By Judy Hum-Delaney
“WOW, you had it worse than I did,” a bubbly twenty-something girl said to me. We had just met at the Telethon and we were taking a break from answering phones that March afternoon. We were already showing each other our scars from our surgeries, a custom that only heart patients would understand.
Her name was Larissa Taylor and she was a heart transplant patient at the tender age of 20.
“What are you talking about? Yours was much worse: you had a heart transplant,” I replied in good fun. “No, no,”’ she said, “your body had to be cooled down and stuff.” Her mother who was sitting right next to her chimed in: “Your procedure seemed more intricate.” Oddly enough, the man sitting right next to her agreed…and he had had two heart transplants!
I had undergone a pulmonary thromboendarterectomy (PTE). A very complex procedure that can only be handled by expert hands, PTE involves extracting a deadly blood clot from a major blood vessel in the lungs. Only two centres in North America perform this surgery and one them is the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
I am blessed to have been given a second lease on life and I feel undoubtedly lucky that we have such a centre in our hometown.
When I was first diagnosed, I was given about two years to live. It has been four years since my surgery and I am here thanks to the Ottawa Heart Institute.
I was only 32 years old when I learned that I had developed pulmonary hypertension because of a pulmonary embolism, but the path that led to this discovery was as complicated as the procedure.
One day, at work, my heart started racing every time I stood up. I couldn’t breathe and I broke into sweats. I went to the hospital the next day and the initial diagnosis was that I had asthma. Upon further investigation, they discovered that I had a large blood clot in my left lung. I was prescribed blood thinners which should have resolved the clot in six months. After a year, the clot was still there. My wonderful hematologist, Dr. Marc Carrier, followed my condition. While it got worse, I was convincing myself that I felt better.
I learned later that blood thinners are enough to restore blood flow and prevent the development of pulmonary hypertension for patients who suffer a blood clot. However, a minority of patients will not respond adequately to blood thinners. I was in the minority.
I was cheerfully continuing on with my life as if it wasn’t literally passing me by. I got married in June of 2011 to my wonderful husband and we travelled to Mexico for our honeymoon. I later learned that the trip could have been very dangerous for me.
In early July, I had my one-year checkup and was referred to Dr. Fraser Rubens, a cardiac surgeon at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute who would understand my condition and could remove my blood clot permanently.
When I met, Dr. Rubens ran through my charts. By the look on his face, I could tell things weren’t good at all. “We need to do open heart surgery to remove the clot in your lung.”
Is it really that bad, I thought? I felt great! After all, my sister also suffered pulmonary embolism years earlier and she never needed surgery.
“Surgery in like a year right? I feel fine,” I replied cheerfully.
“In August at the latest. September at the most, but I would rather not wait”
“Judy, if we don’t do it, you will die in two years”
I immediately panicked and began to sob uncontrollably. Dr. Rubens called Anne Stolarik, the advanced practice nurse for surgery, who came quickly into the room to console me. There was really no option; I had to do the surgery now or die in two years.
“If you do this surgery, you are buying yourself a future,” he said calmly. My surgery was scheduled two weeks after.
I had the surgery in the early morning hours on Tuesday, August 9, 2011. It wasn’t just complex; it was intensive. My body had to be cooled down to 17 degrees Celsius to protect major organs like my brain. They removed the clot in one shot! I was in a medically induced coma for two days following my operation.
What’s great about the Ottawa Heart Institute is that it’s not only about the patients; it’s also about the families. Throughout my entire stay, the amazing nursing staff made sure that my family was at ease and that they were included in every part of the process. The staff comforted them and truly tended to their needs. Even though Dr. Rubens was out of town on the weekend following my surgery, he still made time to see me that Sunday just to see how I was doing.
I was released from the hospital after one week. The average hospital stay is two weeks. Not a day has gone by that I don’t think of the care that I received and how lucky I am.
Anyone who has been through a near death experience knows that it changes everything. As I spent those five months recovering, I took that time to figure out how I would thank the Ottawa Heart Institute. In January 2012, I used my new lease on life to give back.
I volunteered at the 2012 Telethon answering phone calls and lending my hand where it was needed. Just last February, my community group “Ottawa Foodie Girlz” rolled up its sleeves to raise money for the Ottawa Heart Institute for Heart Month. The idea was simple: we reached out to amazing restaurants in Ottawa that were willing to donate gift cards as an incentive to donate during Heart Month. We raised over $1,000.
When Heart Month came to an end, I lent my hand once again to the Heart Institute by answering phones and showing my scars at the recent Telethon with other grateful patients who were there that day.
These days, I also give back by counselling patients who are candidates for the surgery. As for me, I am as good as new. The procedure went so well, it’s as if I never had a blood clot!
There are people who are afraid to go through this type of surgery. I understand because I was scared too, but there’s nothing to worry about when you have a truly world-class institution like the Ottawa Heart Institute in Canada.