Published: April 2024

Picture hundreds of medical images mapped out into a concise report so a surgical team can plan a complicated surgery to remove a rare cancerous tumour. Then, picture a virtual reality (VR) system taking all that imaging and giving the surgeon a 3D view that allows them to move within the patient’s body — just like a video game — before surgery. It’s a whole new way of surgical planning, and this new technology was used for the first time in Canada right here at The Ottawa Hospital (TOH).  

When Emeric Leblanc was 13, he started to have pain in his left leg. It was initially believed to be growing pains, but as months went by, the pain worsened. “I used to play basketball, and then I couldn’t anymore because it hurt so much. It would keep me awake at night. Then it got to the point where I had trouble walking,” explains Emeric.  

Eventually, he would undergo a series of tests. On December 8, 2021, now 14 years old, Emeric sat with his mom and dad at CHEO and learned he had Ewing sarcoma. This type of cancer forms in the bones — most often in children between age 10 and 20. The teen’s growing tumour was in his pelvis and about 12 cm in diameter — the size of a grapefruit.  

Fishing is something Emeric is happy to be back doing.
During treatment in hospital

Grasping the complexity of a Ewing sarcoma tumour

While it was a shock to hear the word cancer, deep down Emeric says he already expected further tests would reveal it was cancerous. What was especially hard to digest was the news that he wasn’t going back to school.  

“Everything changed in that moment,” explains Emeric’s mom, Hélène Lachance. “There was a lot of information to digest about the treatment plan and how we could prepare him for that.” 

He returned to school to retrieve all his belongings because chemotherapy treatment started right away. He needed to have his braces removed, and was referred to a fertility clinic, because chemotherapy could make him infertile. It was a great deal for this teen to absorb. No longer as active as he wanted to be, he became much more invested in video games — a sign of what was to come, since VR would be used to help save his life. 

A collaborative team effort

“It was a collaboration of top-notch medical oncology, radiation oncology, and surgical teams between TOH and CHEO. A lot of great people came together to help Emeric.”

— Dr. Joel Werier

For more than a year, Emeric spent most of his time in the hospital. A team from The Ottawa Hospital and CHEO came together to give him the best possible chance at a healthy, active life. “It was a collaboration of top-notch medical oncology, radiation oncology, and surgical teams between TOH and CHEO. A lot of great people came together to help Emeric,” explains Dr. Joel Werier, Head of The Ottawa Hospital Sarcoma Program and orthopaedic oncologist. 

Also, an integral part of the team effort was Dr. Kawan Rakhra, a senior musculoskeletal radiologist at our hospital. Both doctors are also working with Realize Medical, the company behind the new VR technology used for Emeric’s surgery.  

They each played a pivotal role in tackling Emeric’s challenging case. The tumour was on the pelvis and coming quite close to the left hip joint. The goal was to remove part of the pelvis but save the hip joint, because without it, he wouldn’t have the same function of his leg. However, removing a pelvis is probably one of the more complex surgeries in medicine, according to Dr. Werier. 

Dr. Joel Werier is an orthopaedic oncologist and Head of The Ottawa Hospital Sarcoma Program

Stepping inside the patient through VR

That’s where the unique use of technology comes into play. The first step was chemotherapy to try to shrink the tumour, followed by radiation. With the tumour located on Emeric’s pelvis, a plan was needed to save his hip joint.  

“This is where the VR system was really critical. It allowed us to clearly understand the exact anatomy of the tumour and its relation to important structures, including the hip joint,” explains Dr. Werier. 

To best prepare a team to care for a patient, Dr. Rakhra must examine a litany of scans. In his area of expertise, whether it’s an X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, or more, there can sometimes be 1,000+ images to scroll through, review, and create a detailed report to help with staging a cancer or planning a surgery. It takes an extensive amount of time and can be overwhelming.  

“If as the saying goes, ‘A picture is worth 1,000 words,' well then a 3D virtual reality model is worth a million, and it's going to transform how we use radiology in surgical planning.”
— Dr. Kawan Rakhra

“Tumours tend to be complex and challenging for radiologists, surgeons, and oncologists to really understand the intricate anatomy, the location, and relationship to other critical tissues in the organs,” explains Dr. Rakhra. 

The VR system is a game-changer on many levels. Using technology previously used by the video gaming industry, surgical teams can view a customized 3D image of the tumour, then VR headsets help them step inside the patient’s virtual space and make a much more concise surgical plan. It’s a paradigm shift in radiology where, traditionally, we look at these raw CT or MRI images and generate independent, descriptive reports that are sent to surgeons.But now, we found a way to further process them, integrate them, and convert them into a 3D model, which is a far more informative and powerful tool,” says Dr. Rakhra. If as the saying goes, ‘A picture is worth 1,000 words,’ well then a 3D virtual reality model is worth a million, and it’s going to transform how we use radiology in surgical planning. 

VR at The Ottawa Hospital

There is virtually nothing as disruptive in healthcare right now as VR — or virtual reality, if you’ll excuse the pun. This technology is being used across disciplines to improve patient safety, outcomes, and efficiency, while reducing costs and recovery times. It is transforming training and education today, with lifesaving implications tomorrow. 

VR in action

A whole new perspective for the surgical team

For Dr. Werier, it gives a whole new perspective for him and his surgical team. “It allows me to see things the way they’re meant to be seen — in three dimensions, the way our eyes would see them,” explains Dr. Werier. “It allows us to better understand the intricate anatomy and manipulate the images — for example, move nerves out of the way. We can share this with other members of the team and with the patient.” 

And there lies another key benefit to this technology — the patient gets a much better understanding of their diagnosis and care plan. “When you show a tumour on an MRI scan, it’s not quite as appreciated as it is in a VR system,” adds Dr. Werier.  

As for Emeric, he experienced VR by playing video games in the past, but this took him inside his own body to view what his surgical team had to do and to better understand the process.

Emeric in hospital after surgery.

“It was very cool. I could move it around — zoom in, zoom out. I could see the important veins and nerves that they try not to cut. It was also cool that I was the first to experience this.”

— Emeric Leblanc

On July 5, 2022, he became the first patient in Canada to undergo surgery using this new VR program. It was a very delicate surgery that included removing the left side of his pelvis and removing the entire tumour. Thanks to this technology, Dr. Werier was able to save the teen’s hip joint, allowing Emeric to regain his mobility and resume the activities he loved so much like fishing and camping.

Emeric camping.
Often, Emeric can be found fishing on his dad’s boat.

Immense gratitude to have a skilled team and technology close to home

As a parent, it was a stressful time, but Hélène says seeing the tumour through the VR provided reassurance. “It was such a big surgery but seeing all this and the expertise of the team, I knew they were going to take care of my son. Dr. Werier was awesome. I mean, he saved my son’s life. We’ll always be grateful to him.” 

After Emeric recovered from the 14-hour surgery, he required more chemotherapy, but today he’s doing well. Dr. Werier explains the goal was curative, and they will monitor Emeric closely in the coming years.  

“It’s a complex operation — he’s a remarkable young man, and he did great. The VR helped us a lot. It’s much more intuitive, it gets people on the same page, and it’s much more efficient. It builds confidence in the surgical team.” 

The teen, who is now 16, is back at school, back with his friends, and getting stronger every day. The only difference now is he wears a shoe with a thicker sole on his left foot because his leg is slightly shorter. He also plays video games with a whole new appreciation for VR gaming. 

It’s this technology that is setting the stage for the next generation of surgeons and will give healthcare teams the most effective opportunities to provide the best care options to patients.

“This is the next evolution in how we look at things — a lot of this technology is homegrown in Ottawa, and I think it’s going to lead the virtual technology medical imaging industry. We’re excited about it,” says Dr. Werier.

Download or stream episode 96 to hear more about the impact of the VR technology on patient care with Dr. Kawan Rakhra.

Listen Now:

This success story began with the creation of Realize Medical in 2019, an Ottawa start-up company led by Dr. Justin Sutherland and Dr. Daniel La Russa. Both are physicists at The Ottawa Hospital, who saw an opportunity to further advance patient care using a technology most of us associate with video games. Other key contributors are Dr. Teresa Flaxman and Dr. Yusra Al Mosuli. In fact, Dr. Flaxman has been instrumental in elevating the 3D visualization program within our hospital and has been at the core of the VR modelling process with Drs. Werier and Rakhra since the early developments. Dr. Mosuli has been instrumental in the path forward including the Canadian first moment for this software program, Elucis, and Emeric’s surgery.

Research is critical for finding the best ways to use this technology and proving that it’a effective. Realize Medical has many research collaborations with various teams at The Ottawa Hospital to evaluate and implement their technology.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa. All researchers at The Ottawa Hospital follow a Responsible Innovation frameworkfor developing and commercializing innovations in a responsible way.

Agnès Jaouich and her husband Rémy.

Published: March 2024

Agnès Jaouich and her husband Rémy strongly believe in the power of giving back. Their journey of supporting The Ottawa Hospital began two decades ago, when Rémy was a hospital pharmacist in the region and Agnès was appointed as vice-chair of the first Ottawa Hospital Board. In that role, she saw firsthand the dedication of the staff, the challenges they faced, and their unwavering commitment to their patients.

“It was obvious that there was a need for funding to support the healthcare of the community,” says Agnès, “so we became monthly donors, and are now supporting The Campaign to Create Tomorrow.”

Their dedication became deeply personal when, in 2021, Rémy was diagnosed with colon cancer. Dr. Robin Boushey’s team at The Ottawa Hospital started working immediately. The results after surgery were encouraging, and thankfully, no further treatment was needed.

But their journey wasn’t over.

“As soon as the diagnosis was made, Nurse Kelly tapped Rémy’s shoulder and said, ‘Welcome to the family.’…She understood the effect of this news and wanted Rémy to know that they would take care of him.”

— Agnès Jaouich

A year later, Rémy faced another battle, this time with bladder cancer. At the Urology Clinic, Dr. Jeffrey Warren identified the tumor. “As soon as the diagnosis was made,” Agnès recounts, “Nurse Kelly tapped Rémy’s shoulder and said, ‘Welcome to the family.’ She knew that Rémy would have many visits. She understood the effect of this news and wanted Rémy to know that they would take care of him.”

They were referred to Dr. Scott Morgan and Dr. Christina Canil, who developed and led Rémy’s radiation and chemotherapy treatments with expertise and optimism, offering hope in the face of adversity.

“The difference between my parents’ cancer treatments and Rémy’s was like night and day. One can see how important research and innovation are for treating cancer and how donations can make an impact.”

— Agnès Jaouich

“Through this process, every member of the team was there for him,” Agnès recalls. “Whether responding to his questions or his discomfort during treatments, they always had a positive and encouraging approach.”

Rémy surrounded by family on Father’s Day weekend 2023.
Agnès and Rémy.

The experience also reinforced her feelings about the importance of research at The Ottawa Hospital. “I lost both of my parents to cancer, and they both passed away at a young age. The difference between my parents’ cancer treatments and Rémy’s was like night and day. One can see how important research and innovation are for treating cancer and how donations can make an impact.”

As Rémy’s last visit to the hospital yielded no signs of cancer, Agnès and Rémy found themselves embracing life with renewed vigor. “After the treatments, he has gone back to a normal way of life,” Agnès shares.

For them, The Campaign to Create Tomorrow isn’t just about bricks and mortar; it is about creating a future where every patient receives the care and compassion they deserve.

Thanks to our monthly donors, like Agnès and Rémy, we continue to see breakthroughs in research and care that once seemed unachievable become the healthcare we count on today.

Published: March 2024

Rupert receiving care at The Ottawa Hospital

Former Cognos executive Rupert Bonham-Carter’s life took an unexpected turn during a visit to Florida, when a fall resulted in a dislocated shoulder. After having his shoulder relocated at a Florida hospital far from home, Rupert cut his trip short and headed back to Ottawa — and to the Emergency Department at the Civic Campus where plans were made for shoulder surgery.  

But his second visit, just a few days later, took a much more urgent turn after his situation worsened. 

Arriving back at Emergency, Rupert recalls he was suddenly in distress and could hardly breathe.  A vigilant triage nurse got him on a gurney right away, and doctors found he had a massive pneumothorax (a collapse) in his right lung. For 12 days he remained under the care of the trauma team at the Civic, undergoing treatment that saved his lung as well as receiving shoulder surgery. 

Deep connection to The Ottawa Hospital

“I looked up and saw the Cognos logo. And in that moment, I felt like I had gone full circle.”

— Rupert Bonham-Carter

Rupert’s connection to The Ottawa Hospital runs deep, spanning more than two decades of life’s milestones and medical emergencies. “I’ve been there a lot in my life. I lost a finger in an accident, and The Ottawa Hospital was there to take care of me. My kids were both born there, and I had my gallbladder removed on an emergency basis. The Ottawa Hospital has been there for me for the last 25 years.” 

But on that day when he was admitted, Rupert experienced a profound sense of reassurance as he was being wheeled through the Emergency Department. 

“I looked up and saw the Cognos logo on a recognition plaque. And in that moment, I felt like I had gone full circle. I was part of the group at Cognos that had raised money for The Ottawa Hospital’s Legacy Campaign years ago. Seeing that logo, I felt comforted, and I was nostalgic about the Cognos community and the effort we’d made to support the hospital.” 

Inspired, once again, to give back

“The Ottawa Hospital is ours. It belongs to the community, and we have a responsibility as a community to care for it.”

— Rupert Bonham-Carter

Seeing the Cognos plaque highlighting the company’s past contribution not only gave Rupert comfort, but also inspired him to get personally involved in The Campaign to Create Tomorrow. “Throughout my most recent experience, it became clear to me that The Ottawa Hospital is ours. It belongs to the community, and we have a responsibility as a community to care for it.”   

With this sentiment in mind, Rupert decided to join the campaign cabinet, and he’s helping to inspire the community to support the largest fundraising campaign in Ottawa’s history. With a goal of $500 million, the Campaign to Create Tomorrow is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform healthcare by taking research to unprecedented heights and building the most technologically advanced research hospital in the country.  

Rupert recognized the potential of the campaign and became more motivated than ever to give back. “If I wasn’t sure before this experience, I was sure after. The Ottawa Hospital and the staff were there for me, and I knew I had to do something. So, I went to the first fundraising event, and I’ve made a donation. Now what I can do is try to motivate others to donate.” 

Rupert’s gift is in support of the Campaign to Create Tomorrow, which will help support the new hospital campus.

Hand-in-hand with building their business, Myers and the Mews family are building communities

You don’t have to go further than your own street, maybe even your own driveway, to find some connection in this city to Myers Automotive Group. After all, they’ve been putting people in the driver’s seat for the better part of a century. But, as their website attests, they are so much more than that — the people on their team are our friends and neighbours, and the company is an integral part of our community.  

“Without community support, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Harry Mews

While Gordon Myers founded the company in 1942, it was Hank Mews who took over in 1972, building the business while he and his family also helped build this community. 

“Our dad just felt that this was where they had made their home and grown the business. And without community support, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” says Harry Mews, who, along with his brother Rob Mews, now runs the business. They have driven its growth and are prepped to open their 17th dealership this spring.  

The Mews story has roots that are both rich in history and philanthropy. It starts with a poorly executed layup on a basketball court in Newfoundland when a young Hank Mews fell into the lap of an adoring fan whom he vowed he would marry. And he did. Phyllis and Hank would celebrate 61 years together, until Hank’s passing in 2022. They made Ottawa their home and, together, they built a successful business and a family as committed to this community as you could find.  

“All businesses rely on the community for their success. And this is just a means of giving back.”

Rob Mews

Rob says it’s an honour for them to make donations.  

“I think it’s important for all businesses to help as much as they can, whether it’s donating money or donating time. You know, all businesses rely on the community for their success. And this is just a means of giving back.” 

And this generosity has not gone unnoticed. In fact, Myers Automotive Group was recently recognized at the 2023 AFP Philanthropy Awards for Outstanding Corporate Philanthropist. This will come as no surprise to the thousands of athletes who have sported the Myers logo or to the food banks and community centres have benefited from the Mews family generosity. They truly are a driving force in our community.  

But nowhere has their mission been more directed and their commitment more profound than with healthcare. In 2015, the Queensway-Carleton Hospital received $1 million from the Myers Automotive Group towards the Acute Care of the Elderly Unit. In 2022, five years after Hank Mews underwent valve replacement surgery, the University of Ottawa Heart Institute received $1 million from the Myers Automotive Group. And now, The Ottawa Hospital has received $2.5 million towards The Campaign to Create Tomorrow. This is the company’s largest philanthropic gift to date. 

“At the end of the day, if the community can’t support something like this, well, we’re not going to have it.” 

Harry Mews

“We felt that it was important to support the effort because health is everything. We’ve seen that directly in our family,” says Harry Mews. “Our hospitals, our healthcare system, we’re so lucky to have the system we have in Canada, and it’s important that everybody recognizes that. At the end of the day, if the community can’t support something like this, well, we’re not going to have it.”  

It’s a source of pride for the Mews brothers — and the entire the Myers Group — that they support the very community that has supported them over the decades. While Hank Mews may not have perfected his basketball layup, it’s clear he succeeded in instilling valuable life lessons to those close to him, that, whether it’s a million dollars or a few dollars, the act of giving on an ongoing basis is what will carry our community forward.  

Shelley with her mother, Marcella.

The mother-daughter bond is special. For some, it’s a connection that can rival any close relationship — an unconditional love. That’s certainly the case for Shelley and her mother, Marcella. That relationship was so special that Shelley decided to leave a gift in her will to The Ottawa Hospital — a gift that will ensure the love she has for her mother will live on through future generations of healthcare.  

Both women have experienced care at our hospital for decades, and this gift seemed like a natural way for Shelley to say thank you and help others in the future. “My mom is my inspiration,” she says. 

When Shelley was young, the family was living in Southern Ontario and she was diagnosed with scoliosis — a sideways curve of the spine that is most often diagnosed in adolescents. “I initially was cared for by SickKids in Toronto. I was involved in an experimental treatment, and over time it didn’t work and the condition progressed,” explains Shelley. 

The family moved to Renfrew and as her condition worsened, Shelley was referred to the Civic Hospital in 1983 she was just 13 years old. 

She needed spinal corrective surgery and a spinal fusion. “wasn’t in pain, but because the spine was curving, it pressed on my lungs so I would lose my breath easily. It also caused a visible deformity in my back that could lead to chronic pain in the future, so I didn’t want to go through that,” explains Shelley. 

Early introduction to healthcare

With her parents by her side, she was introduced to Dr. Gordon Armstrong, a renowned orthopaedic surgeon who was well known for his work and innovations in scoliosis treatment, including for children with scoliosis like Shelley. I remember the surgery so well. He had white, white hair and I remember thinking he was old, but he was probably 50,” she laughs.

“He had such an amazing sense of humour and he put me at ease. I remember how kind and how reassuring he was because it was a risky surgery.”

— Shelley

The details of the hospital stay are still vivid for her, despite the fact it was 40 years ago. “I can see the room I was in, along with the nurses and the orderlies. There was one orderly I had a crush on, and I’d ring the bell sometimes, so he’d come back in,” laughs Shelley. 

Once the surgery was complete, this young teen now had rods in her back along with hardware — and she dubbed herself a bionic woman. The surgical technique was new at the time. It was called the Luque Rod method, where specialized wires attach each vertebra around the rods — an extraordinarily delicate procedure, recalls Shelley. 

The success of this surgery allowed her to grow up and have what she describes as a great life thanks to the care she received.  

In her twenties, she travelled through Europe exploring Britain, Scotland, and Wales. But she never forgot the impact Dr. Armstrong had on her life. “I was doing some research recently and I came upon an article about him. I learned he had been awarded the Order of Canada in 2001. It came full circle for me and the impact he had on orthopaedic surgery in Ottawa and patients with spinal issues, like me.” 

A lifetime of care at The Ottawa Hospital

While she did enjoy travelling, she was always drawn back to Ottawa, where she eventually moved — drawn back home to her family and her mom. “I wanted to go into natural medicine, but I developed chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia so I couldn’t continue my career,” says Shelley. “I would, however, need the services of The Ottawa Hospital throughout my life, and my mom did too.” 

Shelley was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2004, and then in 2009, she was admitted to the Civic Campus with sepsis. “I had the most amazing care. It was a type of situation where I could have passed away, but the staff were angels watching over me.” 

And when it came to people watching over her, of course, Marcella was always there for her daughter — lending support through these difficult times. The two women faced health challenges over the years, in fact, they were both diagnosed with celiac disease. However, it was just another way to bond as they would often seek out new gluten-free recipes to make together — they especially liked finding new desserts.

Then in 2020, the family received devastating news — Marcella had cancer. She was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer. Then, not long afterward, she learned she had esophageal cancer.

“This was all during the pandemic, but the team was ready, and my mom got the care that she needed. They were always there for her,” says Shelley. 

Marcella’s care included chemotherapy and radiation — she pushed through the treatments, but sadly passed away in February 2022 at the age of 77. “She was my best friend. She fought hard — she lived one year and seven months, which was good considering how advanced the cancer was when it was discovered.” 

Marcella all bundled up for a walk the first winter she was on chemo.

A legacy gift in memory of a devoted mother

Living a modest life, Shelley reached out to our Foundation team to ask how best she could create a legacy. She wanted to do something to recognize her mother’s life, her mother’s interests, as well as their special bond. “We talked all the time; it was probably me talking the most — we shared everything. She was my confidante,” says Shelley with a smile. 

After she lost her mother, Shelley started thinking about her own mortality — which was not something she’d done in her 30s and 40s — and what would happen when she was gone. With her lifelong interest in medicine, and considering the years of care our hospital provided not only her mother but also herself, Shelley decided to leave a gift in her will — a gift to honour her mom.  

“My mom is the reason why I want to give to the hospital, because she was always a passionate advocate for patient care and healthcare, even when she was sick,” she says.

“This gift will honour my mom, her life, and her spirit. I always think about my mom when it comes to this gift.”

— Shelley

The future of medicine also inspired Shelley. She reads the regular updates from the hospital and our Foundation about the future of healthcare, and she wants to be a part of that — supporting the next generation of care.  

“The new hospital campus being built is going to be amazing, beautiful, and state-of-the-art. I have a lot of family that live in the surrounding areas of Ottawa, and they come to the hospital for care — some are three hours away,” explains Shelley. “This hospital is serving so many people in such a wide area. I have cousins and second cousins who are having children now, so it’s like I’m helping my family in the future by leaving this gift.”  

Inspired by plans for the new hospital campus and research

Marcella at the General Campus receiving emergency radiation for a tumor on her cervical spine.

When she thinks of the new campus, it also makes her reflect on her stays at the Civic and how different it will be for patients in the future. “The single rooms and places where family can stay overnight, it’s just incredible. I don’t want to be in the hospital in the future, but if I must be, that sounds like the best care and space.” 

The advances in medicine and research happening in her hometown are not lost on Shelley. As someone who’s always had an interest in this field, she keeps up with the latest developments from our hospital, and the impact of the work never ceases to amaze her.  

“Ottawa is a relatively small metropolitan area, but we’ve got this huge hospital and all these world-renowned surgeons, doctors, and researchers right here. So, for me, I think that’s amazing.”

“The Ottawa Hospital is a teaching and research hospital, and that inspires me to give because of the many innovations — so much is on the cusp of discovery and it’s exciting.”

— Shelley

And by leaving this gift, she’s ready to help be a part of the future of healthcare. A decision that is dedicated to her mother — a woman who left a loving imprint on her that will never fade. “Mighty Mouse was my nickname for her — she was tiny, but she was the strongest person I’ve ever known.” 


Nurse Sabrina Presta’s very different perspective of life as a patient

Published: February 2024

For more than 15 years, Sabrina Presta has been a registered nurse at The Ottawa Hospital. Her home unit is B2, the General Surgery department at the Civic Campus — during the pandemic, B2 became the designated Covid unit for a year. Her team on B2 is close-knit and sticks together not only when it comes to providing compassionate care to patients but also in supporting each other.

In 2020, Sabrina needed that support more than ever. “I was experiencing some mental health challenges, like anxiety. Then, by the end of that year, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer — that came out of nowhere,” explains Sabrina.

It was the summer of 2020, when Sabrina started getting strep throat regularly — something that she never experienced before. Then she noticed a lump on her neck, and she remembers being afraid of what it might be. She immediately reached out to her doctor.

“The nurse so deeply ingrained in me wanted to read the biopsy report right away. But my intuition guided me wisely, and I decided to wait to meet my doctor face to face.”

— Sabrina Presta

Her doctor ordered an ultrasound, followed by a biopsy. “I had access to MyChart at the time and remember getting a notification that the results were available. The nurse so deeply ingrained in me wanted to read the biopsy report right away. But my intuition guided me wisely, and I decided to wait to meet my doctor face to face. I didn’t want my anxiety to creep up on me and potentially misinterpret the results,” explains Sabrina.

It was December 15, 2020, when she learned the results — the tumours were malignant — it was papillary thyroid cancer. This is the most common type of thyroid cancer and generally impacts people between 30 and 50 years old and appears more often in women. Thankfully, most papillary thyroid cancers respond well to treatment.

“It was during the pandemic, and I was alone when I got the news. I went to my car, and I just started shaking. I was trembling like a leaf. I called a friend, and I was crying on the phone, then I drove home. When I saw my husband, he looked at my eyes and he knew,” says Sabrina.

It was a shock because this active mom of two daughters had no other symptoms, other than the sore throat and lump on her neck. The good news was that it was a non-aggressive, slow-growing form of cancer. It would, however, require a total thyroidectomy — the complete removal of her thyroid gland because there were two cancerous nodules, one in each lobe. 

Her daughters were old enough — nine and seven at the time — that Sabrina and her husband sat them down to break the news. “My eldest daughter was surprised to hear the word cancer because I didn’t seem sick. She was sad at first, then was reassured when she heard us talk about the treatment, including surgery. The hardest part for her was watching her little sister’s reaction. She quickly took on the big sister role and comforted her sister,” explains Sabrina. “Meanwhile, my youngest cried ‘Are we still going to have Christmas?’ Her world was just rattled in that moment when she heard cancer. Her great-grandmother died of cancer, and so she thought cancer meant mommy’s going to die.”

Sabrina is an active mom of two daughters.

She assured her daughters she would be well taken care of, and the surgery would make her better.

In Eastern Ontario, the General Campus of The Ottawa Hospital is home to the region’s Cancer Centre — it is the hub and supports satellite centres from Barry’s Bay to Hawkesbury to Cornwall. The Irving Greenberg Family Cancer Centre, located at the Queensway Carleton Hospital, is also a part of our cancer program. Thanks to state-of-the-art technology and world-leading clinical trials, we can provide a wide-range of care for patients across Eastern Ontario and Nunavut.

As a resident of Limoges, Sabrina was grateful to be able to have her surgery at the Winchester and District Memorial Hospital — a community partner with our hospital — in February 2021. The surgery went well, and the next day, she was sent home to continue her recovery. But days after the surgery, Sabrina developed symptoms that made her nervous, and she went straight to the Emergency Department (ED) at the Civic Campus.

“I was home and had just woken up. I walked to the bathroom and almost fainted — everything went black. I started to have tingling sensations and numbness in my legs, arms, and face,” remembers Sabrina. “After my surgery, I was given discharge instructions from my nurse. Those were two signs to look out for in the post-operative phase, as my body was adjusting to life without a thyroid gland. I woke up my husband, and he drove me to the ED right away.”

“It was an act of kindness that went a long way for me. It taught me that you can really leave a lasting impression on someone’s life experience.”

— Sabrina Presta

Now Sabrina found herself as a patient, in her own hospital, and something “magical” happened. She was waiting to be seen when a respiratory therapist she works with saw her. “He took a few moments out of his busy shift to come over to me. His kindness gave me the opportunity I needed to be comforted and to cry. My tears flowed as I was feeling overwhelmed, tired, and scared of my current reality,” explains Sabrina. “He stayed right there with me. I was very weak, and he helped guide me to the bathroom. Before he left, he gave me tea and crackers. It was an act of kindness that went a long way for me. It taught me that you can really leave a lasting impression on someone’s life experience. He was present. This respiratory therapist gave me that gift.”

As a nurse who diligently practices her profession with compassion, being on the receiving end was eye-opening. “When I was a patient, this word became the hope I needed.”

Sabrina soon received good news — what she was experiencing was normal after her type of surgery, and she was able to go home. Within six weeks, she was back at work with a different outlook as a nurse. She was inspired to create her own wellness initiative for her B2 team called B2 Steps Ahead with Sabrina — a collaboration to help colleagues with their mental health. “I created a special room on our unit, the Rest Room, where colleagues can go and recharge in a quiet space during their shift. It even has twinkling lights to relax.”

A poster for Sabrina’s wellness initiative for her B2 team.

Her experience with cancer has taught her to slow down and take care of herself holistically. When she is not working on the frontlines, you will probably find her outside either running, walking, practicing yoga, or writing. A dear colleague even gave her the nickname, “Mother Nature.” “I just love being outside! The fresh air gives me something ineffable,” smiles Sabrina.

Today, she can look back on her cancer journey with gratitude. “It is a privilege to work as a registered nurse in facility that gives me a sense of fulfilment.”

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.


Music leads Caleb Fagen through his journey with Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Published: February 2024

Music is huge a part of Caleb Fagen’s life — you could say he lives and breathes it. When the university student started to feel rundown in the summer of 2021, he thought he had been pushing himself too hard. Soon though, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was shocking news for this young man and his loved ones. 

“I was completely unprepared when I heard the diagnosis. I was shocked.”

— Caleb Fagen

Earlier that year, Caleb was attending uOttawa for his undergrad in music, he was teaching private music lessons and was a part of the school’s choir — something that brought him great joy.  

“I was very focused on school. It was the hardest year of my undergrad, especially with the pandemic. I practiced three to four hours a day on the piano — I was working hard,” explains Caleb.  

In addition to feeling rundown, he had also become anxious and depressed, and he wasn’t eating well.  

“I was completely unprepared when I heard the diagnosis. I was shocked. I was so focused on school and music that all I wanted to know was how I was going to be able to practice, and how was school going to work?” remembers Caleb. “I didn’t want to lose the momentum that I gained.”

Caleb with his partner Jane. 
Caleb with his partner, Jane, after they both shaved their heads in anticipation of his chemotherapy treatment. 

Shocking diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma 

Hodgkin’s lymphoma begins in a patient’s lymphatic system — that’s part of the body’s germ-fighting immune system. The white blood cells grow abnormally and can form growths (tumours) throughout the body.  

Once Caleb digested the news, there was acceptance. He credits a great deal of that to his incredible support system, including his parents, his brother, and his partner, Jane.  

“My dad came to all my chemo treatments and took time off work to be there with me, and mom was a huge support. My partner lived with me through a lot of this too, it really helped, and it brought a lot more love to this scary situation.”

The first course of action was chemotherapy, and those treatments went from October to the end of March 2022. Caleb maintained some online courses during this period, and overall, he got through the treatment fairly well. That spring he travelled to Italy, resumed working, and even thought about plans to finish his degree. 

Caleb with his family on vacation in Italy. 

A stem-cell transplant the next level of defence 

By late summer of 2022, just one year after his initial diagnosis, a PET scan showed the disease was refractory. That means while it appeared Caleb initially responded to treatment, the cancer had returned.  

The next step was a stem-cell transplant — a process that began in September. “It was quite an ordeal. I went through a few rounds of chemo, and then the stem cell collection. That was followed by the harsh conditioning chemo treatment to wipe my system clean. I felt like a walking zombie. I was very feeble,” explains Caleb. 

Caleb playing the accordion at his home. 

“The team was really good. There was a time when I had to be an inpatient and I was treated well. They told me it would be difficult post-transplant, but it would get better.” 

— Caleb Fagen

It was Halloween when he received his stem-cell transplant. He credits his care team at The Ottawa Hospital for helping him through a very difficult period. “The team was really good. There was a time when I had to be an inpatient and I was treated well. They told me it would be difficult post-transplant, but it would get better.” 

Caleb describes the following month as the worst of his life. “There were times in November when I lost my sense of taste. My tongue felt like it was a rock, it felt stiff and hard, and my appetite wasn’t good. That was just one example,” remembers Caleb. “It was a traumatizing time. I had a psychologist and support to help me work through things and to focus on breathing and to stay calm.”

Cancer and the mental health journey 

The Cancer Centre’s psycho-social oncology program was established to provide patients like Caleb the support needed to help cope with the many challenges associated with cancer and its treatment.  

One person who was an integral part of helping Caleb during this challenging time was social worker Izabela Uscinowicz Valdivia. “Isabela was terrific. I was with her since before my transplant. She was there during the really bad times. We developed a great relationship,” says Caleb. 

He also credits his hematologists Dr. Manika Gupta, who started this journey with him, and Dr. David Macdonald, who currently cares for him.   

Gradually, things started to improve for Caleb, but he admits it was a slow process. By December, he was regaining strength both mentally and physically, and he sat down to play again. “That was a great moment when I was able to start playing the piano. I missed it.” 

Looking to the future  

Because of the high risk of relapse, Caleb started a new chemo treatment in December, which occurred every three weeks and only ended on October 27, 2023. It was then that Caleb was able to ring the bell at the Cancer Centre to mark the end of his treatment.  

Today, he’s back at school in-person part-time, with two more courses left to get his degree. He’s also writing music for himself and teaching again.  

“Physically I feel a lot better. I want to start exercising more to build up my strength, but I’m in a better place. I’m still dealing with mental health issues. I have a counsellor, but I have fewer things to say, so that’s good,” Caleb says with a smile. 

Now 23, Caleb’s recent scan showed he’s in remission, however, he continues to be monitored closely with an ultrasound and then another PET scan coming in the next six months. In the meantime, he’s making plans. He hopes to travel to Portugal in 2024, and long term, he wants to continue sharing his love of music with others by opening his own music school — a dream he hopes to see become a reality one day.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.


Diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma stops Heba Haidar in her tracks 

Published: February 2024

At age 33, and with three children under the age of five, Heba Haidar was making big plans in the spring of 2022. She and her husband were planning an eight-week trip back to Lebanon to see their family — it would be the first visit since before the pandemic. Two of her three children would meet their grandparents for the first time. But everything came to a grinding halt when Heba learned she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  

The first red flag came when Heba noticed random swelling in her neck. Her doctor ordered an ultrasound, and the results were inconclusive. The swelling went away on its own. “My doctor suggested I see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist at The Ottawa Hospital,” explains Heba. “Not long after I got that referral, I noticed a lump in my neck below my collarbone, but I had no other symptoms.” 

Five days before the family’s long-awaited trip, Heba met with the ENT specialist who ordered a biopsy. The results would be available in five to seven days — by that time, Heba and her family would be in Lebanon.  

“I left it to fate. I decided we’d still go on the trip, but the day before we were supposed to leave, I got the call,” remembers Heba. “My ENT doctor gave me the news over the phone knowing I was leaving. The results showed a malignancy, but not enough to give me a diagnosis.”  

Diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma flips world upside down 

Suddenly, Heba’s life was flipped upside down. “There was panic. I was in complete shock.”

“There’s no road map to navigate this news. The first thing we did was unpack for our trip.”

— Heba Haidar

Then, with the trip cancelled, Heba was thrust into a series of appointments, including tests and scans to pinpoint the diagnosis. At the time, she was on maternity leave as manager of a medical clinic — she was nursing her nine-month-old and caring for her other two children who were four and five years old. They all relied on her 24/7. 

Just two weeks after she was supposed to leave on her trip, Heba was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and referred to the hematology team at The Ottawa Hospital where next steps were discussed and the roadmap for treatment put in place.  

Heba during her treatment at The Ottawa Hospital. 

“That period from diagnosis to treatment plan is probably the worst period a patient can go through because everything is unknown, and your mind goes wild — wondering what’s going to happen,” says Heba. 

Both Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma form in the white blood cells. Those cells are called lymphocytes, and they are an important part of the body’s germ-fighting immune system. The difference between the two can only be seen under a microscope and depends on whether a particular type of cell called Reed-Sternberg is detected. If it is, then the lymphoma is classified as Hodgkin’s. If it’s not, then it’s diagnosed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is generally diagnosed at an earlier stage.  

Six months of chemotherapy with three young children at home 

Since Heba’s cancer was stage 2, her hematologist, Dr. Melissa Toupin, started her on four to six months of chemotherapy starting in mid-June. A scan in early August 2022 showed she was in remission. However, Dr. Toupin recommended she continue with a full six months of chemo to give her the best possible chance to avoid a recurrence. 

Heba described every round of chemo as a challenge. “Something that was just foreign to me two months ago was now a regular part of my life. It took me some time to come to terms with the extension of treatment, but knowing my scans were clear, it helped.” 

She also turned to our psycho-social oncology program for support. She did several sessions to help with the mental side of the cancer treatment. Over the next few months, she stayed active by walking, weightlifting at home, and of course, being a mom didn’t stop. 

Then on November 16, 2022, Heba rang the bell, signifying her final treatment. She described the moment as surreal and amazing. “It was kind of like a double-edged sword. There was relief, but then there was the whole realization of what I just went through,” remembers Heba. “I was in survival mode and then just like that, treatment was done. There was also that safety net when I was going to the hospital regularly. Now the safety net was removed. I worried about recurrence and what would happen to me.” 

Desire to give back and support groundbreaking research 

During her treatment, Heba was reflecting on the hospital’s care team that surrounded her, and she wanted to give back. She started a fundraiser with a goal of $10,000 to support cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital. “I wanted to raise awareness for the work The Ottawa Hospital is doing.”

“We have groundbreaking research right here in Canada, right here in Ottawa, and I wanted people to know about that.”

— Heba Haidar

Today, Heba is doing well and in a good place. That special trip back home finally happened in May 2023. In the midst of her treatment, it was hard to imagine the trip, but she remembers what a nurse said one day. “She said by next year, it will all feel like a bad dream.” 

It also gave her a whole new perspective on life and the hospital. “At 33, I didn’t think about The Ottawa Hospital other than giving birth to my son. Even with my background in healthcare, my thoughts of the hospital were about having babies – happy thoughts. But now I think of the team and the compassionate people. They saved my life. They save lives and prolong lives.”  

Heba preparing a lemon poppyseed loaf in her kitchen. 

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.