In the province of Newfoundland & Labrador, heart health should be top of mind. Two of this province’s finest cardiac care surgeons, and one young woman impacted, get to the heart of the matter
Dr. Sean Connors, Clinical Chief of Cardiac Surgery for Eastern Health, and Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk, the first Inuk cardiac surgeon in Canada, put their heart and soul into their work and into patient care.
“I think people have the tendency to think (that heart issues) are other people’s problems until it become their own,” opened Dr. Connors passionately.
Those waiting for heart surgery will quit smoking and lose weight, he added. “Then a year later, when they feel great … they lose all the good habits we tried to instill,” he continued
Heart disease isn’t often top of mind, for a variety of reasons, he said.
“We don’t have a billboard on the Parkway, for example, that shows a woman having a heart attack that would raise the profile.” Advocacy, like the fundraising efforts by the Health Care Foundation for example, go a long way.
“We’re so busy here doing what we do that it’s hard to get out and advocate. (I’ve heard it said) we’re so busy cutting wood that we have no time to sharpen our ax. We’re just constantly with our head down putting out fires and dealing with patients,” he said.
Anything that helps get the message out goes a long way, he added.
Ask Dr. Kimmaliardjuk if she has any advice for NLers when it comes to heart health and she speaks with passion. “People roll their eyes at the doctor when they say you should give up smoking, but truly, since coming out here, that’s been one of the biggest risk factors … So roll your eyes because it’s that old, traditional advice, but absolutely. Try to live a heart healthy lifestyle that includes not smoking. And take ownership and be involved in the management of your own health because that is so empowering for you as a person, as a patient, but also for your physician,” she shared.
But as both Dr Connors and Dr. Kimmaliardjuk, know, sometimes heart conditions just happen.
‘A Heart Transplant’
Amanda Saunders knows that reality all too well. At 21 years of age, Saunders was told she required a heart transplant.
“To go from being a busy, normal, university student to hearing that I needed a heart transplant made my world flip upside down,” she admitted.
Saunders had signs things were not right. She was tired. She was short of breath. She simply wasn’t herself. Saunders had surgery and received a new heart on Jan. 23rd 2019. “The surgeon told my parents the next day that my heart was one of the worst ever seen in his medical career. I was very, very privileged and very grateful to have had access to a transplant,” she shared.
It wasn’t an easy go, but eventually, she began to improve.
“Soon, I was ready to take on the world with my new heart, and I returned to life as I knew it,” she said.
As Saunders knows all too well, cardiac disease can impact anyone. A cardiac emergency can cause a big detour in retirement plans or we can be affected in our youth. Saunders, now 24 years-old, just celebrated her third anniversary since her heart transplant. Her condition “just creeped up on her” she shared, and she admitted she spent the early weeks “in denial.” “I just wanted to continue on and not let my heart ruin things for me or get in the way,” she said.
Quality Cardiac Services
With so many impacted at a variety of life stages, it’s important to have confidence in the care received during that time of need. Having quality cardiac services is crucial, and technology is always changing and donations help improve the care of patients like Saunders. Dr. Connors and Dr. Kimmaliardjuk say, to attract the best and the brightest minds in health care, the local team must have access to the latest tools and technology.
“Recruitment is our lifeblood. The way we continue to provide excellent care is to attract the best trained physicians and by providing the best equipment and putting it in the hands of those physicians in order to help here in Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said.
Dr. Kimmaliardjuk agreed.
“Using devices and instruments and tools helps improve the quality of life and it helps us save people’s lives. To be able to offer the best is what every person deserves,” she said.
Currently, The Health Care Foundation are raising funds for a tool used for coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Donations help keep this province’s Cardiac Care Program on the cutting edge, which, in turn, helps save lives.
But while equipment is key, we can’t forget the value of the human side of cardiac care. “Dr. Connors (and team) always holds a special place in my heart, and I can never thank them enough for what they’ve done. Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the highest rates of heart disease in the country and it’s so important to continue to give back to organizations such as the Health Care Foundation because at the end of the day, no one’s going to come out of this unscathed. We are all going to know somebody who is going to avail of cardiac services,” Saunders said.
That’s why the fundraising efforts by organizations like the Health Care Foundation are so critical, she added.
“It’s so doctors and nurses and other medical professionals can avail of the best training and get the best equipment and up to date technology and then they get trained on how to help patients and caregivers because the caregivers are just as important as the patients and that’s not often talked about,” she added.
It’s all about caring for the hearts of the people of this province with heart and soul, she said. Saunders graduated from MUN this past spring and returned to earn a second degree through the School of Social Work. “Through medical obstacles and triumphs and challenges and whatever adjectives you want to put out there, I’m now able to live a normal, healthy life that I wouldn’t have otherwise had without quality care. All I can say is thank you.”
If you’d like to help the Health Care Foundation purchase the VirtuoSaph Plus Endoscopic Vessel Harvesting System and support cardiac patients here at home, visit healthcarefoundation.ca