In 2001, the Alberta Government allocated $125 million in funding to the creation of the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute at the University of Alberta Hospital. That same year, my dad received his first open heart surgery at the U of A. He was 48, I was 12, and I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. It hit me when my grade six classmate said, “I can’t believe you’re at school right now. If my dad was having heart surgery, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house!”
My memory of his surgery is now a blur, but I do remember how I felt; my dad—the strongest person I know—looked weak and frail. I’d never seen him so dependent. I broke down into tears after visiting him in the intensive care unit. But my distress and confusion was short-lived. His somewhat miraculous recovery was relatively quick compared to the extra 17 heart-healthy years the surgeons and medical team at (what would eventually become) the Mazankowski provided him.
During this time, we discovered that his heart issues were genetic in origin, and so my four siblings and I met with the Genetics Department at the University of Alberta Hospital, and over the years have experienced regular check-ups, monitoring and excellent care from the Mazankowski.
Flash forward nearly two decades to summer 2017: I’m 30 years old and newly pregnant. (The Mazankowski swiftly referred me to the Maternal Heart Health Clinic at the Lois Hole Hospital for Women for the duration of my pregnancy. The excellent care has continued.) However, this exciting phase of life was paired with the devastating news that my dad was in need of open heart surgery for a second time.
With a baby in my belly, and now old enough to understand the risks my dad faced, what weighed heavy on my mind was family. Family, and the passing of time. I’d recently watched my colleagues and Poppy Barley’s co-founders, Kendall and Justine, suddenly lose their father, Bill, to heart complications. It was true grief. Bill Barber—undoubtedly Poppy Barley’s biggest fan—had also been a patient at the Mazankowski just eight years prior. Kendall and Justine have said often how grateful they are to the Mazankowski for giving them those extra years with their dad.
We made sure to say enough before my dad’s second surgery; it was a balancing act of positive and optimistic statements (I couldn’t wait to show him my first ultrasound, which happened to be scheduled on the same day of his operation—and he promised to wake up to see it), while still subtly acknowledging the fact that we might be saying a kind of forever-goodbye. I wanted to speak with no regrets. But, ultimately, I felt a sense of helplessness. Again, our future lay in the hands of the Mazankowski.
Last week, my dad returned to work, after 10 hours on the operating table and four months of rest, rehabilitation and recovery. The Mazankowski successfully mended his heart—for a second time—and they mended ours too.
When I was asked to onboard the Mazankowski as Poppy Barley’s Q1 charity partner this year, that feeling of helplessness melted away. Although we may feel like bystanders when our loved ones are sick, we do have the power to donate, build awareness, and back our healthcare providers.
Operating largely on donor support, the Mazankowski is now a world leader in cardiac care. Since it officially opened in 2009, the Maz has saved and changed more than 100,000 lives through 1300+ annual open heart surgeries, and 284 annual heart, heart/lung and lung transplants. In recent years, donors to the University Hospital Foundation contributed $1.4 million towards the expansion of the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) at the Maz, increasing capacity to allow 200 more surgeries to be performed every year, and more specialized patient care than ever before. And it’s all based right here in Edmonton, Alberta.
Statistics say that one in four Canadians will be affected by heart disease in some way, at some point in their life. Despite all the ways it’s affected my family—and my friends—over the years, I don’t feel helpless: I’m bringing my son into a time and place that offers some of the brightest medical minds, the most advanced technology, and communities of people that want to do good. What’s more? My dad is here to show it all to him.