Nurse placing electrode on an infants head while the infant feeds on a bottle

Up Close: Epilepsy Program

Over two millions Canadians live with epilespy, a physical condition characterized by sudden, brief changes in how the brain works.

Chemical and electrical signals are sent through the brain and central nervous system. Epilepsy can cause sudden spikes in electrical discharge that might end up in a seizure. The area of the brain that has this spike in activity will determine what happens during a seizure. A seizure can encompass a wide variety of forms like muscle spasms, blank stare, convulsions, uncontrolled movements and altered awareness.

At Hamilton Health Sciences, our pediatric patients are treated at the Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program (CPEP) at McMaster Children’s Hospital and adults are assessed at our Neuro-Ambulatory Clinic at Hamilton General Hospital.

In this Up Close photo series, we have a look at the process that patients go through to discover what is happening in their brain and the staff that help treat them.

If you enjoyed this photo set, have a look at other collections in the Up Close series:

Cogeneration Plant

Biomedical Technology

Open Heart Surgery

Prosthetics and Orthotics in Motion

Trauma Team Response

McMaster Children’s Hospital welcomes new president

Bruce Squires
Bruce Squires has been appointed the new president of McMaster Children’s Hospital.

Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) is excited to announce the appointment of Bruce Squires as the new president of McMaster Children’s Hospital and vice president, women’s and children’s health for HHS. Squires is the current vice president of people, strategy & performance at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ottawa, ON. He will begin his new role at HHS on Thursday, July 4.

Squires’ appointment follows a thorough international search and recruitment process. As the unanimous choice of the selection committee, there was consensus that his passion, leadership experience and deep knowledge of Ontario’s health system will be essential to the continued success of Ontario’s fastest-growing and second-largest children’s hospital.

At CHEO, Squires led the introduction of Solutions for Patient Safety, CHEO’s continuous quality improvement management system, and was acting chief executive officer of CHEO for a period in 2018. His leadership of operational transformations at CHEO helped earn recognition for the hospital in numerous forums as achieving one of Canada’s top corporate cultures.

Prior to joining CHEO, Squires spent more than seven years as vice president, corporate affairs of the Canadian Medical Association. He was also chief executive officer of the Newfoundland & Labrador Medical Association. Bruce is also active on a number of provincial and national organizations, including as Chair of Children’s Healthcare Canada.

“Mr. Squires’ record of accomplishment leading change within the healthcare sector will make him a strong addition to Hamilton Health Sciences and McMaster Children’s Hospital,” says Dr. Wes Stephen, executive vice president, clinical operations and chief operating officer at HHS.

With Squires’ arrival, HHS and MCH recognizes more than a decade of contributions by out-going MCH president and HHS vice president Dr. Peter Fitzgerald, who has served MCH as a pediatric surgeon for more than 27 years and as the hospital’s president since 2008. Dr. Fitzgerald will continue to provide care for patients at MCH in the role of pediatric general surgeon following the transition of leadership in July.

“On behalf of Hamilton Health Sciences, I ask our local and broader community to join me in thanking Dr. Fitzgerald for his outstanding service to our organization, and in warmly welcoming Mr. Squires to Hamilton this summer.”

New program keeps staff safe and patients comfortable

Violence in the workplace is one of the top health and safety concerns facing Ontario’s healthcare sector today. At Hamilton Health Sciences, nine percent of injuries that are significant enough to require medical attention or time away from work relate to violent patient behaviours such as hitting, punching and verbal abuse.

“We have a moral obligation to our staff, physicians and volunteers to provide a safe work environment while, at the same time, providing the highest quality of care to our patients,” says Susan Fuciarelli, director of Health, Safety and Wellness. “In the past, we have used different strategies to communicate potential patient safety risks. Now we have a standard, more objective way to document and communicate it.”

Standard tools to address violent patient behaviours

HHS is implementing a program at all hospital sites this year to support staff and meet our requirement under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The program is Behaviour Safety Risk Communication and Care Planning (BSR).

“Materials are encouraging open conversations about staying safe.”

The purpose of the program is to communicate standard approaches to planning care for the safety and comfort of staff, doctors and patients when a behaviour safety risk is identified. This helps reduce the risk of harm for everyone. It focuses on two important questions: “What do I need to know to keep the patient calm?” and “What do I need to know to keep myself and my colleagues safe?” It also standardizes screening tools and language across sites and uses visuals such as purple door signs, charting stickers, whiteboard magnets and patient wristbands to communicate risk.

Building on evidence

The program is based on evidence from literature, best practices from other hospitals and input from patients and families. A wide range of groups and specialties from across HHS contributed to the work.

“We built the program using evidence, and now we are also building our own evidence as we learn from one phase of the project to support the next,” says Elaine Principi, co-lead for the project.

Benefits for communication and care planning

The program was successfully implemented at Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre (JHCC) in 2018. Surveys with staff and doctors showed that since the program launched, their ability to identify patients who present a behaviour safety risk and plan for their care had improved. Over half of respondents said they felt less at risk from patients who displayed violent, aggressive or responsive behaviour and better supported by the hospital. They also described improved communication among their peers.

Jennifer Pringle, a registered nurse at JHCC agrees and says, the visuals help keep everyone’s safety top of mind. “BSR signs and other materials are encouraging staff, volunteers and families to have open conversations about staying safe.”

While the visuals have been a helpful tool, the BSR leadership team recognizes the potential stigma related to identifying patients with violent behaviours, particularly using a wristband. They continue to work with patients, families and staff around these concerns.

Working together to address stigma

“Keeping staff safe and minimizing patient stigma can be seen as competing priorities, but this program helps us address both,” says Elaine. “The care plan helps staff and physicians work together to keep the patient calm and comfortable. The stigma is really about our own judgement. Preventing stigma starts with our increased understanding of our patient and their needs.”

The program is currently being phased in at all HHS sites through training and consultation. The team is working with each unit to customize it to meet the needs of their patients and staff.

Strategy in Action story contest graphicThis story was selected as a winner in our Strategy in Action contest, which asks teams across Hamilton Health Sciences to share how they are putting our strategy into practice.

This initiative supports Enterprise Approach, one of four strategic directions identified in Hamilton Health Sciences’ Strategic Plan. Enterprise Approach is about leveraging our collective strengths to think and act as one hospital.

Mother reading book to daughter

Report: Unlocking a healthier future

We’ve reached an important time for health care in Canada. We’re at a crux. We need total, transformational change to mount some of the big challenges that our health systems are facing country-wide.

But at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS), in partnership with McMaster University, we’re exploring and implementing innovative solutions to change the tides for the better, and we’re doing it through world-leading health research.

Our research teams are helping us unlock important answers about health and health care so we can bring more value to our patients and their families. For example, our teams are helping patients with heart rhythm issues live better and with fewer complications. They’re finding new treatment options for patients with late-stage cancer so that they can live longer and more comfortably. And, they’re working with various cultural groups to create healthier futures for their children by detecting and mitigating potential health issues earlier on.

Learn more about how research at HHS is making a difference in people’s lives and in our healthcare system, for the better, in our latest report.

Research at Hamilton Health Sciences is conducted in partnership with McMaster University.

A young woman who just beat breast cancer smiles as she sits at her desk at work.

Grey’s Anatomy saves a life

An episode of Grey’s Anatomy may have saved Jenny Saliba’s life.

One evening, just under a year ago, the 29-year-old was at her home in Hamilton watching an episode of the popular medical drama where a young patient was diagnosed with breast cancer. Something struck Jenny – she’d never considered breast cancer a threat, and she’d never thought to check for it. In that moment, for the first time ever, she felt her breasts for lumps.

Just a few months earlier, Jenny had been finishing up a year of teaching in Columbia when unusual and worsening stomach issues forced her back to Canada for medical care. When doctors couldn’t make any conclusions about what was causing her symptoms, she was booked for a colonoscopy for the following fall for a closer look. Jenny had no idea her entire life would change in the meantime.

But that one night, alone on her couch, the realization something wasn’t right hit Jenny like a rogue wave crashing in to the sand. There, as her hand searched her breast for something – anything – she found a baseball-sized lump. A baseball-sized lump that had gone completely undetected until then.

A lump was found… now what?

“My whole life changed in that moment,” says Jenny. “I was hysterical.”

Frantic and full of worry, Jenny visited a walk-in clinic to have a doctor validate what she had felt (her family doctor was in Toronto). She was told there was a possibility that it was fibroadenoma, a condition where solid, but non-cancerous, lumps form in the breast. Through a series of tests and scans, Jenny hung on to that possibility with all her might. After all, she was only 29 – what else could it be?

Eventually, Jenny found herself at Juravinski Cancer Centre awaiting the results of her biopsy – a procedure that took a sample of her breast tissue to determine its make-up. Once again she sat in silence and fear, being pummeled by the waves of her thoughts which were moving in all directions at once. But this time, she was sitting in a chair in a hospital room waiting on the moment of truth. The moment when Jenny would learn that she had breast cancer.

“I realized that it wasn’t a death sentence.”

Diagnosed with breast cancer

“That day, my life completely shifted,” says Jenny. “I thought, ‘This can’t be me, I can’t have cancer’.”

Doctors at JCC confirmed that Jenny had “triple positive” breast cancer. She had no family history, no genetic risk. It was an out-of-the-blue diagnosis – one you simply can’t prepare for.

“Although breast cancer does occur in young women, it is rare,” says Dr. Richard Tozer, chief of oncology and one of Jenny’s doctors at Juravinski Cancer Centre. “There aren’t many people in Jenny’s situation.”

With determination, Jenny decided early on to harness the weight of her cancer diagnosis and direct that energy toward living life as best as she possibly could. Her devastation was channeled in to inspiration.

Dr. Tozer says Jenny’s optimism is contagious.

“Jenny is a rock,” says Dr. Tozer. “What has helped her get through treatment is asking questions and living life as it comes. She’s a very wise young person.”

Michele Cardoso, Jenny’s radiation therapist at JCC, agrees: “Jenny is one of those people that emanate light; her cancer experience has tuned her in to living life more fully and that is inspirational.”

“I decided I was going to take my life in to my own hands,” she says. “I realized that it wasn’t a death sentence. The more I read other people’s stories and researched breast cancer, the less afraid I became. I started to see it as a blessing.”

Breast cancer survivor recovers at the gym.

In the months that followed, Jenny underwent 25 rounds of radiation at JCC. She started a new fitness routine. She spent her summer receiving eight rounds of chemotherapy and then in August, she got married. In November, she had both of her breasts surgically removed. And today, she’s cancer-free.

Life after cancer 

“There is life during cancer,” she says. “And there’s life after cancer, too.”

“Cancer at 30 isn’t more difficult, it’s just a different conversation.”

But Jenny’s journey isn’t over; she has follow-up appointments with her team at Juravinski Cancer Centre every three weeks, and she has to take medication to help prevent the cancer from re-occurring. Its side effects include early menopause and infertility.

“Cancer at 30 isn’t more difficult, it’s just a different conversation. Topics like infertility come up. You need to re-evaluate your life plans.”

In talking openly about her breast cancer journey and the challenges throughout, Jenny hopes she can help other women feel less isolated and afraid.

“I feel so blessed that my life has completely changed,” says Jenny. “Now, I have the opportunity to speak out and help support other women.”

Above all, the most important message that Jenny has is:

“Learn how to do a breast self-exam, and pick one day once a month to feel your breasts.

If we learn to care for ourselves and our bodies the way we care for other people, we’ll be able to heal from anything.”

Someone holding a piece of yellow paper that says Thinking of You in big black letters

Thinking of You project seeks messages of support for people with cancer

Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) is creating a giant 4×6 foot greeting card of support for Cancer Awareness Month and we need your help!

At any given time, HHS’ Juravinski Cancer Centre is treating about 25,000 people, including about 7,500 new patients each year. Some of these patients are kids, also receiving treatment at McMaster Children’s Hospital. Treatment for the disease can be exhausting. Together, these patients make about 200,000 visits to JCC each year.

graphic of giant greeting card to scale with person

We’re seeking messages of kindness and compassion from across the community to brighten their days. The messages will be compiled into a larger-than-life greeting card that will be shared with patients during the month of April.

How can you take part?

1. Write a message of support on paper and post a photo of it to social media. Drawings are welcome too! Please be sensitive and keep in mind that cancer is a different experience for everyone.

2. Post the message to social media, and include the hashtag #ThinkingOfYouHHS. Tag us in the post so we don’t miss it!

If you have a private account, message us so we can follow you and see your post!

3. Check our social media feeds to see some of our favourite posts! And keep an eye out for our giant card in April!

Please share!

This project can only succeed with help from you! We want to show our patients a whole lot of love for Cancer Awareness Month, so every message counts. Let your friends know about the project by sharing our posts, or tagging a friend in yours. Want to get involved and don’t use social media? Email your photo message to

Make sure to post your message before March 22nd. After that date, we’ll be gathering posts, and designing a beautiful card to share with our patients at both Juravinski Cancer Centre and McMaster Children’s Hospital.

Ella in the playroom at McMaster Children's Hospital

Rett Syndrome: a 1 in 10,000 diagnosis

Sabrina Millson works as a clinical researcher at McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH). She knows more than most people about the many different illnesses and conditions that can affect children. But she had never heard of Rett Syndrome. Until her daughter was diagnosed.

A stall in her development

As a baby, little Ella developed typically, despite being a bit behind her peers. She responded to her parents’ gestures, smiled and made eye contact, and had a vocabulary of about 50 words. As she neared her third birthday, things changed.

“She stopped sleeping throughout the night and started having recurring tremors,” Sabrina, recalls. “Her behaviour changed dramatically.”

Ella was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Global Developmental Delay. Her symptoms mimicked early signs of these conditions. But Ella continued to regress, and it became very clear to Sabrina that something different was going on. After turning three, Ella lost all fine motor skills, and stopped walking and talking. Her parents rushed her to the emergency department at MCH.

A rare diagnosis: Rett Syndrome

A group of doctors reviewed Ella’s symptoms and ordered further tests. Dr. RamachandranNair, who specializes in epilepsy, determined Ella was having seizures. “Seeing her constellation of symptoms, we began to consider Rett Syndrome,” he says. Dr. Jennifer MacKenzie, a pediatrics genetics specialist, was called in to consult on Ella’s case. “Ella made good eye contact and had some repetitive hand wringing, both suggestive of Rett syndrome in a girl with Ella’s symptoms,” she says.” Genetic testing confirmed the diagnosis.

“It was absolutely devastating,” says Sabrina. “In my professional role, I am in the room when parents receive bad news and it’s absolutely heartbreaking, but being on the other side of that conversation was harder than I could have ever imagined.”

Rett Syndrome is caused by a mutation in the MECP2 gene. This gene helps to make a protein needed by the brain and nervous system. When the gene is mutated, it doesn’t create enough healthy protein to support normal brain function. Most cases include apparently normal development up to about 18 months, followed by a short pause in development, then a rapid loss of skills over a few years, then, typically, a plateau in symptoms. Rett Syndrome results in severe impairments, affecting almost every aspect a child’s life, including their ability to speak, walk, eat, sleep, and even breathe easily. Repetitive hand movements, like Ella’s, are a hallmark feature.

The syndrome occurs almost exclusively in girls and is very rare, affecting one in 10,000 girls under age twelve. Up to 90% of females with classic Rett Syndrome also experience seizures.

Caring for a child with a rare disease

“Caring for a child with a rare disease is very challenging,” says Sabrina. “Because few people know about Rett Syndrome, they don’t often understand it. There is a lot of unknowns, and it makes you feel alone.”

Sabrina says she has been able to find support online, and through her dedicated healthcare team at MCH. While there is no cure for Rett Syndrome, Ella sees a number of specialists to manage its effects, including pediatrician, Dr. Iman Shbash, neurosurgeon, Dr. Sheila Singh, ophthalmologist, Dr. Kourosh Sabri, orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Sarah Burrow, and Dr. RamachandranNair.

“staff are invested in children and that’s the best feeling in the world”

“We are fortunate to have a children’s hospital in our home town,” says Sabrina. “You know when you come here that staff are invested in children and that’s the best feeling in the world.”

Sabrina and her family are focused on helping Ella enjoy life. Their little girl loves swimming, socializing and playing outside. She has regained a few words, including mom and dad, and will soon begin learning to communicate using an eye gaze system. As the parent of a child with a rare disease, Sabrina tries to balance appreciation for her daughter’s individuality with the desire to raise awareness about Rett Syndrome. Above all, she wants people to see Ella as lively little girl who is unique not only because of her rare disease, but because she has the ability to teach us so much without saying a word.

Bob Bristo poses for a photo at St. Peter’s Hospital.

Learning to walk again

“My back pain was excruciating,” recalls Bob Bristo of Georgetown. “Then I began to experience weakness and paralysis in my legs. It kept getting worse until I could barely wiggle my toes.”

A number of questions raced through Bob’s mind: “Do I have a life-threatening condition? Will the pain keep getting worse? Will I require the use of a wheelchair for the rest of my life?”

After a scan revealed an abscess in his spine, Bob underwent surgery in Mississauga to drain it. The surgery successfully cleared up the infection, but the abscess had already caused damage to Bob’s nerves. Even with it gone, his motor function was badly affected.

“I couldn’t walk on my own at this point,” he explains. “I was told that I might never walk again.”

A step in the right direction

With family in the region, Bob was transferred to the Restorative Care Unit at St. Peter’s Hospital (SPH), where he began an intensive exercise program to help increase motor function and strength.

“With the help of therapists, I started to regain control of my toes,” he says. “I could eventually wiggle my feet and lift my legs a little. Progress was slow but promising.”

“It’s amazing to think about how far I’ve come.”

Many hours were spent in the restorative care gym, where Bob worked closely with physiotherapists and occupational therapists to recondition his body. His confidence increased as he began to see results.

“At first I needed a lot of assistance, but I learned to use the parallel bars on my own. Before I knew it, I could climb the stairs in the gym without any help. It was a great feeling.”

Back on his feet

Within months, Bob was able to stand up from his wheelchair on his own and he could use a walker for short distances. After several months as an inpatient, he was discharged home.

“It’s amazing to think about how far I’ve come,” says Bob. “All of this has been possible thanks to the amazing staff at SPH. The care I received was second to none, and I’ll always be grateful to them for helping me walk again.”

To learn more about the many ways you can donate to enhance patient care, visit the Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation website or call 905-522-3863.

Crocheted wigs on styrofoam heads

WLMH colleagues crochet for cancer

At work, they collect and analyze samples in the lab at West Lincoln Memorial Hospital (WLMH). At home, they ravel and loop yarn into charming garments for kids in cancer treatment. The West Lincoln Memorial Hospital Crochet for Cancer group has woven an incredible bond through their love of crochet and helping kids.

Inspired by an American organization, The Magic Yarn Project, Kim Mischuk, a registered laboratory technologist at WLMH, asked her colleagues if they’d be interested in starting a similar effort. She had six eager volunteers, with more than 100 years of crochet experience between them.

five women standing behind their crocheted wigs

“We’re a very tightly knit group,” Jackie MacCuish, another member of the group, jokes. “Or tightly, crocheted, I should say.”

a young girl in the hospital wearing a while Elsa wig

Using a basic crocheted hat as a base, the women craft everything from beanies to elaborate wigs. Favourites include Elsa from Frozen, Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, and Rapunzel. They try to appeal to both kids and teens, with a wide variety of hats and wigs to choose from. Depending on the complexity of the design, the pieces take anywhere from three to well over five hours to make. Jackie says colleague Svetlana Micovski is by far their most prolific crafter, crocheting the bulk of the complex wigs.

“It’s a wonderful feeling”

The time that goes into each wig is well worth it when they see the joy it brings to a child in cancer treatment. They’ve been lucky to receive a few photos from grateful parents, which they cherish. For children who have lost their hair during cancer treatment, the wigs can be both comforting and uplifting. They bring colour and whimsy during long, hard days.

The group has donated a batch of wigs to McMaster Children’s Hospital, and just sent 25 wigs to Childhood Cancer Canada, a charity that supports children with cancer, and their families. They have even sent wigs as far as Newfoundland. Jackie’s friend in St. John’s requested a wig for her granddaughter, and it was such a hit that they shipped a batch out east for her peers at Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to know we are adding a little bit of joy to these kids’ lives during a difficult time,” says Jackie.

Learn more about WLMH Crochet for Cancer on their Facebook page.

Matthew Bueckert at McMaster Children's Hospital

A lifelong battle with cancer at the age of eight

Eight year old Matthew Bueckert loves Lego, climbing trees, and playing tag and ball hockey. He especially loves when he gets to go to school, which unfortunately, isn’t as often as he’d like. Matthew is battling leukemia.

When Matthew was two and a half, he had terrible unexplained fevers on and off for a month. His pediatrician suspected cancer, and referred him to McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH) right away.

“My heart sank,” says Valerie Bueckert, Matthew’s mom.

Matthew’s care team at McMaster Children’s Hospital explained to his parents the test results, the disease and treatment options, which included a clinical research trial.

Advancing treatments for childhood cancer

MCH is part of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Consortium, which includes 11 North American institutions as well as the Children’s Oncology Group, made up of over 200 children’s hospitals from across North America and beyond. As part of these groups, MCH teams works with other hospitals on clinical trials to advance cancer care in children.

“Working with other hospitals allows us to find better treatment options for our patients.”

“Working with other hospitals allows us to find better treatment options for our patients,” says Dr. Uma Athale, Matthew’s oncologist at MCH. “Through another partnership with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Consortium a trial was available for patients with the exact leukemia Matthew has. We were offering it to our patients, so we presented it to his parents as an option.”

There are many different types of childhood cancers, and some of them are quite rare. For that reason, each individual hospital doesn’t see enough cases of each type to run a clinical trial alone. With hospitals working together, children can participate clinical trials that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them. This has helped childhood cancer survival rates increase drastically.

Considering a clinical trial

“The idea of a clinical trial was a little scary at first,” says Valerie. “The first thing that came to mind is that I didn’t want my child to be the guinea pig. But, on the other hand, why wouldn’t we want access to a treatment that may be better.”

The family learned that if a patient enters a clinical trial and they continue to worsen, they are not required to continue and can be switched to the standard of care treatment at any point in time.

Since leukemia can progress rapidly, it was important for Matthew to begin treatment as soon as possible. That meant his parents needed to make a decision quickly. It’s entirely up to the patient and family to select a clinical trial treatment method.

“We could have flipped back and forth on a decision for weeks, but since we only had a couple days we really focused on the facts,” says Valerie. “When it came down to it, the clinical trial wasn’t that much different than the standard of care and it had the possibility to be more effective. So, we went with the trial.”

It’s entirely up to the patient and family to select a clinical trial.

After the 25 month trial, Matthew went into remission at the age of four. He was back to his outgoing self.

Two years later, Matthew’s white blood cell counts started dropping and eventually the fevers returned.

“Matthew was under the watchful eye of McMaster Children’s Hospital, so when the same symptoms started to return we all jumped into action,” says Valerie.

Matthew’s leukemia had officially returned in December of 2017.

Hopeful despite a relapse

“The original clinical trial Matthew took part in provided conventional chemotherapy with slight variations. When he relapsed, we needed to consider a different, more targeted type of treatment,” says Dr. Athale.

There was another clinical trial available to MCH patients as part of the Children’s Oncology Group that included targeted immunotherapy. Immunotherapy works with the immune system to fight off the cancer cells. It is customizable, which made it a good fit for Matthew.

“Because of the immunotherapy component we said yes right away to this trial.”

“Since the last trial was so similar to the standard of care we knew another trial was the best option to go with this time around,” says Valerie. “Because of the immunotherapy component we said yes right away to this trial.”

Matthew is now just over half way through his treatment. When he’s feeling well enough, he goes to school and plays outside no differently than his older siblings and friends.

“For now, no news is good news, because it means nothing concerning has shown up in his test results. Although each day can be different, we’ve been happy to enjoy the good days,” says Valerie.

Thanks to the great support of Matthew’s team at MCH, the whole family is staying positive and hopeful.

a CT scan showing the case of calcium around Herve's heart

Heart excavated from calcium shell

A heart of stone. When Dr. Richard Whitlock looked at Herve Ndikuriyo’s scans, that’s what he saw.

“His heart was basically encased in calcium,” says Dr. Richard Whitlock, a heart surgeon at Hamilton Health Sciences. “On the CT scan, it looked like it was wrapped in bone.”

A bad case of a rare condition

Herve’s is one of the worst cases of constrictive pericarditis Dr. Whitlock has seen in his career. The condition causes calcium deposits to build up in the sac around the heart, often infiltrating the heart muscle itself. Bit by bit, the calcium creates a hard casing around the heart muscle, squelching its ability to beat and pump blood throughout the body.

“They said surgery was the only way to fix it.”

Herve, who came to Canada in 2013 as a refugee from Burundi, had no idea this constrictive armour was the cause behind symptoms he had been experiencing for months. Painful swelling in his legs had forced him to quit his factory job after standing for long periods became unbearable. He found work driving a school bus instead, but the swelling in his legs only continued to get worse.

Herve demonstrates the size of his legs before the procedure

“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was,” says Herve.

He went to the hospital, and a chest x-ray revealed the problem. The calcified growth appeared on the scans like a layer of bone.

“They said surgery was the only way to fix it,” recalls Herve.

World class surgery in his own backyard

He was referred to Dr. Whitlock, who takes on specialized and challenging cases. Herve was nervous, but understood the condition was putting a great deal of strain on his heart. His heart was failing, and as a result, blood was backing up into his legs. The swelling had become so bad he had to use his hands to lift his legs in and out of the car.

During surgery, Dr. Whitlock and his team carefully excavated the calcium that surrounded Herve’s heart. He had to delicately remove each fragment without damaging the heart muscle. Herve was placed on a heart and lung machine operated by a perfusionist so blood could be diverted around his heart while the team worked. Of the many Dr. Whitlock has performed, he had never had to use the heart and lung machine before.

“This was the toughest case of this I’ve done,” says Dr. Whitlock. “It was very challenging to get everything freed up, but we did.”

When Herve was taken off the heart and lung machine, his heart began beating for itself, and Dr. Whitlock could see that it was already stronger.

New heart dreams big

Since his surgery, Herve has continued to regain strength, and his legs have nearly returned to their normal size. He still has a long recovery ahead, but he is eager to get his life back and pursue his dreams.

“I want to go back to school and start a career in health care,” he says. “Seeing everything the staff here do, it’s inspiring.”

Dr. Whitlock is happy Herve is finally able to put his ‘heart of gold’ to use.

Dr. Whitlock and Herve stand together in the hospital

Ron Gardner next to a portrait of his brother, George.

Experiencing world-class cardiac care

A devastating phone call ultimately saved Ron’s life.

Ron Gardner from Burlington was planning a trip to Florida to visit his brother George, who played for the Vancouver Canucks as the team’s first goaltender. Before making the trip, Ron got a phone call informing him that George had died after suffering a massive heart attack.

After the results of George’s autopsy were released, Ron learned that they both suffered from a hereditary and life-threatening heart condition – a bicuspid aortic valve. The risk of the condition being inherited by a family member is as high as 89 per cent, making screening of family members important.

The cardiac journey begins

After a referral from his family doctor, Ron began his journey with the cardiac team at Hamilton General Hospital (HGH). Test results indicated Ron would need open-heart surgery, but he was healthy enough to delay surgery at the time.

“I probably would have died if I’d walked another 100 steps.”

Several months later, Ron was golfing in Vancouver when he dropped to his knees in pain.

“The sensation was like ‘pushing back the darkness’ as I tried desperately to catch my breath,” says Ron. “Upon returning to Hamilton, the cardiac team at HGH told me I probably would have died if I’d walked another 100 steps.”

The rapid progression of Ron’s symptoms meant the time for open-heart surgery had come.

A positive endorsement

One of Ron’s close friends with connections to healthcare systems in Toronto offered to facilitate a transfer to a Toronto hospital. To Ron’s surprise, the friend called back a few hours later with a glowing endorsement of HGH.

“Physicians he contacted in Toronto told him that HGH was one of the best cardiac facilities in Canada. Given a choice, they would want to have open-heart surgery at HGH.”

Within four weeks of his surgery at HGH, Ron was back to work.

Ten years later

A decade after his surgery, Ron continues to praise Dr. Victor Chu, as well as the cardiac and ICU teams at HGH for saving his life.

“I proudly tell people that we have a world-class cardiac program so close to home.”

Funding Innovation

Ron is the president of Funding Innovation, which is a Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation Care4 cause marketing partner. Funding Innovation operates an art easel program at businesses across the region and in Hamilton Health Sciences sites. Please consider bidding on a print when you spot an easel with the Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation logo, as proceeds will support The Foundation.