From leukemia patient to multi-marathoner – with a walker

Leukemia, radiation and chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, and a blood clot in his intestine and neck haven’t slowed Robert Hardy down. In fact, he feels stronger than ever and is ‘walker-running’ marathons in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

Robert (Bob) Hardy has been in a fight for his life for more than 20 years. From a bone marrow transplant for leukemia, to a blood clot in his intestine and his neck, it seems nothing can slow him down. In fact, thanks to lifesaving care at The Ottawa Hospital, he’s stronger than ever and unwavering in his desire to compete in some of the most renowned marathons around the world — with his walker. Beating his personal best time, year after year, you wouldn’t suspect that this ‘Walker-Runner’ initially had only a 40% chance of survival.

A startling diagnosis

There was a time many years ago when Bob believed he only had six months to live. Feeling slightly fatigued, but healthy overall, he went for a routine physical. When his examination results returned, Bob received startling news. At only 46 years old, and long before experiencing any side effects of the disease, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Bob and his wife, Vittorina, were stunned. All they could think about was how they would tell their two young girls, Shannon and Leah, who at the time were only 13 and nine. “It was a really big shock for all of us. The thought of having to tell our children wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t something I was willing to hide from them either,” said Bob.

But if you’re looking for a woe-is-me attitude, you won’t get it from Bob. Even a diagnosis of this magnitude couldn’t bring him down. “When I told my youngest daughter, Leah, about my diagnosis,” said Bob, “she told me ‘you’re too strong to die, dad.’” That was the encouragement Bob needed to hear. It was her words that motivated him to fight back and beat the disease.

Robert Hardy, in 1997, standing by the water
Robert Hardy in 1997.

 

A fight for his life

Up until Bob’s leukemia diagnosis he was studying jiu-jitsu – and fit as ever. But while he waited for a match donor for a bone marrow transplant, the medication, interferon, that doctors prescribed to maintain his health was making him weak. Bob was struggling to continue with his training. “I wanted to get my black belt before undergoing my bone marrow transplant,” expressed Bob. He felt a black belt would give him the confidence he needed to begin the long road to healing and recovery. Knowing just how much this milestone would mean to Bob, his doctors allowed him to temporarily discontinue taking interferon for two months prior to Bob’s black belt test, so that he could continue training for the big day. And when that day came, he got his black belt – with honours. It was only then that he felt ready for his bone marrow transplant and the ups and downs that would follow.

A perfect match

After a year of taking interferon, a six-antigen match donor for the bone marrow transplant was found. At the time, performing a bone marrow transplant using an unrelated donor was still relatively new. But researchers discovered that patients can have a match donor outside of their family. “It isn’t common for two people to have the same set of six antigens if they aren’t blood related. I was lucky. They found a perfect match,” explained Bob. More recently, however, advances in research have allowed our experts to perform a transplant using an incompatible donor, significantly reducing the time patients must wait for a match donor. “What this means is that, where once many did not have a donor, now almost everyone has one,” explained Dr. Huebsch. “This research is truly groundbreaking.”

Robert Hardy during his leukemia treatment
Robert Hardy undergoing treatment for leukemia.

With a donor ready to help, the pre-transplant treatment of high doses of chemotherapy and radiation to suppress Bob’s immune system began. Four weeks later, his immune system was primed to receive the bone marrow transplant. He underwent this procedure at The Ottawa Hospital, and remained in our care for three weeks to ensure the transplanted healthy cells were multiplying – and they were.

Bone marrow is the soft, fatty tissue inside your bones, which produces blood cells. A transplant, inserted into the blood stream through a catheter, replaces the unhealthy blood forming cells (stem cells) with healthy ones.

Although doctors wanted Bob to remain in hospital for a few weeks post treatment, he was able to go home for the majority of his recovery. In fact, Bob benefited from our innovative outpatient bone marrow transplant program that has allowed thousands of patients to be treated and recover more conveniently from home. This program was one of the first in Canada and, since its inception, our patients have been surrounded by loved ones throughout recovery.

Thrombosis expertise in Ottawa

Over the course of the next two years, Bob was in and out of the hospital. “The first two years were the hardest. I had a lot of side effects from my treatment,” said Bob. One of the most severe side effects Bob experienced was blood clotting. The first to appear was in his stomach and a second in his neck. Cancer patients are often at greater risk of blood clotting as chemotherapy is hard on the veins. Approximately one in every twenty cancer patients will experience blood clotting – often a life-threatening complication. But Bob was in good hands. He benefited from the development of a tool to help diagnose blood clots quickly, known as the Wells Rule, after Dr. Phil Wells, an expert at The Ottawa Hospital. This tool is now used in emergency rooms and taught in medical schools around the world.

“We have one of the best thrombosis departments in Canada, attracting experts in the field from across the globe.” – Dr. Marc Carrier

Researchers have since implemented a comprehensive program for managing blood-thinning medications for patients at higher risk of developing blood clots, including cancer patients like Bob. This program has ensured that patients at our hospital are more likely to have optimal blood thickness, and less likely to develop blood clots.

More recently, our experts have developed a system to identify the likelihood that a cancer patient will develop blood clots. Although this was not yet available at the time of Bob’s diagnosis, this innovative tool can classify newly diagnosed cancer patients as being at greater risk and they can receive personalized care based on their unique circumstance to prevent blood clotting. “We have one of the best thrombosis departments in Canada, attracting experts in the field from across the globe,” said Dr. Carrier, Chief, Division of Hematology. “Our highly specialized and dedicated researchers are developing groundbreaking procedures that demonstrate our commitment to continuously moving research and treatments forward, so that we can continue to provide exceptional care to each patient that walks through our doors,” said Dr. Carrier.

World-class care in Hematology

Throughout Bob’s treatment, he was cared for through The Ottawa Hospital Hematology and Thrombosis Program, one of the best and largest in Canada. Unlike many other hospitals, where patients must travel to different hospital departments and satellite locations to receive treatment, our unique program provides centralized care for patients with diseases of the lymph glands, blood, and bone marrow for patients across eastern Ontario and beyond.

“We are among the best. Ottawa is at the centre of all sorts of blood transfusion medicine and we’re one of the leading centers in the world for doing, and researching, transplantation for life threatening diseases.” – Dr. Lothar Huebsch

Robert Hardy and Dr. Lothar Huebsch in 2001.
Robert Hardy with Dr. Lothar Huebsch, 2001.

The program, which has attracted leading researchers from around the world, is renowned for the development and advancement of world-first procedures that are changing lives. “We are among the best,” explained Dr. Huebsch, Clinical Hematologist and former head of hematologic oncology. “Ottawa is at the centre of all sorts of blood transfusion medicine and we’re one of the first in the world to successfully perform transplantations for life threatening diseases.” Our Hematology and Thrombosis Program has led the way for decades, researching transplant techniques with other illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, autoimmune diseases, and lymphoma. “This is the kind of research we’ve done for 25 years, and we are one of the leading centers in the world for doing these transplants in the outpatient setting, rather than in a high intensity ward as an impatient,” said Dr. Huebsch.

Road to recovery inspires ‘walker-running’

Bob Hardy, walker running
Robert Hardy walker-running.

With so much time spent in and out of hospital throughout his treatment, Bob needed something to do to keep himself busy while he recovered. So, he got creative. “A few of us used to take our IV polls and race them down the hallways. The nurses couldn’t believe how fast we were moving!” What Bob didn’t realize at the time was racing IV polls would later spark aspirations to participate in some of the most renowned marathons.

Following treatment for the blood clot in his neck, Bob lost his sense of balance. Although he can walk short distances without an aid, he’s unable to run or walk long distance. That’s when Vittorina suggested he get a walker. “At first, I was hesitant about using a walker, but then I realized how fast I could move!” said Bob. And so began his passion for ‘walker-running’.

Bob started his walker-running career participating in the Wobbly Walker-Walk-a-thon, but soon shifted into high gear signing up as a marathoner in Run for a Reason at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. His marathons not only accomplished a personal goal, but also raised funds in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

A new appreciation for life

Bob’s road to recovery hasn’t been an easy one, but there hasn’t been a day he’s felt sorry for himself. Over the years he started to get stronger and complications were fewer and far between. “I am so thankful for the treatment I received. The nurses and my doctors were outstanding – absolutely incredible,” said Bob. “I’m here today, pursuing my passion for walker-runner marathons, because of them. They saved my life.”

Of course, there are still some days that Bob feels more run down than others. On those days he tries to take a walk to reminisce on how far he’s come in his recovery. “I know what it takes to get over things and to get through things. Not only did I have the very best care at The Ottawa Hospital, I had something to live for. I was able to watch my girls grow up. And now, here I am at age 69, almost 70, I’ve overcome countless obstacles and have jumped over hurdles, and I’m really quite happy with my life. I’m really very happy.”

“I am so thankful for the treatment I received. The nurses and my doctors were outstanding – absolutely incredible.” – Bob Hardy

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

Your support today, will help patients like Robert keep moving.

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Defying the odds against pancreatic cancer

As a seven-year pancreatic cancer survivor, Sindy Hooper continues to defy the odds. She’s putting her faith in cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital to save her life again one day.

Devastated and shocked – that’s how Sindy Hooper and her family reacted to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2013. Especially considering pancreatic cancer survivor rates are so low. The diagnosis came at a time when Sindy would have described herself as being in the best shape of her life. But suddenly, she was facing the fight of her life, and she looked to the specialized cancer treatment and research at The Ottawa Hospital to help her fight back.

In the months leading up to Sindy’s diagnosis, she had been feeling great. She had completed her first Ironman in August 2012, and that fall she was training to complete another one. Then, in December, she started experiencing discomfort in her upper abdomen and pain in her upper back. However, towards the end of the month her skin started to get very itchy, she became a lot more tired, and she started to lose a little bit of weight. The day before her diagnosis, she woke up and her eyes were yellow. She was jaundiced.

Sindy’s husband, Dr. Jon Hooper, an ICU physician at The Ottawa Hospital initially thought it could be gallstones. The couple headed to hospital unprepared for what they were about to learn. Later that day, an ultrasound would reveal it was pancreatic cancer. “We couldn’t believe the news. I was relatively young. I had just turned 50. I was in the best shape of my life. I had no family history of cancer whatsoever,” says Sindy. Even more alarming were the survival rate statistics.

An aggressive, potent cancer

The pancreas is part of the endocrine system, a group of glands and cells that make and release hormones into the blood, controlling growth, reproduction, sleep, hunger, and metabolism. The cells in the pancreas normally make and release digestive juices to help break down food.

Pancreatic cancer starts in the cells of the pancreas. A malignant tumour of the pancreas is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread to other parts of the body. There has been little progress in the fight against pancreatic cancer in the last 40 years.

The five-year survival rate is only eight percent. The average survival is six months and 75 percent of the people diagnosed with this form of cancer die within the first year.

“We see what people are going through and how we need to do better than we’re doing so far. It gives us a focus and purpose because we know here’s an urgent need for new and better therapies.” – Dr. John Bell

Pancreatic cancers are resistant to most kinds of therapy. The cells have a biology that scientists don’t completely understand, which makes them hard to detect early and hard to treat with conventional kinds of therapies that are currently available. Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are working to offer hope to pancreatic cancer patients and while she didn’t realize it at the time, this would become very important to Sindy and her journey.

Ready for specialized care

With the alarming news of the diagnosis, Sindy prayed to make it to one year. Her team at The Ottawa Hospital developed a three-pronged care plan. “I am very thankful for having such amazing care close to home – really world-class care,” says Sindy.

The treatment would begin with Whipple surgery. “It’s a seven-hour operation – it’s huge. It can only be done in very specialized centres. I was very fortunate to have that done here in Ottawa.”

In fact, The Ottawa Hospital is one of the few hospitals in Canada to offer this type of surgery. It is used to remove tumours in the head of the pancreas or in the opening of the pancreatic duct. A team that specializes in surgery of the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and bile duct work together to support the patient through the operation.

Sindy in hospital recovering from Whipple surgery.
Sindy in hospital recovering from Whipple surgery.

In Sindy’s case, the complex surgery removed half of her pancreas, half of her stomach, her gall bladder, bile duct, duodenum, and the tumour. She was in hospital for ten days and then recovered at home for the next five weeks. “Just as I started feeling better in mid-February, I started chemotherapy. I went through 18 rounds of chemo that took me to September. There was also 28 days of radiation in between,” remembers Sindy.

“Whipple surgery is a seven hour operation – it’s huge. It can only be done in very specialized centres. I was very fortunate to have that done here in Ottawa.”
– Sindy Hooper

She was able to withstand the effects of chemo and radiation very well. Her doctors attributed that to the great shape Sindy was in. It helped her power through the treatments. “Through all my treatments, I was still training for Ironman Canada.”

Powering through to Ironman Canada

Sindy Hooper competing in 2013 Ironman Canada during cancer treatment
Sindy crossing the finish line at Ironman Canada in 2013.

Feeling good, Sindy and Jon booked a trip to Whistler, B.C. to take on Ironman Canada in August 2013, even though Sindy was still undergoing chemo treatment. She wasn’t expecting to complete the biking or running portion, but Sindy felt she could tackle the 3.86 km swim. In fact, she not only finished the swim, but also the 180 km bike, and the marathon. “We started the marathon, and it was miraculous. I just felt so good that day. I had lots of energy.”

In the end, together, they finished the Ironman at 11:37 p.m. – 23 minutes before the cut off. But it was bigger than just crossing the finish line. Sindy’s incredible strength to power through an Ironman in the middle of chemotherapy treatment attracted significant media attention. She not only increased awareness for pancreatic cancer, but she also raised $50,000 for cancer research. “Completing the Ironman, raising awareness, and all that money was an absolute gift in the midst of everything I was going through,” says Sindy.

Fundraising for all cancer patients

That $50,000 was just the starting point for this crusader. Sindy has dedicated herself to fundraising for cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital since 2014 through Run for a Reason at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. Her running team is the MEMC crew (Making Every Moment Count). She tries to instill her passion for life in other people and not take things for granted. Along the way, she’s raised over $225,400 for cancer research.

Sindy does it not only for herself but also for other patients. “Cancer research is going to one day save my life again, I’m sure of it.”

“Cancer research saves lives. That’s the bottom line. Whether it’s finding new treatments or early detection methods so cancers can be picked up earlier and treated more effectively – cancer research really does save lives.” – Sindy Hooper

Sindy running in support of cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital
Sindy participating at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

For Dr. John Bell, a senior scientist, who’s been investigating this complicated disease for decades at The Ottawa Hospital, it’s patients like Sindy who inspire him and his team of researchers. “I’m really privileged to have a lab at the Cancer Centre. That means every day, I get to see the people we are trying to help, like Sindy, who we want to have a good quality of life and a long life.”

Dr. Bell adds it’s those patients who push him to find answers and that elusive cure.“We see what people are going through and how we need to do better than we’re doing so far. It gives us a focus and purpose because we know there’s an urgent need for new and better therapies.”

One way to find those answers is through clinical trials. And it’s not lost on Dr. Bell that the patients who participate are both courageous and altruistic. “Every patient seems to say the same thing when I speak with them: ‘I don’t know if this is going to work for me, but I hope you learn something from it so that I can help somebody else.’ That’s, really what we get inspired by, that sort of attitude. Sindy has that attitude for sure.”

Finding hope for pancreatic cancer patients

Sindy with Dr. John Bell at The Ottawa Hospital
Sindy meeting Dr. John Bell in his lab.

While treatment options for pancreatic cancer are still limited, there is hope. Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are leading the world in developing viruses that can attack cancer cells without harming normal cells. These viruses have been tested in clinical trials for other types of cancer, and Dr. Bell’s team is currently working in the laboratory to see if they can be customized for pancreatic cancer. Dr. Bell says that, “absolutely,” the findings from those previous trials could be used in future pancreatic cancer patients.

“It really is I think a burgeoning field, and I like to think we were critical in getting this started.”

As Sindy continues to put her faith in what this research will have to offer in the future, she has a simple message for Dr. Bell and his team. “Thank you for the work that you’re doing.”

“Keep working really hard because there’s a lot of people out there, like me, who are relying on research to find new, better treatments and hopefully one day a cure.”
– Sindy Hooper

2020 brings a new health concern

Even before the emergence of COVID-19, 2020 offered a new challenge to Sindy. On a flight to Hawaii, last winter she, started experiencing intense gastrointestinal pain. As soon as her flight landed, she went straight to the hospital and learned she had a partial obstruction in her GI tract. While she started to feel better, her surgeons back at The Ottawa Hospital encouraged her to return home as they were the best equipped to handle her complicated case should she develop another obstruction and she need surgery.

Back home, Sindy continued to have severe episodes of pain, developed a fever, and then a blood infection. By mid-April, COVID-19 had arrived in Ottawa and doctors were hesitant to operate, but the pain became so severe they had no choice.

Surgeons discovered a significant number of adhesions in the area of her obstructions and removed them. Sindy admits it was a stressful time being in hospital during a global pandemic. “It was so scary by myself – not having my husband there for me.”

Although, she gives credit to the incredible staff who were at her bedside for six days. “I have to say everybody was going above and beyond to make the patients feel comfortable during this time. I was impressed.”

Making plans for the future

Today, Sindy celebrates as a seven-year pancreatic cancer survivor and takes nothing for granted. After she got past that first year of survival, she prayed for two years of survival. “Every year that has passed is just completely incredible to me, Jon, and my sons.”

Every six months Sindy returns to The Ottawa Hospital for a CT scan. While it’s stressful waiting for the results, so far, each scan has resulted in good news, allowing Sindy and Jon to make plans for the next year.

Sindy biking at the International Triathlon Union
Competing at the ITU (International Triathlon Union) Olympic Distance World Championship in Cozumel, Mexico in 2016.

This year, that plan included welcoming a new member of the family – Lexey, a French Bulldog – filling their home with joy. Sindy’s plans also include more running, swimming, and biking. She’s feeling strong again after her surgery, back to training for a 50 km Ultramarines Run in November and a triathlon next summer. She continues to look to the future.

“I’m just so amazed to be defying these odds and to get to continue living, enjoying and loving life.” – Sindy Hooper

You could say that Sindy is making every moment count.

Listen to Sindy Hooper’s story in her own words during a guest appearance on Pulse: The Ottawa Hospital Foundation Podcast.

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

Your donation can give patients like Sindy hope for better treatments in the future.

More Inspiring Stories

From leukemia patient to multi-marathoner – with a walker
Leukemia patient, Bob Hardy, had a 40% chance of survival. But hope was restored after treatment at The Ottawa Hospital.
Sportscaster A.J. Jakubec’s three-star selection after 66 days in hospital
After spending 66 days in The Ottawa Hospital battling acute pancreatitis, TSN 1200 sportscaster A.J. Jakubec will be forever grateful for the compassionate and lifesaving care he received.
Fran Cosper’s long-distance recovery from Guillain Barré Syndrome
Long-distance cyclist Fran Cosper and his friends often biked 120 kms on a Saturday. But that changed a year ago when he woke in the night and couldn’t feel his legs. Doctors at The Ottawa Hospital diagnosed him with Guillain Barré Syndrome.  

Fran Cosper’s long-distance recovery from Guillain Barré Syndrome

Long-distance cyclist Fran Cosper and his friends often biked 120 kms on a Saturday. But that changed a year ago when he woke in the night and couldn’t feel his legs. Doctors at The Ottawa Hospital diagnosed him with Guillain Barré Syndrome.  

Fran Cosper took a break in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, during the 125-km benefit ride for Toronto’s SickKids Hospital in 2016.

Fran struggled out of bed the next morning and tried to do stretching exercises.

“I thought I had a pinched nerve,” he said. “I went to get on my hands and knees, and fell face first on the carpet. I thought, ‘Well, I can’t move. This is much more serious.’ My wife, Elise, came down and saw I had facial paralysis, and thought I’d had a stroke.”

Fran knew it wasn’t a stroke because both sides of his body were paralyzed. (Stroke affects only one side.) Doctors at The Ottawa Hospital diagnosed him with Guillain Barré Syndrome (GBS) in February 2017. This rare autoimmune disorder causes the immune system to attack the nerves, damaging the myelin sheath, which is the nerves’ protective covering. As a result, the brain can’t transmit signals to the nerves in the muscles, causing weakness, numbness or, as in Fran’s case, paralysis.

One millimetre at a time

About one in 100,000 Canadians contracts GBS every year. Patients do recover but it can take more than a year because the nerves re-grow slowly, one millimetre per month.

GBS can be brought on by an infection or virus. 56-year-old Fran had had two colds back-to-back, including a high fever, which may have thrown his immune system into overdrive. Within days, his balance was off and he had difficulty lifting pots to cook dinner. Hours later, the disease was full blown, attacking his nervous system. Within 24 hours, Fran couldn’t move.

Dr. Vidya Sreenivasan
Dr. Vidya Sreenivasan, doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

“We see patients with Guillain Barré Syndrome at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre probably five or six times a year,” said Dr. Vidya Sreenivasan, doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation. Some have mild cases, but others, like Fran’s, are more serious.

For Fran, the disease continued its nerve damage following his admission to the hospital. After two weeks, he was transferred to the Rehab Centre, where his care team included doctors, psychologists, social workers, recreation therapists, physiotherapists, respirologists, occupational therapists and nurses.

“He arrived for physiotherapy in an electric wheelchair that he controlled by moving his head, because motor skills in his arms and fingers were completely absent,” said assistant physiotherapist Andrew Atkinson. “There was a shorter list of the things he could move. From a chair position, he could extend his left leg and hold it against gravity. His right leg he could kick, but could not hold it. He basically presented like a quadriplegic.”

Fran was completely dependent for care. He needed to be washed, dressed, and turned in bed. He couldn’t even close his eyes. The nurses had to tape his eyelids shut so he could sleep.

“It must be like being buried alive.” – Physiotherapist Andrew Atkinson

The worst part, Fran explained, was the excruciating pain in every part of his body.

“Fran is still in a lot of severe pain because his nerves have been damaged,” said Dr. Sreenivasan. “He suffers a neuropathic pain that can feel anywhere from numb, burning, electric shock, or deep toothache. Pain management was very important.”

An infectious attitude

Fran Cosper using the Virtual Reality Lab, one of only two in Canada, during his rehab.

Fran had physiotherapy five hours a day, including three times a week in the Rehab Centre Pool. Within two months, he could stand and take steps with help. He learned to walk again: at first with a harness, then using the parallel bars. His arms were slower to recover and the fine motor skills in his fingers will take longer. Fran plays jazz on the saxophone, so is motivated to get his fingers working again.

“There’s something about visually seeing yourself walk and move in a weightless environment – it’s a mind-body connectionThat’s when the mind realizes its possible.’ If you can visualize itthink it, speak it, it’ll happen. 

Within two months, Fran could stand and take steps with help. He learned to walk again: at first with a harness, then using the parallel bars. His arms were slower to recover and the fine motor skills in his fingers will take longer. Fran plays jazz on the saxophone, so is motivated to get his fingers working again.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion that I’ll ever play again,” Fran said. “That’s the reality. But you have to have those moments of darkness. Embrace them and move on – that’s what you gotta do.”

Fran’s positive attitude was infectious.

“You have to have those moments of darkness. Embrace them and move on – that’s what you gotta do.” – Fran Cosper

Both Dr. Sreenivasan and Atkinson agree that Cosper’s excellent fitness level, as well as his determination and positive attitude, helped accelerate his recovery.

“What stood out about him was that he would encourage other patients as well,” said Dr. Sreenivasan. “Everybody has dark days. They wake up and think ‘I can’t do it. I just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.’ Fran was able to provide that light at the end of the tunnel and help others, which is pretty extraordinary considering what he was going through himself.”

The nurses helped Fran with day-to-day care, teaching him how to wash and dress himself and be independent again.

“I can honestly say that the kindness and level of care I’ve got really humbled me. The nurses and staff have just been marvelous,” said Fran. “I’ve basically been swiped off the planet for a year. But the only negative thing about being in the hospital is the disease itself.”

Fran was discharged just before Thanksgiving in 2017 and left the Rehab Centre using a walker. When he returned the next month for a follow-up physiotherapy appointment, he walked in unaided.

A year-and-a-half later, Fran returned to the hospital, this time as a volunteer.

“I think volunteering is a very tangible, and meaningful way to give back,” said Fran. “You don’t know how you might affect someone. People have their struggles, and a little conversation, a little ‘you’re important’, a little ‘you’re okay’ could make a difference in their life.”

 

The Ottawa Hospital uses donations to invest in equipment at the Rehabilitation Centre that will help people like Fran Cosper.

More Inspiring Stories

From leukemia patient to multi-marathoner – with a walker
Leukemia patient, Bob Hardy, had a 40% chance of survival. But hope was restored after treatment at The Ottawa Hospital.
Sportscaster A.J. Jakubec’s three-star selection after 66 days in hospital
After spending 66 days in The Ottawa Hospital battling acute pancreatitis, TSN 1200 sportscaster A.J. Jakubec will be forever grateful for the compassionate and lifesaving care he received.
Defying the odds against pancreatic cancer
Sindy Hooper has always been healthy. With no family history of cancer, she and her husband were shocked at the results from an emergency ultrasound at The Ottawa Hospital.

Canadian armwrestling legend wins championship after arthroscopic surgery

One look at Devon Larratt’s incredibly large biceps and you might mistake him for a superhero. While he’s not a superhero, he is a world champion with a story that is anything but ordinary. And his climb to the top involved multiple surgeries, intensive rehab, and sheer determination.

It would have been hard not to be impressed while watching Devon Larratt triumphing as the Open World Champion, in both his left and right arm, in the World Armwrestling League. Chants and loud cheers extended from the crowd as Devon, a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, faced his opponents time and again from 2008 to 2012. What Devon did not know at this time was that all of the intense training it took to get him on the world stage was leading to the development of debilitating arthritis that was going to jeopardize his greatest passion and career. His only hope to regain his former glory was surgery at The Ottawa Hospital to restore strength in his arms.

A family affair

Devon has been interested in armwrestling for most of his life. At age 18, he entered his first tournament and has represented Canada at international competitions ever since, winning many World Championships. An impressive feat for someone who initially took up armwrestling as a hobby when he was only five years old.

One could say that for the Larratt’s, armwrestling is a family affair. “I grew up armwrestling with my grandmother,” said Devon. “The rumour around the family was that she was the Alberta women’s champion. It’s because of her that I started armwrestling.”

Devon Larratt sitting on an OR table
Devon Larratt, Canadian armwrestling champion

 

Military force

It wasn’t until Devon joined the Canadian Armed Forces that he got serious about his training. Eighteen years in the military provided him with the opportunity to get in the best shape of his life. “If I wasn’t on a mission,” said Devon, “I was pumping iron.”

Even while on tour overseas in Afghanistan, armwrestling played a large role in his life. Competing against fellow troops, he gained the experience he needed to one day earn himself the title as one of the best armwrestlers in the world.

Injury puts dreams on holdelbow xray

Like many athletes, Devon suffered injuries that put his dreams and career in jeopardy. Armwrestling is incredibly demanding on tendons and joints. Years of trauma caused by armwrestling led to the development of osteoarthritis, with extra bone build up in his elbows.

“Both my left and right elbow joints were degraded to a point where I was in constant pain,” remembers Devon. Increased pressure in the elbow joints from abnormal mechanics while armwrestling led to a build up of extra bone in areas it shouldn’t grow. Devon was unaware this abnormal bone was breaking apart, creating loose fragments in his joints.

At the same time, Devon’s arthritis caused chronic inflammation between his elbow joint bones, eroding the cartilage in the joint and causing friction between the elbow bones. This not only caused him significant pain but it also greatly impacted his range of motion.

Unable to compete to the best of his ability and in great pain, Devon was referred to a shoulder and elbow specialist at The Ottawa Hospital.

Specialized technique

Devon’s treatment would involve three surgeries: two operations in his right elbow and one in his left. Due to the nature of his work as an armwrestler and in the military, the surgical team made use of a specialized technique – elbow arthroscopy, a minimally invasive surgery. This technique involves inserting a fibre-optic video camera through a small incision. The view inside the joint is then transmitted to a high-definition video monitor, resulting in a more precise operation. As a minimally invasive surgery, this technique preserves as much of the muscles and tendons in the elbow area as possible.

Over one cup of stray floating bone fragments and a golf-ball-size piece of abnormal bone was extracted from Devon’s elbow. Once the bone was removed, the elbow was recontoured and sculpted to correct any deformity and to restore the normal anatomy of the joint.

Expertise right here in Ottawa

Prior to the development of arthroscopic techniques, surgery involved making a long incision, cutting through layers of muscle to get to the joint. This often resulted in a slower healing time and would require a longer rehabilitation period.

Though there had been many advancements in elbow arthroscopy, until a decade ago, this was a specialty procedure not yet available in Ottawa. But a focused effort on the improvement of minimally invasive techniques at our hospital attracted skilled physicians from across the globe.

Now, with local expertise in elbows and shoulders, coupled with the latest equipment and technology, patients can be treated right here at home, in Ottawa. It is in part thanks to donor support that the latest tools were brought to The Ottawa Hospital to allow arthroscopic procedures to take place.

The potential of stem cells

In the future, athletes like Devon may be able to avoid surgery altogether by benefiting from the healing power of stem cells.

Research at The Ottawa Hospital is underway to better understand how bone regenerates, repairs, and heals. Dr. Daniel Coutu, inaugural Research Chair in Regenerative Orthopaedic Surgery, is investigating the impact that trauma, aging, and chronic degeneration have on bones, which support our joints. The star researcher, who was recruited from Switzerland, focuses on the fundamental biology of bone stem cells. He studies various inflammatory disease models caused by arthritis and is working to determine how stem cells can improve healing and recovery.

Remaining at the leading edge of stem cell research will ensure that our patients have the latest treatment options and the best chance at recovery.

“Stem cell therapy could be a game changer for professional athletes with repetitive strain bone injuries, allowing them to continue to perform to the best of their ability and give them their quality of life back.” – Dr. Daniel Coutu.

 

Dr. Daniel Coutu
Dr. Daniel Coutu

Bone plays a key role in the health of tissues, such as muscle, tendons, and cartilage that are connected to it. Although bone tissue generally repairs itself very easily, damage to the tendons, ligaments, or cartilage, is much more difficult to heal.

Fortunately, the failure rate for orthopaedic surgery is quite low, approximately two to five percent. However, the success rate drops when athletes incur repeated injuries or with age. Dr. Coutu is hoping to help fill this gap through his stem cell research so that athletes like Devon can have a better recovery rate and longer-lasting results.

“With the growing number of baby boomers and athletes suffering with aches and pains in their joints, I am hoping that our collaborative work will prolong the life of their joints. Stem cell research being conducted here in Ottawa could enable these patients to return to normal sporting activities, improving their quality of life,” said Dr. Paul E. Beaulé, Head, Orthopaedic Surgery at The Ottawa Hospital.

Becoming a champion again

After Devon’s surgeries, rehabilitation was his next focus. “I treated rehab like preparation for any other event. This, combined with the incredible work of my surgery team, helped me get back to competing less than a year later,” said Devon.

Just eleven months after undergoing three surgeries on his arms at The Ottawa Hospital, Devon was back on top – a champion once again.

Devon has since competed against and defeated, some of the most legendary armwrestlers, winning himself numerous championships across the globe.

More recently Devon has opened the gym in his garage to the public to help encourage others to be fit, to help train, and to show off his hardware. There is no doubt that armwrestling will continue to play a large role in Devon and his family’s life for years to come.

Devon with weights

“I am so grateful for my care team at The Ottawa Hospital and that we have this level of expertise right here in Ottawa. They helped me get back to competing and doing what I love.” – Devon Larratt

Devon and Dr. Pollock armwrestle

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

Help us make more happy endings like Devon’s. With your support today, we can continue to champion healthy living tomorrow.

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Compassionate care awaited the Westboro bus crash patients

Marcie Stevens was one of 13 severely injured patients who arrived at The Ottawa Hospital Trauma Centre after the Westboro bus crash. One year later, after losing both legs, Marcie continues her recovery at the Rehabilitation Centre and she’s grateful for the compassionate care she’s received.

It was a bitter cold, winter day on Friday, January 11, 2019. Marcie Stevens was making her way home to Kanata for the weekend from downtown. The Public Safety employee sat on the second level of a double-decker OC Transpo bus when it crashed into the overhang of the Westboro transit station. It was 3:50 p.m.

Ten minutes away from where the crash occurred, the trauma team at The Ottawa Hospital was alerted, and a Code Orange was called. The Emergency Department began clearing space, and a large number of staff converged including surgeons, nurses, anesthetists, emergency physicians, and support staff. A massive team of about 150 people would await the injured passengers. At 4:28 p.m., the first patient arrived at The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus, home to the only level 1 trauma centre in eastern Ontario. In total, 13 severely injured patients over a two-hour period were rushed to the trauma centre – one of the injured was Marcie Stevens.

Calm amidst chaos

The married mother of two recalls being conscious and considerably calm throughout the entire ordeal. Though she was pinned on the top level of the bus and critically injured, she was able to call her husband, Christopher, to tell him she couldn’t pick up their children. She even thought to call work to let them know she wouldn’t be in on Monday and was able to help to calm those around her while emergency crews worked furiously to remove them from the wreckage. Marcie would need that calm composure in the midst of adversity for what awaited her.

“I couldn’t have gotten this far without the incredible people and support from The Ottawa Hospital – from the trauma team to the ICU to the Rehab Centre – it’s incredible. Compassionate is the best word to describe it.” – Marcie Stevens

The trauma team was ready

After arriving at the Emergency Department, Marcie recalls she had lost so much blood and that after her CT scan her blood pressure began to plummet, but the trauma team was ready. “The nurse in the Emergency Department had the O negative blood in her pocket. They immediately started pumping blood back into my system. My blood pressure stabilized, and I was then rolled into the operating room. The only time I passed out was when they put the mask on to put me to sleep.”

 

Four physicians in an emergency room at The Ottawa Hospital

(From left to right) Dr. Mahar Matar, Dr. Peter Glen, Dr. Ian Grant and Dr. Jacinthe Lampron

 

Marcie would wake up on Sunday morning, groggy and swollen. That’s when she learned from her husband that both of her legs had been amputated. “I knew going into the operation that my left leg was gone, because they told me. But they were going to try to save the right leg, but they couldn’t, and on Saturday they had to take it.”

While a completely new world awaited Marcie, her positive attitude never wavered. “You adapt and that’s what I have been doing. This is the way it goes. I couldn’t have gotten this far without the incredible people and support from The Ottawa Hospital – from the trauma team to the ICU to the rehab centre – it’s incredible. Compassionate is the best word to describe it.”

Waking up to a different life

Soon after the bus crash, Dr. Nancy Dudek, Medical Director, Amputee Program at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre, met Marcie at her bedside for the first time. “I had regular visits with Marcie when she was in the trauma unit to determine when she would be medically ready to come to the Rehab Centre.” The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre specializes in the physical rehabilitation of those who have experienced a disabling physical illness or injury. It serves the residents of eastern Ontario.

Dr. Dudek is quick to point out though that Marcie’s rehab started soon after she was admitted to the hospital. “We started rehabilitation plans when she was still in the Trauma Unit. She was a very avid participant of early rehab.”

Marcie’s road to a new way of living life began with her multi-disciplinary care team helping to get her wounds healed. That would lead to teaching her how to move independently once again.

By the end of February, Marcie moved to The Ottawa Hospital’s Rehabilitation Centre. She says the staff were incredible from the moment she arrived. “I was in a room with three other women. They put the two who fell asleep early on one side and me and an older patient – the night owls – on the other.”

It was during rehabilitation that Marcie learned how to transfer from the bed to her wheelchair without a lift. She learned how to cook in a kitchen that is not accessible, to prepare for her return home, and she’s learning how to drive with hand controls.

Marcie Stevens and her family.

Preparing to go home

Dr. Dudek explains there’s a great deal to cover in rehab. “We teach wheelchair skills, including what the right wheelchair is for the patient. We also had to work on strengthening, including core strengthening. Then, we talked about what would be the immediate needs to get her home to her family, including her five and 12-year-old boys.”

Marcie went home on Friday, April 12, 2019. Three months after arriving at the hospital. When Marcie reflects on her feelings as she was leaving the rehab centre, she takes a moment and then replies, “It was a giddy day. It’s not like I didn’t like the Rehab Centre,” she quickly qualifies her response smiling at Dr. Dudek, “but it was good to be home with the kids.”

Of course, going home didn’t mean Marcie’s rehabilitation was over, but it was a major advancement in her recovery – a recovery that she faced head on with a resilience that never wavered. Dr. Dudek says it’s been inspiring to watch Marcie over the last year. “She is an incredibly positive person. That has been consistent. It’s something that was there right from our first meeting and it hasn’t really faded. She has a ton of energy and other people really gravitate towards her. She’s very popular around here.”

“Rehab is great. It is the jewel of the hospital that nobody knows about. They are sort of hidden away here. They have to deal with so many types of injuries and states of mind. Not everyone at the centre is accepting of what happened to them,” admits Marcie.

As Marcie recounts all that she’s been through in the past year, she still jokes and laughs. When Dr. Dudek is asked if she thinks this incredible attitude helped with Marcie’s recovery, the answer comes fast. “One hundred percent. She has made significant changes and implemented new things to her life. It’s very impressive to see. We can show people the way, but we can’t do it for them.”

Moving forward

Today, Marcie and her family are moving forward. A new home is necessary – one that is fully accessible, and Marcie talks about getting back to work someday.

Doctor doing strength training on a patient sitting on a table

Westboro bus crash double amputee, Marcie Stevens, doing strength testing with Dr. Nancy Dudek.

She misses her colleagues, but she knows that day will come with time. “I’m a very positive person and it will take time to get used to the changes in my life, to adjust to having no legs. It’s difficult. I’ll get there.”

For now, she will continue with her regular rehab. Eventually she will only need annual visits. For now, her weeks are filled with trips to the gym and the pool, all to get her stronger for the new world she faces. Despite the challenges, she embraces it all with confidence, a smile, and you could say a bit of attitude as she wheels away wearing her black leather jacket, sunglasses, and a streak of pink in her hair.

Your support will provide crucial funding
to improve the care of patients like Marcie.

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Hope despite aggressive skin cancer diagnosis

Hope because of scientists who never gave up; who were determined to turn the tables on cancer and to create a better chance of survival, for patients like Dan Collins.

Hope despite aggressive skin cancer diagnosis

Diagnosed with a stage 4 melanoma at the age of 62, Dan Collins feared for his life when he learned about the aggressive form of cancer. However, immunotherapy treatment gave him a reason to hold out hope. Dan had hope because of scientists who never gave up; who were determined to turn the tables on cancer and to create a better chance of survival, for patients like him. Hope that a cure is coming.

Discovery of a mass

Four years ago, Dan had been travelling for work, when he started noticing some pain when he’d lean his head back to rest on the plane. He recalls turning to his family doctor to get answers. An ultrasound revealed there was something inside the back of his head that looked like a cyst.

After an initial biopsy, Dan was referred to a surgeon at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre. Another biopsy revealed the cyst was actually a mass. It was melanoma. “I was scared. Cancer had stripped my family of so much. I lost both of my two older brothers and my father to cancer. I feared for my life,” recalls Dan.

Unfortunately, the mass starting growing – and it was growing fast. By the end of July, just two months later, the mass went from being not visible on the back of his head, to the size of a golf ball.

His surgical oncologist, Dr. Stephanie Obaseki-Johnson, initially wanted to shrink the tumour before surgery to remove it. However, the mass was growing too quickly.

Oncologist Dr. Michael Ong of The Ottawa Hospital in a patient room.
Dan Collins with Oncologist Dr. Michael Ong.

Time to act

On August 11, 2015, Dan had surgery that lasted most of the day. When it was over, he had 25 staples and 38 stitches in the back of his head. As he recovered, Dan was reminded of a saying that helped him through recovery, “Never be ashamed of your scars. It just means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.”

He would need that strength with the news that awaited him. Only two weeks later, the mass was back. His doctors also discovered a mass in his right lung and shadows in the lining of his belly. He had stage 4 cancer – it had metastasized. This was an aggressive cancer that left Dan thinking about the family he had already lost and what would happen to him.

The next generation of treatment

Soon, he was introduced to The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Michael Ong and was told about immunotherapy – the next generation of treatment, with the hope of one day eliminating traditional and sometimes harsh treatment like chemotherapy. Dr. Ong prescribed four high doses of immunotherapy. At the same time, radiation treatment began for Dan – 22 in all. His immunotherapy treatments were three weeks apart at the Cancer Centre and between each, he would have an x-ray to monitor the tumours.

“Each x-ray showed the tumours were getting smaller. That’s when the fear started shifting to hope.” – Dan Collins, patient

By December 2015, Dan finished immunotherapy treatment and the next step was to wait. “This transformational treatment was designed to train my own immune system to attack the cancer. We would have to be patient to see if my system would do just that,” says Dan.

While the shadows in Dan’s stomach lining had shrunk, the mass in his lung had not. That’s when Dr. Ong prescribed another immunotherapy drug that would require 24 treatments.

Dan learned from his oncologist that melanoma has gone from being an extremely lethal cancer, with few treatment options, to having many different effective therapies available.

“When I started as an oncologist a decade ago, melanoma was essentially untreatable. Only 25 percent would survive a year. Yet now, we can expect over three quarters of patients to be alive at one year. Many patients are cured of their metastatic cancer and come off treatment. We are now able to prevent 50 percent of high-risk melanoma from returning because of advances in immunotherapy,” says Dr. Ong.

Dan completed his last immunotherapy treatments in September 2017.

Oncologist Dr. Michael Ong posing with armed crossed at The Ottawa Hospital.
Oncologist Dr. Michael Ong of The Ottawa Hospital.

Today, there is no sign of cancer

When Dan thinks back to the day of his diagnosis, he remembers wondering if he was going to die. “I believe I’m here today because of research and because of those who have donated to research before me.”

He thinks back to when his older brother Rick died of cancer in 2007. “At the time he was treated, his doctor asked if he would participate in a research study. The doctor told him directly, this would not help him, but it would help somebody in the future.” Dan pauses to reflect and then continues, “I like to think, that maybe, he had a hand in helping me out today. Maybe he helped me survive. One thing I do know is that research was a game changer for me.”

The Ottawa Hospital has been a leader in bringing immunotherapy to patients. Research and life-changing treatments available at The Ottawa Hospital altered Dan’s outcome and he hopes that advancements will continue to have an impact on many more patients, not only here at home but right around the world.

To support life-saving research at The Ottawa Hospital that helps patients like Dan, please donate today.

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Stem cells may heal lungs of premature babies

Premature babies need extra oxygen and mechanical intervention to breathe but this can damage their lungs, causing a chronic lung disease. A stem cell treatment soon to be tested in clinical trials at The Ottawa Hospital may help heal the lungs of premature babies.

Little Olivia Eberts had oxygen tubes in her nose until after her first birthday. Because she was born prematurely, her tiny lungs were underdeveloped, and she couldn’t breathe without oxygen. Ironically for Olivia, and many premature babies like her, the oxygen that saved her life also damaged her lungs, causing bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), which is like starting out life with emphysema. But a clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital led by Dr. Bernard Thébaud, which uses stem cells to heal the lungs of premature babies, may be a game changer.

An unexpected early birth

Jamie Eberts was 22 weeks pregnant with twins when she started feeling some discomfort. She arrived at the General Campus of The Ottawa Hospital and was admitted — she was going into early labour.

Thankfully, the doctors and nurses at The Ottawa Hospital were ready for any scenario Jamie, her husband Tim, and the babies faced. Each day, there were gentle conversations about how the babies were doing, the process of delivering them, and the chances of survival. Every hour counted. Then, one of the babies developed an infection and all three lives were at risk — the babies had to be delivered.

Baby in NICU
Baby Olivia in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

“Our babies, Liam and Olivia, were born at 5 a.m. on January 29, 2017, at 23-and-half-week’s gestation. Liam was born first. He was small, red, and didn’t make a sound,” remembers Jamie. Olivia weighed one pound, two ounces and Liam weighed only a few ounces more than she did. Both babies required oxygen and mechanical ventilation to keep them alive. As a result, both developed BPD — the most common cause of death in premature babies.

Sadly, baby Liam passed away a few weeks after he was born while Olivia remained in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at The Ottawa Hospital for nine long months.

Jamie Eberts carrying baby Olivia and her oxygen tank
Jamie Eberts carrying baby Olivia.

 

BPD in Canada

In Canada, 1,000 babies are diagnosed with BPD every year. Often, babies with BPD develop other chronic lung diseases, such as asthma, and many require prolonged oxygen and ventilation. Additionally, they have a high incidence of hospital readmissions in the first two years of life. Babies with BPD often have problems in other organs as well, such as the brain or the eyes.

When Olivia was finally discharged, she went home with an oxygen tank. During the first year of her life, Olivia spent more time in hospital than out.

“Even now, a simple flu that put me in bed for a couple of days put her in hospital and turns into pneumonia. It’s scary,” says Jamie. The doctor told her that with Olivia’s respiratory issues, she may require hospital intervention for the rest of her life.

Lack of treatment options

“Currently there is no treatment for this disease,” says Dr. Bernard Thébaud, a neonatologist and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital. With that being said, he’s determined to improve the outcome for babies, like Olivia, who have BPD.

 “In the laboratory, we discovered that a particular type of stem cell can prevent BPD or regenerate newborn lungs.” — Dr. Bernard Thébaud

Dr. Bernard Thebaud, neonatal intensive care unit, The Ottawa Hospital
Dr. Bernard Thebaud in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at The Ottawa Hospital.

“Our research uses stem cells, isolated from the umbilical cords of healthy newborns, to prevent the lung injury or even to some degree regenerate a damaged lung in the laboratory. We foresee that these stem cells, given during a certain time during the hospital stay of these babies, could prevent the progression of the lung disease.”

Unlike traditional stem cells that can directly replace damaged cells and tissues, the stem cells that Dr. Thébaud is studying work by producing healing factors that promote regeneration and repair.

Clinical trial offers hope

Dr. Thébaud and his research team are launching a phase I clinical trial to test the feasibility and safety of the stem cell treatment in premature babies. The team is doing everything in their power to make this clinical trial a success, including consulting with healthcare providers and parents of premature babies.

One thing they’ve learned from these consultations is that many parents don’t feel like they know enough about stem cells and clinical trials to decide if they want to enroll their child in the trial. So, Dr. Thébaud and his team created an animated video to explain these concepts and help parents make an informed decision. Parents can share the video with family members if they’d like a second opinion.

Jamie was involved in these consultations and her firsthand experience provided valuable insight to the research team as they planned this project. This is just one example of how researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are partnering with patients and caregivers to improve the quality and success of their research.

Dr. Bernard Thébaud looks at a premature baby in an isolette.
Dr. Bernard Thébaud looks at a premature baby in an isolette.

Dr. Thébaud and his team are now doing a “dress rehearsal” for the clinical trial. “The dress rehearsal lets us test and tweak our tools for approaching parents, including the video, so we know what works best once we’re ready to begin offering the experimental treatment.”

They expect the first treatment will happen early in 2021. If this initial trial is successful, Dr. Thébaud and his team will launch a larger Canadian clinical trial. “This is a critical step towards providing a potential breakthrough therapy that could help premature babies in Canada and around the world,” says Dr. Thébaud.

The made-in-Ottawa clinical trial is supported by The Ottawa Hospital’s Ottawa Methods Centre and Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre, and the Blueprint Translational Research Group.

First trial of its kind in Canada

“Stem cell research is incredibly innovative. Here, we have a very promising, emerging therapy that could prevent lung injury but also improve brain development and eyesight,” says Janet Brintnell, Clinical Manager of the NICU who has seen dozens of premature babies with BPD.

“It’s amazing when you think of what it may be able to do for the quality of life for the child, for their family, and for our healthcare system. It could reduce length of stay, hospital admissions, and improve long-term outcomes. It could help these little ones lead healthier lives.” — Janet Brintnell

“We are the only ones doing this kind of stem cell research in Canada, and there are only a few other teams in the world that are doing this.” — Dr. Bernard Thébaud

Yet, three years ago when Olivia was in the NICU, this treatment wasn’t yet available. Now, Jamie and Tim are self-described “cheerleaders” of Dr. Thébaud’s research and are hopeful for what it might mean for future preemies and their families.

“I believe this is our future,” says Jamie. “When I think about what this could have done for our family, I wonder if Liam could have possibly survived. Olivia may not be facing the delays she’s experiencing today. Even to this day, if we are asked to put Olivia in the trial as an older candidate, we will.”

Jamie also adds the there was an impact from a mental health and financial perspective. “Our oldest child, Jacob, has had a very unusual first four years of his life because of how adaptable he has had to be during these difficult times. As a family, this entire experience has been very challenging financially due to a variety of therapies for Olivia and having to get used to becoming a single income family for several years in order to manage Olivia’s complicated schedule. All of this could have potentially been avoided if Dr. Thébaud’s research were available to our twins.”

A new beginning

Olivia is now a happy, active toddler who loves copying what her older brother Jacob does. Although, she still has BPD, it is increasingly manageable, and she no longer requires supplemental oxygen. While Olivia may suffer respiratory illness her entire life, one day a stem cell treatment developed here in Ottawa could mean that the next generation of babies with BPD won’t.

Jamie Eberts with her daughter, Olivia
Jamie Eberts with her daughter, Olivia.

Listen to Pulse Podcast and learn how one day stem cells could heal the lungs of premature babies with Dr. Bernard Thébaud and what it could mean for parents like Jamie Eberts.

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

We need your help today to ensure we can provide our smallest patients, like Olivia, with the latest treatment so they can thrive.

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Brain tumour diagnosis leads mom down unimaginable path

In 2016, Natasha Lewis was diagnosed with a brain tumour and her quality of life began to deteriorate. She received kind, compassionate care at The Ottawa Hospital – one of the few hospitals in Canada that could help her because of the complexity of her diagnosis.

It was an unimaginable brain tumour diagnosis that Natasha Lewis never saw coming. It started one morning, in 2016; the mother of three remembers waking up with a strange symptom.

“I looked in the mirror and noticed my tongue was twisting to the left,” recalled Natasha. Her first thought was that she had a stroke, but she was confused by the fact the rest of her body seemed normal.

She went for tests at The Ottawa Hospital  and three days later, her life changed. Natasha was driving when she got the call. Tests revealed a tumour in her brain. “I felt so sick when I heard the news that I had to pull over.”

Diagnosis shatters mom’s world

Natasha Lewis with her husband
Natasha Lewis with her husband, Marvin.

Natasha had a schwannoma tumour, which is rarely found in the brain. Her mind was racing. “I was only 38 years old, a wife, and mother of three young children.”

When she got home to St. Isidore, east of Ottawa, she sat with her youngest daughter as she relayed the information to her husband. “I had tears falling down my face. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

All this time she thought she was healthy. “I was losing weight, running, and training for marathons and triathlons.” All she could think about where her three, beautiful, young children. What would this mean for them?

“We’re in the right place. We’re in Canada, we’re close to Ottawa, we’ll get the best care.”
– Marvin Lewis

However, her husband, Marvin, was a pillar of strength. She remembers him saying, “We’re in the right place. We’re in Canada, we’re close to Ottawa, we’ll get the best care.” She adds, “He has never been so right.”

The challenge of non-cancerous brain tumours

Natasha was cared for at The Ottawa Hospital – one of the few hospitals in Canada that could help her because of the complexity of her diagnosis. Dr. Fahad Alkherayf, a world-class skull-based surgeon told her the tumour was benign and he would closely monitor her in the months ahead.

Normally, a schwannoma is a tumour that grows in the sheaths of nerves in the peripheral nervous system, or the parts of the nervous system that aren’t in your brain or spinal cord. Schwannomas are usually low-grade tumours, meaning they can often be successfully treated, but they’re still serious and can be life-threatening. It is estimated that in 2021, there will be 27 new primary brain tumours diagnosed every day in Canada. Non-malignant tumours account for almost two-thirds of all primary brain tumours.

Condition deteriorating

Less than a year later, while the tumour had grown only slightly, Natasha’s quality of life was deteriorating.

She was scared to see what was happening with her body. Initially, there was drooling from both sides of her mouth, then Natasha started slurring her words. It was a little embarrassing, but she could handle it. In addition, swallowing became more difficult and her shoulder felt like it was on fire. That’s when she lost the ability to move it and couldn’t use it to work out. Even worse, she couldn’t lift her children.

By May 2018, it was time to operate when the side effects continued to worsen.

Surgeons ready for complex procedure

It was an intricate 10-hour brain surgery. Dr. Alkherayf brought in ear surgeon, Dr. David Schramm, a colleague at The Ottawa Hospital, to assist because of where the tumor was located. Dr. Alkherayf wanted to have another highly-skilled surgeon with him because the tumour was near the ear canal.

Hospital-bound Natasha with Dr. Fahad Alkerayf
Natasha with Dr. Alkherayf

The surgical team accessed her brain through the base of the skull. While minimally invasive surgeries are becoming more common than open surgeries, where the brain is accessed through a more invasive and significant incision, it wasn’t an option for Natasha because there were too many nerves to navigate. With traditional surgery, patients can spend a week recovering in the hospital.  With minimally invasive surgery, they sometimes go home the same day. In Natasha’s case, though complex and intricate, open surgery was the less risky option and she benefitted from the expertise available to her right here in Ottawa.

Dr. Alkherayf knew they likely couldn’t remove all of the tumour because of those surrounding nerves; damaging them meant Natasha might  lose her ability to hear and swallow. While these risks were terrifying for Natasha, Dr. Alkherayf made her feel confident and gave her hope.

“I remember Dr. Alkherayf said there would be another chapter in my life. I held on to those words.”
– Natasha Lewis

Incredibly, her surgeons were able to remove ninety-nine percent of the tumour leaving only a small sliver so they didn’t have to cut the nerves.

Journey continues after remarkable recovery

Following her surgery, Natasha made a remarkable recovery. She has her hearing — it’s a little muffled but she’s told over time it will return to normal. She’s back at work, her speech is back to normal, and she can swallow without difficulty.

This active mom’s recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. Four months post-surgery, Natasha ran the Commander’s challenge at the Army Run. She started training for a marathon and she has the dream of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

However, in 2019, she received news the tumour had grown back, despite being told the odds of that were low. Natasha was devastated, but her healthcare team would turn to the CyberKnife – a revolutionary piece of equipment that arrived at The Ottawa Hospital in 2010, as a result of donor support.

“At first I was nervous to have the CyberKnife treatment. I had to go by myself because we had no one to watch the kids. However, the staff was very patient, kind, and made you feel warm and safe. I was able to watch a movie and the machine did the work,” recalls Natasha. She would have three, one-hour treatments.

Natasha and her family
Natasha and her family

“I had to go by myself because we had no one to watch the kids. However, the staff was very patient, kind, and made you feel warm and safe.”
– Natasha Lewis

Today, she prays that “Jim,” the name she’s given the tumour, will not come back. While, there’s uncertainty over what will happen next, she continues to be active with her running and most importantly, she can run, play with, and hug her three children. “I can hear them laugh and tell me they love me. There is no greater feeling in the world,” smiles Natasha.

Listen to Pulse Podcast to learn more about Natasha’s story and how Dr. Fahad Alkherayf provided her with specialized care.

Your support will ensure all patients, like Natasha, have access to the very latest lifesaving technologies at The Ottawa Hospital.

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