A resident of Goose Bay, N.L., most of his life, John Bookalam lives for the outdoors. He loves adventures, including international cycling and skiing in the winter. The retired guidance counsellor cherishes that time even more today, after a harrowing medical diagnosis unexpectedly led him to The Ottawa Hospital for neurosurgery.

It all began in late winter of 2017 when John returned from teaching a ski lesson. He was unloading his gear from his SUV when he hit the back of his head hard on the hatch door. Initially concerned he might have a concussion, John quickly eliminated the possibility thanks to his first-aid training. However, a week later, he followed up with his family doctor and an ultrasound revealed what appeared to be a hematoma, a collection of blood outside a blood vessel, which would normally resolve itself. “But the next week, I had to see my doctor again and the hematoma went from four centimetres on the ultrasound to eight centimetres,” says John.

“I was so nervous. I could hardly think.”

— John Bookalam
John on his last solo cycle in the mountainous north west part of the isle of Majorca before his lifesaving neurosurgery at The Ottawa Hospital.
John on his last solo cycle in the mountainous north west part of the isle of Majorca before his 2017 illness.

The situation turns dire

John’s care team in Goose Bay closely monitored him for many weeks. However, by the end of May, he developed symptoms similar to the flu. “I was burning up. I was on fire and I immediately went to the emergency department of my local hospital. Those symptoms would be a bad omen,” says John.

A CAT scan revealed the hematoma had grown from eight centimetres to 10.6, and the situation was becoming dire. He needed a skilled neurosurgery team to help him — a team that was not available in Newfoundland and Labrador. With roots back in Ontario, he turned to his dear friend, Nadia Marshy, from the Ottawa area for guidance.

Nadia vividly remembers the day she got the call from “Labrador John,” a nickname she gave him through their cycling adventures. She was sitting at her desk when she picked up the phone — John was at his wit’s end. “I knew he’d been hit hard on the head and it had caused a large bump. That was weeks earlier, so I presumed that he was all healed up by now. John proceeded to tell me that not only was the bump much larger, but he was in constant pain,” recalls Nadia.

“She played a vital role in identifying The Ottawa Hospital as an emergency life-line to receive lifesaving surgery.”

— John Bookalam

Calling on our neurosurgery experts for help

Following that call, Nadia was beside herself and she knew her friend was in a medical emergency. “Here I was sitting in my sunny downtown Ottawa office with The Ottawa Hospital and all of its innovation and world-class services next door, and there was my dear friend with this massive, infected lump the size of a grapefruit in desperate need of help and so far away.”

Next, Nadia worked to get John in touch with the neurosurgery department at our hospital — she had witnessed the skill firsthand in 2012 when Dr. John Sinclair performed two lifesaving surgeries on someone close to her. “I gave Labrador John the contact information, and within a few short days, he was on a plane to Ottawa,” explains Nadia.

John, far left, with Nadia, with cycling group. fourth from right
John, far left, and Nadia, fourth from the right.

John credits Nadia for helping save his life. “She played a vital role in identifying The Ottawa Hospital as an emergency life-line to receive lifesaving surgery.”

Once John landed at the Ottawa airport, he went straight to the Civic Campus with all his documents in hand. He met with neurosurgeon Dr. Howard Lesiuk and plastic surgeon Dr. Daniel Peters and handed them his scans to review. They determined the situation was worse than anticipated, and John would need surgery as soon as possible. “I was so nervous. I could hardly think,” recalls John.

A shocking discovery

The surgery would be long and difficult, and it uncovered something far worse than John had ever imagined when he embarked on the trip to Ottawa. Doctors discovered a non-Hodgkin lymphoma tumour on the back right-hand side of his skull and part of his skull was badly infected. While the news was devastating, John recalls the reassuring words that came from Dr. Peters before surgery. “He said I had a strong heart and tremendous lungs, and both would help me during the complicated surgery.”

“We are blessed to have some of the best minds and the most skillful surgeons on the planet right in our backyard. I am convinced what they did for Labrador John is what no one else could have done, and ultimately saved his life.”

— Nadia Marshy

While the news was devastating, Nadia recalls after the surgery, the pain John had experienced for so many weeks was already subsiding. “He received incredible care. The night before his surgery, he was weak, in agony, and couldn’t hold his head up for any length of time because of the pain and the weight of the mass on his head. The next day, he was able to lie on his head and rest in comfort,” says Nadia.



Next, John was transferred to the Cancer Centre at the General Campus for testing to learn more about the tumour. “I underwent a lengthy procedure by an incredible team to diagnose my lymphoma type.”

Primary central nervous system lymphoma

Diagnosed with primary central nervous system lymphoma (PCNSL), John began chemotherapy treatment here in Ottawa before returning home where he would continue his care at the St. John’s Cancer Centre.

Primary central nervous system lymphoma is an uncommon form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It starts in the brain or spinal cord, in the membranes that cover and protect the brain and spinal cord, or in the eyes. This type of cancer is more common in older adults with the average age at diagnosis being 65.

Further testing revealed John had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma – BB Expressor — an aggressive type of lymphoma.

However, after months of treatment, good news came on February 26, 2018, when John learned he was cancer free.

“After almost four years, I’m cancer free and I’ve healed after three head surgeries. I’ve resumed my cross-country skiing and marathon road cycling.”

— John Bookalam

Not yet out of the woods

His journey, though, was far from over. John returned to Ottawa for one more surgery for skull base osteomyelitis — an invasive infection. Other treatments back home didn’t prove helpful and, once again, John required specialized care.

A highly skilled team at The Ottawa Hospital came together again to perform another difficult surgery. They would use a procedure called debridement and they would need to produce a new blood supply to the area. Debridement is when the surgeon removes as much of the diseased bone as possible and takes a small part of the surrounding healthy bone to ensure they have removed all infected areas. “They scraped the bone down until there was no sign of the infection and then did skin grafting on the back of my head,” explains John. The second part of the procedure was even more complex and involved taking an artery from his back, transplanting it to his head — creating a vital blood supply from his ears to the back of his skull. “I thank plastic surgeon, Dr. Sarah Shiga for being there in my time of need. If it were not for team Shiga and Lesiuk, I would never have achieved the quality of life I have today.”

“I owe much gratitude to the surgeons and staff at The Ottawa Hospital. Hopefully, my story will inspire others to donate so others can regain a quality of life as I have in abundance today.”

— John Bookalam

As a result of the debridement, he lost a significant amount of bone at the rear of his skull. Today, he must be very careful — he wears a helmet even when he’s driving to protect his brain, but his adventures continue. John’s grateful for each day and each outing he’s able to plan. “After almost four years, I’m cancer free and I’ve healed after three head surgeries. I’ve resumed my cross-country skiing and marathon road cycling.”

Nadia is also grateful for what she witnessed. “We are blessed to have some of the best minds and the most skillful surgeons on the planet right in our backyard. I am convinced what they did for Labrador John is what no one else could have done, and ultimately saved his life.”

Labrador John continues to say thank you

John’s gratitude goes beyond just words. He started by recognizing his care team through our Gratitude Award Program. While it was an important way for him to say thank you, it’s the special note he got in return from Dr. Shiga, who was a part of the second surgery, that made the donation extra special. “She wrote me a beautiful, personal handwritten letter. That’s one of the best letters ever sent to me,” says John.

The 73-year-old didn’t stop there though. He became a member of the hospital’s President’s Council when he committed to support our hospital with a donation of $1,000 a year. “I owe much gratitude to the surgeons and staff at The Ottawa Hospital. Hopefully, my story will inspire others to donate so others can regain a quality of life as I have in abundance today.”

Nadia is just as happy to see her friend back living his active life. “To see Labrador John fully recovered and cycling up challenging hills and covering incredible distances is fantastic. Those surgeons gave him his life back. He never takes a moment for granted,” says Nadia.

And John says he never will. “I will always donate that $1,000 a year to The Ottawa Hospital until I pass from the earth.”

John Bookalam, Summit of San Salvador ,received lifesaving surgery at The Ottawa Hospital after being diagnosed with primary central nervous system lymphoma.
John, Summit at the summit of San Salvador.

Admitted to The Ottawa Hospital in 2017, Anita Descheneau had feelings of hopelessness. For years, dating back to her teens, Anita was seeking help. That help included many years searching for assistance with other healthcare providers, for what she describes as mental and emotional distress — yet she felt left without a clear diagnosis or treatment roadmap.

The mother of four recalls dark times that winter. On the outside, things may have appeared fine. She was physically healthy, exercising, and had simplified her life. Yet despite feeling as if she was doing everything right, she was spiraling downward. By February, Anita arrived at our Emergency Department, and on Family Day weekend she was admitted overnight. Then in March, she was admitted to our acute Mental Health Unit, where she received care for several weeks. “I was in a state of suicidality,” recalls Anita.

“When I came to the hospital, I could not explain how I was feeling at all. Now, after four years, I can articulate how I’m feeling after an investment of huge amounts of individual and group therapy.”

– Anita Descheneau

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and then later also with major depressive disorder, Anita started getting answers to the questions she has had for decades about her mental health. She remembers meeting psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Saul and the confidence he instilled in her — hope that she could get better. “Dr. Saul has been extremely supportive and committed to helping me get well again and to stay out of the hospital. He listens very thoughtfully, continues to encourage, validates me, and gently offers insight,” says Anita.

Anita Descheneau
Anita Descheneau

Today, Anita continues to receive care from our mental health team through different outpatient programs. Looking back, she realizes how far she’s come. “When I came to the hospital, I could not explain how I was feeling at all. Now, after four years, I can articulate how I’m feeling after an investment of huge amounts of individual and group therapy. That says something about the time that they have invested into my life, and that’s something that I’m very grateful for.”

“In my experience, the DBT approach is unique in its ability to validate our patients’ experiences and emotional responses, while also helping them to learn new ways to respond to their challenges.”

– Vicki Larsen

The Ottawa Hospital’s Mental Health program provides early diagnosis and treatment of severe mental illness. We currently have 96 beds for those patients and our hospital is often the first place those experiencing a mental health crisis will turn to for acute care. Group therapies like the Working with Emotion group and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Group (DBT) provided Anita with the tools and skills she needs each day. Run by psychiatrist, Dr. Christine Dickson, and social worker, Vicki Larsen, DBT and related therapies provide psychological tools in a group setting, including mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) concepts. This helps manage strong emotions, cope with suicidal impulses, navigate times of crisis, handle the complexities of relationships, and manage feelings of emptiness or an unstable sense of self.

“In my experience, the DBT approach is unique in its ability to validate our patients’ experiences and emotional responses, while also helping them to learn new ways to respond to their challenges. These skills allow them to be more grounded, more confident, and more able to work towards the goals that are important to them,” explains Vicki. “I have definitely seen this kind of growth in Anita; it has been a pleasure to work with someone who does her very best to use the skills that she has learned in DBT.”

Anita Descheneau sought assistance at The Ottawa Hospital for her mental health.

“Acknowledging that I know they are truly helping me and how immensely grateful I am, was and is highly important to me.”

– Anita Descheneau

Anita confirms she’s experienced those kinds of results herself. “The DBT groups helped me learn skills and keep using them in the future.” She has learned skills to not only take care of herself, but also to be the mother and wife she wants to be for her four children and husband back home.

Grateful for the exceptional treatment she received, Anita wanted to say thank you to those who played a key role in helping her on her journey. She did so through our Gratitude Award Program — donating in honour of Dr. Saul and Vicki Larsen, who was Anita’s social worker. “Acknowledging that I know they are truly helping me and how immensely grateful I am, was and is highly important to me,” explains Anita.

Anita on vacation with her family
Anita on vacation with her family.

Q: What inspired you to give to The Ottawa Hospital Foundation?

A: The opportunity to recognize that they are truly helping me and how immensely grateful I am for their consistent wisdom, time, and patience is what inspired me to make a donation.

Q: What is the message you’d like to share about the care you received?

A: I am more than grateful for all the time my care team, including Dr. Saul and Vicki, have given me — patiently listening, gently offering words of wisdom, and reminding me to use my skills.

Q: What did it mean to thank members of your healthcare team through the Gratitude Award Program and to support The Ottawa Hospital at the same time?

A: Beyond my gratitude for them and the entire Mental Health Unit, it is my hope and wish that by supporting The Ottawa Hospital, more funding would result in reaching considerably more patients through the unit, to receive the same exceptional care that I have and continue to receive.

Dee Marcoux is a problem solver, a pro-active enabler of meaningful action. She views her donations to The Ottawa Hospital as investments in positive change in her community, and in December 2020, Dee made a $500,000 match gift to our hospital that inspired many others to join her in giving back. Now, more than a year into a pandemic that has challenged our healthcare workers like never before, she is once again hoping to inspire the community to join her in honouring healthcare workers.  And she is doing it in a unique way. 

Dee with her husband of 40 years, Michel, on a beach in Freemantle, Australia, where they held an ashes ceremony for her parents, Allan and Kaye, and sister Marilyn — all longtime residents of Ottawa.

Q: Your last large donation in December 2020 inspired more than 7,000 others to give in honour of healthcare workers. What is unique about this donation? 

A: My donation this April means that all 17,000+ members of The Ottawa Hospital team will receive the newly designed Gratitude Award pin. The Gratitude Award Program replaces the former Guardian Angel Program and is a way for me to support the hospital while thanking each and every member of the team in a tangible way. They have all worked very hard through the unknown, changing, and stressful conditions. I’ve been so impressed with how the hospital team has come together in the past year. We’ve all benefitted from their effort, care, and compassion, and I for one am truly grateful. If I could look each healthcare worker in the eye and say “thank you,” I would. This is my way of doing that.   

“It’s been a challenging time, and so I think it’s incredibly important for each of us in the community to look for ways to help.”

— Dee Marcoux

Q: What inspired you to help launch the new Gratitude Award Program? 

My husband, Michel, and I like to thank people in tangible ways, and we write a lot of thank you cards. When appropriate, we will also call the “compliments” department of the company to say how impressed we are with the individual who helped us. For The Ottawa Hospital, these pins fit that desire perfectly. You thank the person, their boss knows about it, and you’re making a donation to the hospital at the same time. When I heard about the initiative to introduce the newly redesigned Gratitude Award pin, I said to myself “How can I help make that happen?” My donation is the answer to that question. It’s a concrete way for me to show my gratitude to our healthcare workers. It’s been a challenging time, and so I think it’s incredibly important for each of us in the community to look for ways to help.  

Q:  Recognizing healthcare workers is something on the minds of many community members right now. What advice would you give them?  

I would challenge them to ask themselves, “What am I thankful for?” For anyone who has witnessed the care, commitment, and compassion of The Ottawa Hospital team, I hope they consider putting their thanks into action with a Gratitude Award donation. Seize every opportunity to show thanks. Create a moment for someone by thanking them. Maybe it was a nurse or a doctor who made a difference. Perhaps it was a volunteer who greeted them, an administrator they spoke with on the phone, or a researcher whose important work they admire. Let’s fill lanyards, lab coats, and lapels with Gratitude Award pins. If there is no one in particular they want to honour or you’ve had no interface with the hospital, l hope they will still consider a general donation to the hospital. It doesn’t need to be a large gift — there is great power in collective generosity. Actively support our healthcare system is something we can all do. 

When COVID-19 moved into the Ottawa region in March of 2020, we were in uncharted territory. However, despite the rapidly changing information in the early days, and the unknowns about this virus, something very clear began to emerge – unity. The community would soon show an outpouring of support for The Ottawa Hospital while healthcare teams rallied together to care for patients.

“Thank you to our generous donors – some who reached out for the first time.”
– Tim Kluke

As our front-line workers would go into the hospital each day to face the virus head-on, the community stayed home to help flatten the curve. Nevertheless, it became obvious residents wanted to do more – and they did. Donations both big and small began streaming in and the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund was created. To date, more than $2 million has been generously donated to support our hospital’s COVID-19 efforts and these donations have already been put to work. Tim Kluke, President and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, says this support has made a world of a difference supporting both research and care projects. “This proves once again that we really are stronger when we pull together. Thank you to our generous donors – some of whom have even reached out for the first time. Research currently underway will allow us to better understand and treat the virus, to keep our patients and our community safe.” Donations continue to be accepted today.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was another way our community lent a helping hand. The Ottawa Chinese Community quickly mobilized and raised over $120,000 to purchase necessary equipment like ventilators and PPE for our staff.

In Their Own Words: Good Days, Bad Days, and What Keeps Them Coming Back

Stepping into the unknown

While the community united to show their support for our front-line workers, a COVID-19 floor was created at both the General and Civic Campuses to care for the patients who tested positive for the virus. The team at the General Campus that had originally cared for Thoracic, ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat), and surgical patients would, almost overnight, become the team caring for COVID-19 patients. Little did they know at the time, they would be caring for these patients for well over a year. “We have a background in lungs and breathing issues on our unit, so we were a natural fit to care for these patients,” says Vanessa Large, a registered nurse at our hospital for the past four years.

Nevertheless, it was a daunting and draining task. Kristine Belmore is a registered nurse who has been at our hospital for 11 years and never did she imagine her career taking this step. “I was working the day the first positive patients came in. We were constantly getting new updates on protocols for caring for these patients – not just daily but during our shifts,” says Belmore. She adds, “It was the equivalent of how I felt when I was a new nurse preparing for a shift — I didn’t sleep well. I was anxious and there was the fear of the unknown.”

Leah Mills was just three years into her career as a registered nurse when she found herself caring for COVID-19 patients. “There was no easing into the COVID transition; it turned our world upside down,” says Leah.

Resilience as weeks turn into months

Dr. Samantha Halman helps a COVID-19 patient communicate with their loved ones via an iPad.
Dr. Samantha Halman helps a patient communicate with their loved ones via an iPad.

In those early weeks of caring for patients, there was the struggle of watching some patients go from appearing stable to suddenly clinging to life. Those days would take an emotional toll on these nurses. “The increase in demand during the surge of patients was overwhelming. Over time it became easier because we had concrete policies in place and we started recognizing a pattern in patient’s decline,” recalls Leah.

“We became their only sources of human connection, we became their second family. We would be there holding an iPad so they could see the friendly smile of a loved one – sometimes it was to say goodbye.” – Vanessa Large

The playbook had to be reinvented and new ideas had to be considered to help calm patients when they struggled to breathe or feared what might happen next. Then there were the layers of PPE, which created an additional level of safety but also a new challenge. “Caring for patients, especially the elderly who can be confused, was difficult because they can’t see your facial expressions – we had to find new ways to reassure patients when they were scared. We also became the link between the patient and the family, through phone calls and video calls – something we’ve never done before,” says Kristine.

Vanessa agrees adding, “We became their only sources of human connection, we became their second family. We would be there holding an iPad so they could see the friendly smile of a loved one – sometimes it was to say goodbye.”

Mentally and emotionally, the long haul of this pandemic started to wear on these nurses. Leah explains they’re used to helping patients heal and get better. “We’re feeling burned out and exhausted seeing patients decline quickly and sometimes die. It’s not what I’ve been used to in my role.”

Thankfully, over the past year, this dedicated care team has helped ensure the majority of COVID-19 patients have been able to regain their health and return home to their loved ones.

The nurses of the “COVID floor”

“Working on the COVID-19 Unit, with the numbers going up and down, you never know which point is going to be the tipping point.”
— Leah
“The best part about starting on the COVID-19 Unit was the team. Everyone was very supportive, willing to teach the newbies on the unit. And, the patients especially, they were very accommodating, and I will remember them for a long time to come.”
— Margaret
“My worst part of this year was seeing a lot of suffering and not being able to help as much as I would want to.”
— Michael
“COVID-19 has taught me to really value and cherish the time that I had with my family, my friends, and my colleagues.”
— Jeannette

COVID-19 patient grateful for compassionate care

One of the patients, who experienced firsthand compassionate care on the COVID-19 floor, was Fr. Alex Michalopulos. The Greek Orthodox priest spent 10 days in our hospital. He couldn’t be more thankful to be feeling better today. “For the times when the doctors or nurses came in to see me, for the times when I was reassured—I’m thankful I was well taken care of with love and respect for human life.”

“I have a lot more respect for the medical professionals. I always had, but this time it was at a different level. They were there for me.” – Fr. Alex Michalopulos

Fr. Alex Michalopoulos was treated for COVID-19 at The Ottawa Hospital last year.
Father Alex Michalopoulos of the Greek Orthodox Church. Father Alex was treated for COVID-19 at The Ottawa Hospital last year.

As tears well up in his eyes, and he stops briefly to regain his emotions, Fr. Michalopulos says it’s sometimes good to be on the other side, to feel what others are going through. “I have a lot more respect for the medical professionals. I always had, but this time it was at a different level. They were there for me.”

He adds, “They held my hand. They showed compassion. They showed a lot of respect and love. I will be forever grateful for them.” It was that special touch, and care from complete strangers that helped give Fr. Michalopulos the strength to get back home to the family he loves and eventually to his parish family.

“I will always remember how I was treated by strangers. I admire them and will always pray for them.”

In an effort to do his part to help, Fr. Michalopulos is participating in research that is investigating the long-term effects of the virus. Drs. Sara J. Abdallah and Juthaporn Cowan are checking in on participating patients, like Fr. Michalopulos at three, six, and 12 months after they were initially infected.

He explains why it was important to become involved. “I thought it would be useful to help researchers understand the effects and lingering effects of the virus in gathering information to help create a vaccine and or a cure.”

Giving back through research

Researchers at our hospital have been deeply involved in the global race to combat COVID-19. They are exploring more than 60 research projects to support the worldwide effort to find better ways to treat and prevent the virus. A number of those projects have been supported by donors through the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, including a world-first clinical trial, led by Dr. Rebecca Auer, which aims to protect cancer patients from COVID-19 – to date, 22 patients, have been recruited.

Dr. John Bell is a senior scientist in the cancer therapeutics program at The Ottawa Hospital.
Dr. Carolina Ilkow is a scientist in the cancer therapeutics program at The Ottawa Hospital.

Drs. John Bell and Carolina Ilkow are harnessing their expertise in making cancer-fighting viruses to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 — a made-in-Canada solution. In addition, our Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre is helping to manufacture three other COVID vaccines for clinical trials, as well as an experimental stem cell therapy.

Pushing forward despite a challenging year

As research continues to produce more answers and vaccines continue to roll out across the region, the team caring for patients remains steadfast. “The vaccine brings us hope. I remember how exciting it was when I received mine,” says Kristine.

A nurse at The Ottawa Hospital administers the COVID vaccine to a healthcare worker.
Venus Lucero, a nurse at The Ottawa Hospital, administers the hospital’s first dose of the COVID vaccine.

There is hope someday they can start getting back to the way things used to be, or at least close to it. For Kristine, it would mean not worrying about hugging her children when she comes home from work.

For Leah, it would mean letting her mind shut off for the first time in a year – and truly relax. For Vanessa, it would mean the excitement of spending time with her fiancé, Colin – also a frontline worker – as they’ve been isolated from each other during the pandemic. Despite the challenges, each one takes great pride in the care they’ve been able to provide during these unprecedented times. And how they also helped each other along the way.

Check out Pulse Podcast to hear more about a year of working on the COVID floor.


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

For many employees, walking through the doors of The Ottawa Hospital is about more than simply going to work — it’s a calling. Each day, they meet patients, many of whom may be experiencing a difficult time in their life. It is our nurses, physicians, volunteers, and more, who offer kindness and compassionate care to help them along the way. Whether it’s through an appointment, recovery from surgery, directions through the hospital, or a friendly conversation as a distraction – the caring attentiveness can go a long way for a patient or family member visiting our hospital.

For Laura Douglas, Isabelle Sarazin, and Nataleigh Oliveira, their compassionate care was rewarded when a donation was made through a special recognition program honouring our hospital heroes.

A moment to remember

Laura Douglas is a registered nurse and vividly remembers when a patient recognized her for her dedication.

“I received my Gratitude Award Pin on a chaotic Monday in the Emergency Department, and I remember smiling the entire day.” – Laura Douglas

Laura Douglas GAP
Laura Douglas, registered nurse.

The hectic pace of the Emergency Department can make it an intimidating place to work, however, for Laura, it’s where she wants to be. “I love my job, and it’s truly the patients and families that make the many challenging days in my career all worth it. I’m honoured to know I was able to make a small difference.”

When those patients or family members look back on the care and interactions they had with care team members like Laura, many want to say “thank you.” A meaningful way to do that is by honouring their hospital hero through the Gratitude Award Program.

First-time recipient

Each hospital hero is recognized with a Gratitude Award Pin, which they wear with pride. It’s a special moment when the pin is presented, especially when someone is recognized for the first time, like Isabelle Sarazin.

Isabelle is an EEG technician at The Ottawa Hospital. She cares for patients in the ICU, Emergency Department, in recovery, as well as those in isolation for COVID-19. Her colleagues recently recognized Isabelle when she received her first Gratitude Award Pin.

“We are a very small team and I want to dedicate this Gratitude Award Pin to my fellow technologists, who all deserve it as much as I do.” – Isabelle Sarazin

Isabelle Sarazin GAP
Isabelle Sarazin, EEG technician.

“Receiving my pin was amazing. I feel recognized since many people do not know what EEG tests are,” says Isabelle.

As a part of her job, Isabelle performs hours of brainwave recordings at a patient’s bedside. It’s a position which touches many different areas of the hospital and it includes regular interactions with patients. “We are a very small team and I want to dedicate this Gratitude Award Pin to my fellow technologists, who all deserve it as much as I do.”

A moment to remember

As a registered nurse in the Birthing Unit, Nataleigh Oliveira is right alongside mothers and their newborns during a special time. Her role is multi-faceted and sometimes complex.

“I love how I can help my patients in many different ways. Sometimes they need a friend or a coach; someone to validate their feelings and fears, and to guide them through the unknown into the next stage of their lives,” says Nataleigh.

“It is an endlessly rewarding role and the astonishment I feel from witnessing the miracle of a new life never, ever fades.” – Nataleigh Oliveira

Nataleigh Oliveira GAP
Nataleigh Oliveira, registered nurse.

It’s this dedication, in a role that is unpredictable and challenging, that families are extremely grateful for. And it’s a job that Nataleigh embraces even when her back aches after a 12-hour shift. “I am making coffee for the partner, who has been up for 24 hours and tucking them in with a pillow and blankets for a rest. I rejoice with parents who, after a long battle of infertility, have a healthy baby, and I weep with them when I help deliver their stillborn child; each of whom I carry in my heart and will never forget.”

Nataleigh is incredibly touched to be recognized as a hospital hero and to receive a Gratitude Award Pin, knowing that someone acknowledged all the love she puts into her work as a nurse. “It is an endlessly rewarding role and the astonishment I feel from witnessing the miracle of a new life never, ever fades.”

TSN 1200 sportscaster A.J. Jakubec had never heard of acute pancreatitis before December 2019. Today, he’s all too familiar with the illness, which can cause life-threatening complications, and is determined to show his gratitude to his hospital heroes who helped save him.

The morning of December 2, 2019, A.J. woke up in the worst pain he’s ever experienced. The pain was so intense he was vomiting. Scared and desperate for help, he called 911 and was rushed to The Ottawa Hospital’s Emergency Department. “I was admitted to hospital and knew it wasn’t good, but I didn’t know how it would play out,” says A.J.

The situation wasn’t good. A.J. needed to be intubated and spent eight days in the ICU. His family rushed to his bedside from Edmonton. For A.J., those first days were a blur, but for his parents and sister, they were frightening.

A.J. broadcasting at the 2016 Grey Cup
A.J. broadcasting from the Grey Cup in 2016.

The start of a long journey

An MRI would reveal the shocking diagnosis of acute pancreatitis. This is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas. It can range from mild discomfort to a severe, life-threatening illness. “The acute pancreatitis was caused by gallstones. The gallstones were removed, but they had been blocking my bile duct, pancreas area, and my pancreas suffered quite a bit of damage.”

Lynne, with A.J. in ICU at the General Campus
A.J. in ICU at the General Campus with his mother, Lynne, by his side.

While the situation looked dire, physicians at The Ottawa Hospital had a plan to help A.J. and to get him back to doing what he loves most – covering sports.

“I get emotional thinking about the support I received from so many different people who work at the hospital. To describe it as 10/10 would not do it justice in terms of how the healthcare team went beyond the call of duty.”

— A.J. Jakubec

By December 9, A.J. was improving and out of the ICU, although his journey was not even close to being over. He would spend 66 days in hospital – over two periods – 37 days the first time and 29 the second time when he was re-admitted to hospital after getting an infection.

Due to the severity of his acute pancreatitis, A.J. became very weak. At one point, he needed to use a walker to help him begin building up his strength again. But despite the complexity of his case and the extent of care he required, A.J. attributes his ultimate recovery to the high-caliber and compassionate care he received.

“There were different low points at that time with the destabilization of my kidneys. I had five endoscopy procedures. I was in a lot of pain, but after months of incredible care, I was finally released on Feb 27, 2020.”

Super A.J. is born

“I get emotional thinking about the support I received from so many different people who work at the hospital. To describe it as 10/10 would not do it justice in terms of how the healthcare team went beyond the call of duty,” says A.J.

Nickname Super AJ, written on message board for AJ
Super A.J. is the nickname staff gave him as he started to get stronger.

He adds it was the consistent, compassionate care from so many different people that was instrumental in his recovery. That support team led to A.J.’s new nickname – ‘Super A.J.’ It all started in January 2020, when he started gaining confidence and he started feeling stronger. “I was starting to get better and Kenzie, a nurse who cared for me, saw the progress I was making. She was really supportive, and she dubbed me ‘Super A.J.’ She even wrote it on my whiteboard. From that point on, everyone was calling me ‘Super A.J.’”

The nickname reminds A.J. of all he’s overcome. “I changed my twitter handle to ‘Super A.J.’ and I think I’ll probably keep that forever just because it motivates and reminds me that if I can get through that, I can get through anything.”

Giving back to his Hospital Heroes

A.J.’s parents, Zane and Lynne Jakubec, were filled with gratitude after witnessing the incredible care and compassion their son received while in hospital. They wanted to give back and honour those who helped get their son back on his feet.

“They asked me who I wanted to recognize and I immediately was thinking of about eight to ten people. It was really difficult, but I ended up narrowing it down to three, Angela Richardson, Nicole Dannel, and Alex Rowe.” You could say they were his three-star selection.

“While we couldn’t afford a large donation, we needed to recognize the doctors, nurses and staff for their hard work, their excellence, compassion, and the healing that we witnessed.”

— Zane and Lynne Jakubec
A.J. leaving The Ottawa Hospital
A.J. leaving hospital after 66 days of care.

The couple made a donation to the celebrate these three hospital heroes through a program designed to recognize and thank hospital staff who have gone above and beyond. For A.J. and his parents, it was a way to say thank you for the care, the extra visits, and mental support they each provided to help him get better. “While we couldn’t afford a large donation, we needed to recognize the doctors, nurses, and staff for their hard work, their excellence, compassion, and the healing that we witnessed,” says Zane.

They will be forever grateful for the staff they describe as dedicated and hard working and how they took the time to genuinely care for A.J. “Little gestures like bringing in a warm blanket, trying to find something special in the unit fridge, sharing a brief sports talk – those all add up,” says Lynne.

“It’s something that will stay with me forever – that people cared that much. The physical, the emotional, and the mental support – thank you doesn’t really do justice but I’m so grateful for the care I received.”

— A.J. Jakubec

For A.J., it’s hard to put into words the gratitude he feels to be back in the broadcast booth today. He thinks back to the day when he left the hospital that second and final time. “I had staff lined up cheering me on the way out. That was really emotional. That’s why it’s something that will stay with me forever because the people cared that much. The physical, the emotional, and the mental support – thank you doesn’t really do justice but I’m so grateful for the care I received.”

Forever grateful

For A.J., it’s hard to put into words the gratitude he feels to be back in the broadcast booth today.

He remembers those first three weeks in hospital being incredibly difficult and he had become very weak. He wasn’t walking much – in fact, he had to use a walker. But it was a significant turning point when, on Christmas Eve, he was given a pass to go home to have Christmas dinner with his family. “It was a big positive for my psyche,” says A.J.

He also thinks back to the day when he left the hospital that second and final time. “I had staff lined up cheering me on the way out. That was really emotional. That’s why it’s something that will stay with me forever because the people cared that much. The physical, the emotional, and the mental support – thank you doesn’t really do justice but I’m so grateful for the care I received.”

Hear A.J. Jakubec on Pulse: The Ottawa Hospital Foundation Podcast, as he shares his story and says thank you for the exceptional care he received at our hospital.

Excruciating chest pains woke Phyllis Holmes from a deep sleep. A trip to the emergency room revealed a twist in her small intestine. Doctors used an uncommon technique that involved leaving her abdomen clamped open for two days after surgery – it’s the reason Phyllis is alive today.

The first of many miracles

For 18 months Phyllis experienced on-and-off pain in her chest. Some episodes lasted for only a few minutes, while others lasted for several hours. Unable to pinpoint the cause of her pain, Phyllis’ doctor started an elimination process; sending her for various tests, including a visit to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. When results revealed it wasn’t her heart that was causing such discomfort, doctors ordered a CT scan hoping it would provide some answers.

However, only a few days prior to her scheduled appointment, Phyllis jolted awake in excruciating pain. Lying next to her, concerned, was her husband, Brian Jackson, who insisted they pay a visit to the emergency room. Her pain persisted as they checked in at The Ottawa Hospital’s General Campus. Recognizing the severity of her pain, the admitting staff immediately put her in an examination room.

A life-threatening diagnosis

Dr. Guillaume Martel and Phyllis Holmes embrace at The Ottawa Hospital.
Dr. Guillaume Martel and Phyllis Holmes

After several tests, Phyllis underwent a CT scan. The results showed her life was on the line.

As Phyllis recalls her experience, she describes hearing only one thing – they would need to perform emergency surgery immediately. “That was all I heard,” said Phyllis. “We have to do emergency surgery or you may be faced with a life-threatening circumstance.”

What the CT scan revealed was a small twist in her intestine, causing her entire bowel to turn purple, almost black. “Her whole small intestine was dying,” said Phyllis’ surgeon, Dr. Guillaume Martel, “which is not survivable. But we got to her quickly, and that day, things lined up perfectly.”

Traditionally, with a bowel in such a condition, surgeons would have removed the section of the bowel that was compromised. However, in Phyllis’ case, almost her entire bowel was jeopardized. Removing such a large portion of her bowel would have reduced her to being fed through IV nutrition for the rest of her life.

A mid-surgery decision

Once Phyllis was in the operating room, doctors were able to more accurately assess the severity of the damage caused to her intestine. Some vitality in her bowel remained— an encouraging sign that there was a chance it could be saved. Rather than remove the intestine, they decided to leave her abdomen clamped open and wait.

For two days Phyllis lay sedated in the intensive care unit, her abdomen left open. Throughout that time, Brian recalls the nurses and doctors were attentive and compassionate, letting him know what was going on every step of the way. “I was always in the loop about what was going on,” said Brian, something that he was grateful for during a particularly emotional and stressful time.

“Leaving a patient open can be a form of damage control,” explained Dr. Martel. This technique relieved a lot of pressure in Phyllis’ abdomen, allowing time to see whether her bowel would survive. However, it can be difficult for a doctor to know if this technique will work for one patient over another. Luckily, in Phyllis’ case, it did.

The wait was over

When Phyllis was brought back to the operating room for her second surgery, Dr. Balaa, the surgeon, told Brian what to expect. It could be a long procedure, where they would remove part of her intestine, and in its place attach a colostomy bag. Brian settled in for a long and stressful wait, unsure of what life might be like once Phyllis’ surgery was complete. But less than an hour later, Dr. Balaa appeared with incredible news.

When they took off the covering, a sheet that protected her abdomen while she lay clamped open, her intestine was healthy and back to normal again. To their amazement, her intestine remained viable and all they needed to do was stitch her back up.

Recovery period

The next morning Phyllis woke to Brian’s warm smile at her bedside. While she was unaware of the incredible turn of events, she was grateful to be alive.

She remained at the hospital for a week after the first surgery. While she recovered, Phyllis recalls receiving exceptional care. “The doctors always had so much time for me when they did their rounds,” said Phyllis. “They were very patient and engaged in my situation, it was heartwarming and wonderful.” Phyllis was so grateful, she wanted to show her appreciation.

Showing Gratitude

Dr. Guillaume at The Ottawa Hospital
Dr. Guillaume Martel was part of a team that saved Phyllis’ life.

That’s when Phyllis heard of the Gratitude Award Program. This program was developed as a thoughtful way for patients to say thank you to the caregivers who go above and beyond to provide extraordinary care, every day. It’s a way for patients, like Phyllis, to recognize caregivers by giving a gift in their honour to The Ottawa Hospital. The caregivers are presented with a Gratitude Award pin and a special message from the patient letting them know the special care given did not go unnoticed.

Honouring Dr. Martel and several others through the Gratitude Award Program was a meaningful way for Phyllis to say thank you. “I wanted to be able to give something in return,” said Phyllis.

Dr. Martel was touched by the gesture. “When you receive a pin from a patient like Phyllis, it’s very gratifying,” explained Dr. Martel. “It’s something you can feel good about receiving.”

A healing experience

Phyllis’ journey at The Ottawa Hospital was far more than an emergency room visit and two surgeries. When asked to reflect on her experience, she tells a story of compassionate care and healing, both physically and mentally. “I felt that even though I was there to heal physically, I was getting psychological support as well,” Phyllis explained. “Everyone would use eye contact, or they’d touch my hand with compassion. It was very personal. I saw the divinity in those people,” explained Phyllis. “I saw it. I experienced it first-hand. And it is healing. That is the healing that takes place when you have those very special encounters. It heals you.”

Today, Phyllis feels incredibly grateful for the care she received at The Ottawa Hospital. “It was second to none,” she said.

Dr. Guillaume Martel

In August 2019, Dr. Guillaume Martel was announced as the first Arnie Vered Family Chair in Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary Research. Dr. Martel is a gifted surgeon at The Ottawa Hospital who has saved and prolonged the lives of countless patients, particularly those with cancer. An international search conducted for this Research Chair found the best candidate right here in Ottawa. This Research Chair provides the opportunity for innovative clinical trials and cutting-edge surgical techniques that will benefit our patients for years to come. This was made possible through the generous support of the Vered Family, alongside other donors.

“When Arnie got sick, he needed to travel to Montreal for treatment. It was so hard for him to be away from home and our six children. We wanted to help make it possible for people to receive treatment right here in Ottawa. This Chair is an important part of his legacy.” – Liz Vered, donor