to Vancouver for a 10-day vacation. That was something I wouldn’t have been able to do within the last four years.


Christmas and plans for the new year

I couldn’t wait to spend this Christmas with my son and family. As a personal treat, I even bought myself a ticket to see the Ottawa Senators play an outdoor game at TD Place in mid-December—almost a year to the day that I received my new heart.

As for 2018, I hope to return to the working world—hopefully in some sort of cooking position. My goal is to start six months from now. I’m working on building my strength. I walk my son to school every day, and exercise mostly every day. The last few years, I wasn’t able to do any of that stuff.

Meanwhile, I’m also enjoying waking up every morning to my seven-year-old son jumping on me. All that stuff I went through, I did for him. I love him more than anything in the world.

Message to donors

It doesn’t really matter what kind of donation you make, whether financial or otherwise. But if you’re considering making a donation, I encourage you to give to places like the Ottawa Heart Institute, and to please sign your organ donor card.

You really never know who you’re going to save, but there are people in this world who need your help.

People like me.



Holiday Messages

When it comes to the Heart Institute, our community is always generous. This holiday season, it  was with words of encouragement to the patients and gratitude to the staff through a Holiday Messages mail program the Foundation promoted in November. Here is a selection of some of  the greetings we received for the patients and staff.


Kaufmans Legacy Gift Honours Humanitarian Couple’s Commitment to Education and Philanthropy

Legacy Gift Honours Humanitarian Couple’s Commitment to Education and Philanthropy

Dr. Hyman (Hy) Kaufman and his wife, Dr. Sylvia Van Straten Kaufman spent their lives committed to making a powerful impact on future generations. A shared passion for philanthropy, research, and education, together with a strong belief in the potential of rapid developments in cardiology, inspired the Kaufmans to leave a legacy with a generous gift to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

Often, the choice to leave a legacy gift in your Will stems from each donor’s personal experience – the Kaufmans were no different. In 1980, following Hy’s retirement from McGill University where he was a Professor of Mathematics (and where he and Sylvia met and married in 1959), the Kaufmans moved to Ottawa. In 1988, Hy became a patient of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute as a result of a heart attack. In 1995, he underwent double bypass surgery and an aortic valve replacement – the Kaufman’s Endowment Fund and the beginning of their legacy would begin just 5 years later.

The Drs. Kaufman started the Dr. Hyman and Dr. Sylvia Van Straten Kaufman Endowment Fund at the Heart Institute in 2000 and for over 15 years, the fund supported the Institute’s annual Kaufman Grand Round Lecture, enabling medical professionals to learn, grow, and exchange knowledge and ideas. Many esteemed lecturers have participated in this annual event, including specialists from world-class hospitals such as The Cleveland Clinic, and from as far away as Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

In addition, the Kaufmans’ legacy gift supported the creation of the Dr. Hyman and Dr. Sylvia Van Straten Kaufman and Dr. Kwan-Leung Chan Fellowship in Echocardiography. This fellowship honours the Kaufmans’ wishes to transform their legacy gift so that it would have greater impact on research and education in the field of cardiac medicine.

The Kaufmans’ gift also had significant impact on the Heart Institute’s new building, slated for completion in March of 2018. Their gift contributed to the purchase of highly specialized medical equipment, and to development and outfitting of patient-focused care facilities such as the unique and innovative Hybrid Operating Room.

The Kaufmans were academics – Hy held Ph.D.s in Mathematics and Physics while Sylvia’s Ph.D. was in Chemistry – who also shared a deep love and appreciation for art in all forms: music, poetry, painting and more. Four paintings created by the couple, two each by Hy and Sylvia, now adorn the walls of the Kaufman Training Centre at Hillel Lodge, yet another example of the Kaufman’s commitment to leaving a legacy in and for their community.

Both Hy and Sylvia displayed their humanity by impacting others through education and charitable giving throughout their lives. Hy continued to grow the fund at the Heart Institute in her honour after Sylvia’s passing in 2006 and, following Hy’s passing in 2014, the full extent of their gift was conferred upon the Heart Institute and it is our esteemed honour to continue their legacy.


When you leave a legacy gift to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute Foundation, you become a member of the Wilbert J. Keon Legacy Society and will become part of providing ongoing support that funds patient care, research, The Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre, the most urgent needs of the Heart Institute, among other initiatives and innovations. Your gift will not only help save and improve the lives of others, but it will help you to leave a lasting legacy you can be proud of. To learn more about including the Heart Institute in your Will, please contact the Legacy Gifts team at 613-696-7251 or

A Newfoundland couple’s story of strength, compassion, and a new heart.

It is fitting that Donna Connolly hails from Newfoundland, because her strength is like a rock. But even a feisty, determined woman like Donna needed the Heart Institute — and she and her husband Greg urge others across Canada to seek out its services, and to give generously.

On a typical Saturday night, Greg and Donna Connolly sat down to watch Greg’s favourite show, “Mantracker”. After a playful back and forth where Greg mentioned that if he had to watch Donna’s soap operas, she could watch “Mantracker”, the couple laughed, and he turned his head back to the television. Suddenly he heard a loud gasp, “it was like a seal”, Greg said. He looked over at Donna. “When I looked, she was dead. I was sure.”

“I could feel my heart stop and everything slowly stopped down through my body, and I remember falling back, and I don’t remember anything after that, until I was on the ambulance stretcher”, said Donna.  “Then I heard Greg’s voice.” Donna had a defibrillator and a pacemaker, both of which were inserted 12 years ago as a precaution while she was in St. John’s. “If I didn’t have [the pacemaker/defibrillator] that night I would be in heaven now”, she said.

Donna and her husband Greg came to the Heart Institute a few months ago, so that Donna could benefit from a heart transplant. Having suffered for years from heart failure, broken bones due to blackouts, shortness of breath, and heavy coughing, Donna’s heart was at 18% capacity when a doctor in her home province of Newfoundland broke the news to her. “My darling, you’re a lot lower than that”, Donna recalled the doctor saying. “I have to tell you something, and it’s not very nice to tell you, but I don’t give you a year to live.” He told her she needed a heart transplant.

Within three weeks, Greg and Donna had found a temporary home  in Ottawa, and meeting with Dr. Davies and Dr. Yip for a full workup. By the time they arrived, Donna’s heart capacity had dropped to 9%, and she was added to the transplant list. During this time, Greg couldn’t help but think, “I came up here, and I figured I was going home alone.”

While waiting for a donor heart that was the proper size and matched her blood type, Donna continued to experience the blackouts she had suffered from for years. One night she fell. “My leg went underneath me, and I broke the tib and the fib (tibia and fibula) — both at the ankle”, Donna said. After being rushed to the emergency room, Donna was told that they wouldn’t be able to operate because her heart was too weak. They cast her leg and her recovery lasted over two months, during which time she couldn’t sit or bear weight. Due to the cast on her leg, she came off the transplant list. Donna wondered if she would “get through this”, but with constant check-ins from Jackie Grenon and other Heart Institute staff, she began to feel hopeful. Eventually, Donna’s cast changed to a walking boot, and she was placed back on the transplant list.

A week later, the Connollys got the call. “I was sitting there one evening and the phone rang, it was the nurse practitioner and she said, ‘We have a heart for you, can you come?’ I was there in 15 minutes — I washed my hair first — you can’t go out without your hair washed!” Donna’s strength is matched only by her fun-loving nature, and her deep love for her husband, Greg. The Connollys are exactly what you would expect of a couple in love from Newfoundland — friendly, down-to-earth, and humble.

After a long delay, as the donor’s family was not yet ready to let go of their loved one, a team retrieved the heart and it was time for Donna’s surgery. All of her nervousness went away when she met the anaesthesiologist who would prepare her for surgery. Dr. Sohmer’s jokes about Newfoundland relaxed her immediately. Due to this rapport, Donna ended up with the nickname “Madonna the Newfie”, and promised Dr. Sohmer and her surgeon, Dr. Boodwhani that she would gift them each with a bottle of screech after her surgery.

The Connollys were amazed by the compassionate care provided by the staff, and the humanity they were shown.  Donna sums it up, “well, if you ever met anybody in your life, that could take you from dead to living, it was Dr. Ben Sohmer.”

When Donna was admitted to surgery, her heart capacity had plunged to 7% and it was estimated that she had two hours to live. “They said it was the worst heart they had ever seen”, said Donna, “they didn’t know how it was beating.”

Before the surgery, her kidneys were starting to fail and she says she could actually smell her own heart rotting from the inside. “My heart was enlarged three times as big as it should have been, because it was beating so hard, it was enlarging itself, and the right side was doing the work for both”, said Donna.

Although she had been experiencing signs of heart failure for over 19 years, Donna was not sent to the Heart Institute until the situation was dire. Now she and Greg agree that it should have been sooner. Greg urged, “People have to know that this is available. They have to say to their doctor — what about the Heart Institute? Can you get me up there? Do I need to go up there? The main thing is — ask questions.” Donna agrees, “and you have to complain — it’s something I didn’t do — I was never a complainer.”

The couple may not agree on television shows, but one thing they agree on wholeheartedly is the impact the Heart Institute made on their lives: “The Heart Institute was just fantastic. They were with us every step of the way. It was unreal”, said Greg.

“Oh my God, the treatment I got, was like second to none”, added Donna. “It was like from the time I got in the door, till I came out the door — it was unbelievable.”

“I never saw care, or was given care, like I was given here”, Donna professed. “If I won the lottery today, they would get half of what I won. Because they deserve it. ” Greg added that they truly felt seen and heard by all of the staff, and not treated like a number. When Donna’s surgeon, Dr. Boodwhani called Greg after her surgery, Greg was impressed: “when he called me after surgery, he didn’t just say, she made it, and that’s it — he took the time to talk to me. He had time for me.”

The excellent care did not stop with the doctors. “The nurses have compassion for you — they feel. They’re not just there to do a job”, said Greg.  “They’re angels.” echoed Donna.  “I can’t get over how kind they were to me.” Greg added: “they also looked after me — not only did they look after her, but they never forgot about me.”

“I take my hat off to them, I really do. I can’t thank them enough, even down to the lady who came into the room to clean up”, said Greg. Both Donna and Greg struggle to find the words to truly thank The Heart Institute. “I can’t give back enough to say thank you — for what they gave us”, said Donna.

“They gave me life.”

“They gave us life”, Greg added.

In addition to the doctors, nurses, and staff at The Heart Institute, it goes without saying that Donna’s heart transplant would not have been possible without her donor. “Whoever gave me the chance at a second life — God bless them, because I pray for their soul every night”, she said. Donna credits her faith, strength, and relationship with her husband for helping her through this experience. “I thank God for my faith — next is my strength”, she said. “Even though I went through all that, I never once thought I wasn’t going to make it.”

Donna’s message for others who may be facing what she went through is to think positively: “Don’t ever give up because if you give up — you’re finished. Fight to the bitter end.” She adds,It was my faith, my strength, and my better half here — he was with me 100% of the way. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner if I could invent one.”

The Heart Institute’s Urgent Equipment Needs: How Our Community is Stepping Up

On January 5, 2015, shovels broke ground on the largest expansion in the history of the Heart Institute.  Fast forward 2.5 years and the building frame, walls, and windows are up which means that 145,000 sq feet of new operating space is nearing completion.  As teams of doctors and nurses prepare for the big move in April 2018, the community is doing everything they can to make sure that essential life saving tools are waiting for them when they arrive.

Donations by phone, mail, and online continue to demonstrate that the philanthropic spirit is very much alive in Ottawa and the surrounding region.  As the community hears about the Heart Institute’s need for equipment, they are responding as only the people of this region would – generously and from the heart.

One man in particular, Jack Keyes, has gone above and beyond to help ensure the doctors and nurses have the vital equipment they need to treat thousands of patients each year.  Jack, a life-long resident of Gananoque, was first introduced to the Heart Institute when his brother, Richard, was a heart patient.  Grateful for the care Richard received and witnessing the care given to so many other patients, Jack decided that he would purchase a new piece of equipment for the Heart Institute each year.

In 2016/2017 alone, the Heart Institute received more than 220,000 patient visits. Jack knows the impact equipment can have for those patients and how crucial these purchases are for the new clinical tower.  This year, Jack gave an incredible $100,000 for the Heart Institute to buy a new Portable Heart Lung System.  These systems, essential to the daily operation of the Institute, monitor important blood parameters including blood oxygen saturation and hemoglobin, as well as arterial and venous blood temperature- essentially these machines are like a guardian angel watching over each patient.  When asked what he hopes his generosity will accomplish, Jack responds, “My chief priority is ensuring the new building is equipped to save as many lives as possible.  Second, I hope my contributions will inspire others to give back as well.”

Although the new clinical tower is nearing completion, this is not where the story ends. In fact, it is after April 2018 when the true work will begin. Thanks to donors like Jack, the Heart Institute is on a path to success. However, there is still much more that needs to be done, so that when the doors open and the lights go on, the Heart Institute is ready for the next chapter.

With just a few months to go, the excitement is palpable – for both staff and the community. With visionary leaders like Jack giving transformational gifts we know that the community is stepping up in a big way.

“We make a living by what we get, but make a life by what we give”. – Winston Churchill

Peter (Petros) Foustanellas

We are saddened by the passing of Mr. Peter (Petros) Foustanellas, one of the Heart Institute’s greatest and most generous friends. His unwavering support has inspired many in our community and can be seen in the legacy he leaves us with here at the Heart Institute.  In giving his name to our state-of-art auditorium, our life-saving cardiac surgery suite, and to the creation of a lectureship in his name, Mr. Foustanellas has made lasting contributions that will stand the test of time.

We will forever be grateful for his support, and for his friendship. On behalf of the entire Heart Institute Family, our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones.