Published: June 2024

Sean Sisk has photographed some of the biggest musicians in the world. He was doing just that in July 2023 at Bluesfest when he started to feel off. He developed a fever and was unusually tired. Within days, the popular local photographer was taken to hospital, where he remained for 15 weeks after being diagnosed with invasive group A streptococcal (strep A) disease — and it was ravaging his body.

When asked to recall those days, the 49-year-old needs his wife Erin Fraser’s help, because he has no memory of it. Sean worked the first four days of Bluesfest, but by Sunday, he developed a fever and didn’t go to the show. The fever was quite high, off and on. He slept a lot and tried to stay hydrated despite not having much of an appetite. Sean noticed a bit of redness on one leg, but shrugged it off as a sunburn from the festival.

“But three days after his first symptoms, he developed cramping pain in his lower abdomen and, his hip was hurting. Then, his breathing became laboured, and by the middle of the night, he developed cold sweats,” explains Erin.

In the early morning hours of Thursday, they called an ambulance — a decision that ultimately saved Sean’s life. He was taken to the Montfort Hospital, where he stayed for three weeks before being transferred to The Ottawa Hospital’s General Campus.

Sean recovering in the hospital.

What is flesh-eating disease?

Necrotizing fasciitis — or flesh-eating disease — is a rare but extremely serious and quickly progressing infection of the tissue around the muscles (the fascia). There are only 90 to 200 cases of flesh-eating disease in Canada each year, and it is fatal in 20–30% of cases.

Flesh-eating disease is most commonly caused by strep A bacteria, although some other bacteria may cause it as well.

Strep A rapidly attacking Sean’s body

Blood work revealed Sean had developed a severe invasive group A strep infection (iGAS), and he was in septic shock with multiple system organ failure. This infection caused the development of necrotizing fasciitis — also known as flesh-eating disease, and it was attacking his right leg.

Sean was very sick. He was in the ICU, intubated, and on medications to tackle the infection, but his kidneys had shut down. Things became so critical in those early days in hospital that Sean went into cardiac arrest on four different occasions — three of which were in one massive code lasting between 30 and 60 minutes.

Once he was stable enough, he had surgery on his right leg to remove the necrotizing fasciitis. It’s believed the infection entered through a small scratch he had on his right calf, causing the redness that Sean initially thought was a sunburn. A fist-size piece of his thigh was removed, and luckily, his leg was saved. Sean was placed in a medically induced coma to help fight the disease, and his family was left to wonder if the Sean they knew would ever return to them.

"His organs were shutting down because they were overwhelmed with infection. His life was at risk.”

— Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng

“It was a lot of weeks of not knowing what the fallout of that cardiac arrest would be. And it was waiting to see if he would wake up. And if he woke up, what was he going to be like? What kind of physical capacity was he going to be in at that point because there’s a lot of ramifications for being that sick,” says Erin.

During his time in the ICU, Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, a critical care and palliative care physician at our hospital, was among those who cared for Sean. “He had multi-organ failure, meaning that his organs were shutting down because they were overwhelmed with infection. His life was at risk.”

As Dr. Kyeremanteng explains, strep A is an extremely serious infection that can lead to death. “It is a rapidly progressive rash that develops, and it evolves into the deep layers of the skin. At times, it could require amputation, but because it’s such an aggressive infection, your body’s response to it can be quite toxic. Your blood pressure drops, your ability to get blood flow to your kidneys — to other vital organs, like your liver or intestines, can be compromised.”

Emerging from six weeks in a coma

Despite everything Sean went through, he finally came out of the coma, but it was a slow and gradual process. His body had been through a traumatic experience. “One of my first memories was when my ICU physiotherapist wanted to get me into a wheelchair. I remember that was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. But she just made it as enjoyable as it possibly could have been. She and the team in the ICU — they were just awesome.”

Dr. Kyeremanteng says Sean showed incredible resilience throughout the whole experience — he had a positive mindset and outlook despite everything he had gone through. 

“When I think of how grateful Sean was for the care he was receiving and his positive outlook on life moving forward, that makes you appreciate the work that you do,” says Dr. Kyeremanteng. “Sean’s story is like fuel to keep us going. When you’re burned out and tired, a story like Sean’s elevates you.”

As each day passed, Sean showed signs of improvement and was eventually well enough to leave the ICU. He then spent a week in nephrology to monitor his kidney function and to recover before being medically stable enough for rehab. His next big step in recovery was moving to The Ottawa Hospital’s Rehabilitation Centre.

Meet the A-team of Sean's rehab

When Dr. Guy Trudel, a rehabilitation physician and researcher at our hospital, first met Sean at the end of August, he recalls a man who was scared and uncertain as to what his future looked like. He had spent six weeks in a coma.

“Sean was very anxious trying to come to terms with what was happening to him. He had been through a traumatic ordeal, and he was lost. He was uncertain as to what his future would look like,” explains Dr. Trudel.

“We assess every patient individual goals and plan our intervention as a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary team."

— Dr. Guy Trudel

Lucky for Sean, the Rehab Centre is well equipped with a specialized team to help patients just like him — patients who have multiple health issues, both mental and physical. “We assess every patient individual goals and plan our intervention as a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary team. We set individual rehabilitation programs for the patient according to their deficits and goals, and we review that progress regularly. It’s teamwork,” says Dr. Trudel.

A part of that collaborative team is Frankie Nadeau. She’s an occupational therapist who specializes in complex orthopaedic rehab care. Frankie works with patients who have had lengthy hospital stays and require help with mobility, including daily living activities such as washing and dressing. There is also support with home equipment and set-up for transition back home from hospital — the goal is to gain strength and learn skills to increase independence.

When it came to Sean, the team had to approach things incrementally. He was weak and in pain from the wound on his leg. “He wasn’t mobile when he came to us. He really couldn’t do much on his own as he was so weak,” explains Ms. Nadeau. “Sean was also very afraid to move and required a lot of reassurance. We had to introduce new skills slowly and practice them regularly to build his confidence. Humour worked very well with Sean. That’s probably why he and I connected so well.”

That confidence would come, and as it did, gradually more tasks were added. Sean was involved with group programs as well as physiotherapy. With each new task, he trusted the team more, and his confidence got stronger, as well as his body. “That allowed him to trust our approach with him. He knew we wouldn’t ask him to do something that we didn’t feel that he could do.”

A huge element of that trust also came from Sean’s work with Dr. Bryce Mulligan, a psychologist at the Rehab Centre, who had an important message when the two first met. “No matter what happens, you’re not alone,” shares Dr. Mulligan. “These are people that survive these really unlikely, often horrific things, and no matter how complicated or overwhelming a situation is, you’re never on your own.”

“These are people that survive these really unlikely, often horrific things, and no matter how complicated or overwhelming a situation is, you're never on your own.”

– Dr. Bryce Mulligan

Would he ever regain his past life

There was a time early on when Dr. Mulligan remembers Sean didn’t want to hold his camera because he wasn’t sure he could. Would he ever be able to take pictures again? That was his livelihood. Sean suffered neuropathy (damage to the nerves) in his fingers, and the unknown worried him.

“I saw how he was scared. He was overwhelmed. I think he needed to know that the scary parts were over, but nobody could tell him whether that was the case. It was not clear yet what he would get back.”

One of the things that Sean wanted to get back to as well was cooking — he loves cooking for his family.

“Getting him into the kitchen was important because we could use this activity to work on his standing tolerance and the use his hands. That was incredibly motivating for him.”

— Frankie Nadeau

As time progressed, Sean began to work in the kitchen at the Rehab Centre, and he learned to function in that environment again. His goal was to get back home for family taco night.  “Getting him into the kitchen was important because we could use this activity to work on his standing tolerance and the use his hands. That was incredibly motivating for him,” explains Ms. Nadeau. 

And so, once Sean was strong enough to perform a car transfer and access his home, he was able to do overnight visits back home with his family. Eventually, after 15 weeks in hospital, on October 26, 2023, Sean was discharged from the Rehab Centre.

Sean recovering in the hospital

A special kind of person to provide care

Today, Sean continues to heal. His kidney function continues to improve, he no longer needs a cane to walk, and he’s back behind the camera part time. He also has a deep gratitude for everyone who helped him along the way. He’s echoed that to each member of his team who will listen, and it’s certainly not lost on them.

“Sean has left a lasting impression on the team who cared for him, as well,” says Dr. Mulligan. “It is a privilege to be involved with somebody like him and watch him get his life back — which I learned was a life that had touched many other lives in the community.”

"It’s easy to fall into a dark spot and be woe is me, but I never wanted to lose, especially because I have three kids. I didn’t want to lose. That was never an option.”

— Sean Sisk

As Sean reflects on the care team that was there for him day in and day out, he says thank you. “They gave me normalcy through conversation, but they also pushed me to find that little extra bit in me to help me succeed. It’s easy to fall into a dark spot and be woe is me, but I never wanted to lose, especially because I have three kids. I didn’t want to lose. That was never an option,” says Sean.

This well-loved photographer also wants the broader community to understand how fortunate our city is to have access to this kind of specialized care — care he’ll always remember and that impacted who he is today. “It was hard to leave the hospital in a sense, because you feel safe. But it’s nice to be back with my kids and living life because, I can tell you, there were a few times, I wasn’t sure I’d get back.”

Sean outside the Rehab Centre with his twins
Sean outside the Rehab Centre with his twins
Sean Sisk and family
Sean Sisk with his wife, Erin Fraser, and their twin daughters
Download episode 98 of Pulse Podcast to hear Frankie Nadeau talk about her role as an occupational therapist at the Rehabilitation Centre and the connection she had with Sean.

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Published: May 2024

Emmy Cogan was extremely tiny when she arrived in this world, but the impact of her birth was big. Born at 23 weeks gestation, she weighed only 515 grams — that’s just over one pound. Emmy was one of nine babies enrolled in a world-first cell therapy trial to heal the lungs of preemies and was the first in North America to receive the therapy. Now, that promising trial is ready for its next phase.  

Her early arrival happened not long after first-time parents Alicia Racine and Mike Cogan returned from a trip to Hawaii. Alicia was back at work as a 911 operator for the Ottawa Police when her water broke.   

“My sister works with me, and she brought me to The Ottawa Hospital’s General Campus. I was in a lot of pain, and I wasn’t too sure what was going on. And then we found out that it was contractions, and I started dilating,” explains Alicia. 

Born at 23 weeks gestation, Emmy Cogan weighed just 515 grams.

The baby would hold on for another six days before being born on February 20, 2023. Those few extra days in the womb were critical to give Emmy a chance at life. “It changed the game entirely for us and her. She was able to be intubated, and she just started fighting from that moment on,” explains Mike.

Health challenges lie ahead

Initially, Emmy was cared for in The Ottawa Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), followed by 10 days at CHEO before returning to our hospital. 

Emmy’s first month of life faced many challenges, including a duct between her heart and lungs that wouldn’t close, gastro-intestinal issues causing her to become septic, and concerns of a blood infection. Once Emmy got through those life-threatening issues, she was extubated and put on a high-flow oxygen. “We got to hold her for the first time at that point and my parents were able to be there for that, which was really nice,” says Mike. 

Emmy also developed bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD). This is a condition known to affect many preemies. Because these infants are born so prematurely, their tiny lungs are underdeveloped and require extra oxygen to help them breathe properly. But giving this oxygen — critical for survival — can damage their tiny lungs. It’s like starting life with emphysema. 

The devastating impact of BPD

In Canada, 1,000 babies are diagnosed with BPD every year. That number jumps to approximately 150,000 worldwide. Often, babies with BPD develop other chronic lung diseases, such as asthma, and may require prolonged oxygen and ventilation.  

Additionally, they have a high rate 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 eyes. There is currently no cure, but this world-first clinical trial led by Dr. Bernard Thébaud, a senior scientist and neonatologist, hopes to change that. 

Two decades ago, Dr. Thébaud’s team discovered that stem cells from the umbilical cord — known as mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) — could heal lung injury and prevent BPD in newborn rodents. Since then, the team has worked tirelessly, here at home and collaborating with other scientists around the world, to bring this novel therapy to babies and their families through clinical trials. While other trials have tested MSCs for treatment of BPD in premature babies, no other group has used MSCs taken from the whole umbilical cord and processed them the way that Dr. Thébaud’s team has.  

What is bronchopulmonary dysplasia?

Bronchopulmonary dysplasia — or BPD — is a chronic lung disease that most often occurs in premature or low-weight babies who have received supplemental oxygen or received mechanical ventilation for long periods.

“In our rodent research, we’ve used stem cells isolated from the umbilical cords of healthy newborns to prevent lung injury or even to some degree regenerate the damaged lung,” says Dr. Thébaud. “We foresee that these stem cells, given during a certain time during the hospital stay of these babies, could prevent the progression of the disease.”

Shortly after Emmy’s birth, her parents met Chantal Horth, a clinical trial coordinator, and were introduced to Dr. Thébaud. “Chantal came to us and said Emmy qualified for the trial,” remembers Mike. “It sounded like a great opportunity.”

"Being a preemie, she’s going to have some health issues, and anything that could help her, we wanted to give her that extra shot."

— Alicia Racine

Saying ‘yes’ to a world-first clinical trial

The couple met with Dr. Thébaud, and he answered a long list of questions they had about the trial. “He’s a very personable guy, and it was very easy to talk to him. We trusted him. Being a preemie, she’s going to have some health issues, and anything that could help her, we wanted to give her that extra shot,” says Alicia. 

To qualify for the trial, the premature babies — born at 23- or 24-weeks’ gestation at The Ottawa Hospital — had to be seven to 21 days old and treated in the NICU. They also had to require 35% oxygen. This level of oxygen puts them at 60-70% risk of developing BPD. Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre recruited one baby, becoming the second site involved.  

On March 3, 2023, at 11 days old, Emmy received an IV infusion of umbilical cord tissue grown from the donated cords of healthy newborns. It was a special moment for everyone involved. She was the first baby in North America to receive this kind of therapy. 

"This is the first trial of its kind in the world, and what could be more rewarding than helping preemies?"

– Dr. Bernard Thébaud

“Dr. Thébaud administered the stem cells, and everyone clapped,” says Mike. “She will have follow-up appointments at different stages for two years, and then she’s going to be followed up by phone for 10 years.”  

For Dr. Thébaud, it was a moment he and his team had dreamed about. “It was an exciting and huge milestone when that day arrived — after 20 years of work we were able to test this therapy for the first time in a patient. This is the first trial of its kind in the world and what could be more rewarding than helping preemies?”

The next step for this stem cell trial

Thanks to those nine tiny patients, including Emmy, recruitment for the Phase 1 trial is now complete. The purpose of this trial is to test the feasibility and safety of the stem cell therapy. The next phase will test safety as well as how effective it is.

"All the stars lined up to have her be a part of that little piece of history — something that could impact babies like her in the future.”

– Alicia Racine
Emmy with her parents.

“Now we can determine if this therapy will make a difference in patients,” explains Dr. Thébaud. “There will be two groups in the next phase — one that will receive cells and one that will receive the placebo — it’s a randomized controlled trial. We’ll need 168 patients to determine if these stem cells make a difference.”

While babies for the first phase were recruited from NICUs at The Ottawa Hospital and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, the next phase will be a multi-centre trial across the country. Dr. Thébaud hopes it will begin by the end of 2024 and it will take two years.

“Working with babies is, I think, the most beautiful job on Earth. Because they’re born, and they have all their life and all their potential in front of them. Our task is to give them a great jumpstart,” says Dr. Thébaud.

As for Emmy, she left the hospital five months after she was born, and while Mike and Alicia don’t know if the stem cells impacted her health, Emmy is doing well. “We don’t know what she would be like without it, but she’s awesome right now,” says Mike. “We felt very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time for our little girl.”

It’s something Alicia feels makes Emmy all the more unique. “All the stars lined up to have her be a part of that little piece of history — something that could impact babies like her in the future,” explains Alicia.

That’s certainly what Dr. Thébaud is hoping for. “It would change the way we care for premature babies. It’s my hope that these tiny patients have a chance to thrive, grow up, and have an impact on the world around them.”

Emmy doesn’t know she’s made history, but that’s ok. For now, she’s keeping her parents busy. She’s pulling herself up and will be walking in no time. She’s also been off oxygen since November 2023, giving her even more mobility. “It was really fun to have her free. We had a cordless baby for the first time! That was a big step when she didn’t need to rely on the oxygen anymore,” smiles Mike.

This Phase 1 trial is funded by the Stem Cell Network with in-kind matching funds from MDTB Cells GmbH. Dr. Thébaud’s research is also possible because of funding from the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, and the CHEO Foundation. 

Published: April 2024

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

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

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

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

Grasping the complexity of a Ewing sarcoma tumour

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

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

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

A collaborative team effort

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

— Dr. Joel Werier

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

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

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

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

Stepping inside the patient through VR

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

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

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

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

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

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

VR at The Ottawa Hospital

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

VR in action

A whole new perspective for the surgical team

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

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

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

Emeric in hospital after surgery.

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

— Emeric Leblanc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelley with her mother, Marcella.

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

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

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

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

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

Early introduction to healthcare

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

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

— Shelley

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

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

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

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

A lifetime of care at The Ottawa Hospital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A legacy gift in memory of a devoted mother

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

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

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

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

— Shelley

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

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

Inspired by plans for the new hospital campus and research

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

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

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

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

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

— Shelley

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


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

Published: February 2024

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

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

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

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

— Sabrina Presta

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

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

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

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

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

Sabrina is an active mom of two daughters.

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

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

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

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

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

— Sabrina Presta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Published: February 2024

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

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

— Caleb Fagen

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

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

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

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

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

Shocking diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma 

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

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

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

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

Caleb with his family on vacation in Italy. 

A stem-cell transplant the next level of defence 

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

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

Caleb playing the accordion at his home. 

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

— Caleb Fagen

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

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

Cancer and the mental health journey 

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

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

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

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

Looking to the future  

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

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

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

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

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


Years after losing his dad to cancer, Robert Nsengiyumva faces his own diagnosis

Published: February 2024

When Robert Nsengiyumva was 24, he lost his dad to liver cancer. It was a devastating time for this young man and his family. Little did he know, 25 years later, he’d face a cancer diagnosis himself — stage IV stomach cancer.

After his dad died, Robert assumed the role of father figure to his four younger siblings — two sisters and two brothers. While his mother worked to help support the family, he also stepped forward to help provide care and financial support for his family.

In the years that followed, cancer was no stranger to Robert’s family — several other members also faced a cancer diagnosis. Then in 2021, he received his own devastating diagnosis after experiencing weight loss and abdominal pain, along with nausea and vomiting. “I was 53. I was an active person, and so it was a very difficult time for me,” explains Robert.

Coming to terms with the news was also difficult for those closest to him, like his wife and circle of friends. “I will not lie; it was a like a bomb dropped — it was that shocking. When I decided to tell a few friends what was going on, they didn’t believe me at first. They thought it was a joke — then they realized it was true,” explains Robert.

Understanding a stomach cancer diagnosis

Stomach cancer — also known as gastric cancer — is a growth of cells that starts in the stomach. While it often starts in the lining, it can start in anywhere in the stomach. Thankfully, occurrences have been declining, but it is still one of the most common cancers worldwide.

Robert at the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital. Photo by Ashley Fraser

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, most stomach cancers are found when the disease is advanced and remission is less likely. When it spreads past the stomach wall or into other parts of the body, it’s harder to cure.

In Canada, the five-year survival rate for stomach cancer is 29%.

Due to the stage of Robert’s cancer, treatment began right away. His medical team at The Ottawa Hospital included, Dr. Dominick Bossé, medical oncologist, and Dr. Carolyn Nessim, surgical oncologist, who were ready with a plan. The first course of action was four chemotherapy treatments. These started on October 18, 2021, and the last treatment was at the end of November. Next up would be surgery.

By early January 2022, Robert underwent surgery on his stomach, led by Dr. Nessim. “It was an isolating time. I had to live within four walls because of the pandemic. I had to be careful not to get COVID,” he says.

After a successful operation, Robert was given some time to recover before he resumed chemo treatments. By the end of April, his treatments were done and deemed a success.

“The first round of chemotherapy treatment was very difficult; I suffered a lot, but the final four were much easier. After my treatments were done, I started to improve and feel better,” explains Robert.

Here to say thank you

By July 2022, Robert returned to work part-time. “Then by August, I was back on the job as a Building System Technician in the Public Service, full time. That’s something I never thought would happen when I first received my diagnosis,” says Robert.

“I wanted to support those who faced cancer like me, and so becoming a donor to The Ottawa Hospital was an easy choice.”

— Robert Nsengiyumva

Today, he shows no signs of recurrence, and Robert is making the most of every day.

Robert at the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital. Photo by Ashley Fraser

He’s also deeply grateful for the team of medical experts that were ready to care for him when he needed them most. In fact, he’s always wanted to give back in some way. “I wanted to support those who faced cancer like me, and so becoming a donor to The Ottawa Hospital was an easy choice ,” says Robert.

It’s a monthly donation that allows him to say thank on a regular basis to those who helped give him more time. “This is my way to thank everyone who cared for me. The staff, including the doctors and nurses at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre, who treated me during my illness. I don’t know how to thank them enough, so I decided to send my donation every month, and it feels good.”

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


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

Published: February 2024

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

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

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

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

Diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma flips world upside down 

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

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

— Heba Haidar

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

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

Heba during her treatment at The Ottawa Hospital. 

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

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

Six months of chemotherapy with three young children at home 

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

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

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

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

Desire to give back and support groundbreaking research 

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

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

— Heba Haidar

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

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

Heba preparing a lemon poppyseed loaf in her kitchen. 

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


Randy McElligott’s unusual reaction to his cancer diagnosis

Published: February 2024

When Randy McElligott heard the words “you have cancer”, he didn’t have the average reaction to this type of news. “I was happy. Most people don’t take that attitude, but I saw it as an opportunity to change my life,” explains Randy.

That’s exactly what he did. Randy decided to train for a marathon. He wanted to try something challenging, and he’s been moving ever since.

“I had what’s known as smoldering multiple myeloma. It sits there and doesn’t do anything. It’s like a volcano just waiting to erupt.”

— Randy McElligott

It was July 13, 2005, and Randy was 49 when he received the news — it was a surprise find. His family doctor had ticked off an extra box on the requisition form for his blood test. That mark resulted in the discovery of cancer — or what would become cancer. “I had what’s known as smoldering multiple myeloma. It sits there and doesn’t do anything. It’s like a volcano just waiting to erupt,” explains Randy.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer that starts in a type of white blood cell that’s known as a plasma cell. These cells help the body fight infection, and they can be found in the bone marrow, as well as other tissues and organs.

For nine years, he waited for the “eruption” but maintained his positive attitude. And over those years, he kept busy doing the things he loves, like hosting his jazz radio show, In Transition, on CHUO-FM — a program he’s been doing since 1988. But his greatest distraction has been running. Since his diagnosis, he has completed 12 marathons and about 80 half-marathons. “That kept me sane and kept me focused. By doing marathons, I was building up my mental ability to handle what was ahead for me regarding cancer.”

Becoming symptomatic for multiple myeloma

In 2014, Randy and his wife, Nicole, were in Barbados on vacation, and he became symptomatic. “I was in excruciating pain. I returned home and was hospitalized right away. The cancer had spread to my spine, chest, and sternum.”

Randy makes bi-weekly visits to the General Campus for his treatment.

Once Randy was stabilized, he was discharged, and chemotherapy treatment began at the cancer outpatient at the General Campus of The Ottawa Hospital. He also forged on with his running.

The next big hurdle Randy faced was a bone marrow transplant in October 2015. But true to his character, seven weeks later he did a 10k run and then another marathon. “It’s all because of the cancer. I must prove, even if I have cancer, I don’t have to stop. I wanted to show other cancer patients they can keep going. Look at Sindy Hooper — she is incredible and one of the inspirations in my life to keep going and do these races,” explains Randy.

“I have a great cancer team. If any medical trials are coming up, they know I want to help.”

— Randy McElligott

This cancer journey has been a rollercoaster ride for Randy — he has been in and out of remission several times since his diagnosis almost 20 years ago. But his positive attitude is the one thing that never wavers.

He also credits the specialized team — which includes four hematologists — for always being ready when a new challenge presents itself. “I have a great cancer team. If any medical trials are coming up, they know I want to help.”

Access to clinical trials at The Ottawa Hospital

Access to clinical trials is key for patients like Randy, and thankfully, The Ottawa Hospital has one of the largest and strongest clinical trials programs in Canada. This gives patients access to even more novel therapies. And in addition to helping establish best practices for patient care around the world, clinical trials also provide new hope.

Through his own journey, Randy is doing what he can to help our scientists learn more. “I told my hematologist, Dr. Arleigh McCurdy, she can do anything. I’m your guinea pig. I’m on my second drug trial now. It’s a highly experimental drug and so far, it’s going well. The first trial, three or four years ago, was for another drug, and that worked for a while, but then I relapsed,” says Randy.

“It means the world to have access to this type of care. And if I can help other patients, what could be better?”

Randy is an avid runner.

Maintaining a positive attitude

In the last few years, Randy faced new health challenges. In 2021, within only a few weeks, he lost 30 pounds. It was a bit of a mystery as to what was happening. “It was looking like this was the end of the road for me. I thought my time was running out, but I just said, ‘Cool.’ Hospice care was being planned, but then I started gaining weight again, and I completely rebounded,” explains Randy.

“I never get discouraged. I’m always joking around. It’s been an incredible journey.”

— Randy McElligott

Unfortunately, Randy then had new obstacles to overcome. The following year, he was on a trip to Montreal with his wife when he fell and broke a leg, wrist, and two ribs. Then in February of 2023, he broke the same leg, again. After surgery on that leg, he contracted a potentially life-threatening bacterial infection. He was treated in hospital for a month, and he had to learn to walk again.

These incidents may have taken the biggest toll on him, as they’ve prevented him from running. “I never get discouraged. I’m always joking around. It’s been an incredible journey.”

Today, thanks to the clinical trial he’s currently on, Randy is once again in remission. He hopes to start back on his spin bike to regain his strength so one day he might get back to running — his true love.

Randy makes bi-weekly visits to the General Campus for his treatment.

For now, he makes bi-weekly visits to the General Campus for his treatment. “It was initially every week, but now it’s every two weeks, and it only takes seconds to administer by needle. I think my team is surprised I’ve lasted this long after relapsing several times. But as of today, there’s no trace of the myeloma,” Randy smiles.

While fatigue is preventing him from being active, he continues to entertain radio listeners with his jazz favourites and looks forward to lacing up his running shoes once again.

“It’s really an incredible life.”

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

Published: January 2024

When Sean Heron attended Nipissing University in North Bay, he was in his element. This avid hiker enjoyed the area’s countless hiking trails and being outdoors. However, he also started to notice a shift in his mental health. That shift would eventually bring him back home to Ottawa and lead him to The Ottawa Hospital’s mental health team and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. 

It was during Sean’s first year in North Bay that he started to have mental health challenges, including intrusive thoughts, diet and sleep disruptions, and waning trust in others. He realized something was wrong and took the initiative to get checked at a local hospital, where he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and PTSD. But Sean wasn’t convinced by this assessment. “I did my research, and I realized that what I had was nothing close to what those conditions were described as. But I kind of left it at that and just continued with my life,” explains Sean. 

When things didn’t improve, he left school and North Bay and returned home to his parents’ house. He got a job in the grocery industry, but in 2021, he started to hear voices at home and at work. “One day when I was at work, I asked a colleague if they heard the same thing, because I couldn’t believe that I was hearing these things,” says Sean. “It was kind of concerning.” 

Sean’s parents were more than a little concerned. “I could always see it in their faces that they were so worried — it was hard on my parents,” remembers Sean. “There were times where I lashed out. I started yelling at them because in my head, I had this delusion that they were part of this — part of the reason why I was feeling this way. I never talked to them like that before, so it was out of character for sure.” 

Sean described the voices as high pitched. “It didn’t sound like human voices. It was like a dog whistle sort of thing. I would hear full sentences.” 

Sean (left) with his family at Nipissing University.

Discovering the hospital’s On Track: First Episode Psychosis Program

Concern over what was happening eventually brought him to The Ottawa Hospital’s Emergency Department at the Civic Campus. Our mental health program provides early diagnosis and treatment of severe mental illness. With two psychiatric emergency services and 96 acute inpatient beds, our hospital is the largest provider in the region for acute mental health care and often the first place those experiencing a mental health crisis in our city will turn to for help. When Sean arrived, he was introduced to On Track: The Champlain First Episode Psychosis Program.

"Something important to recognize about schizophrenia is one of the first things that happens is people lose the ability to recognize there is something going wrong."

— Dr. Sarah Brandigampola

Read our Q&A with Dr. Brandigampola

Dr. Sarah Brandigampola, a psychiatrist at The Ottawa Hospital, recalls when she first met Sean. “He was very ill. He was lucky to have parents who knew something was going on and were trying to get him some kind of help — there were safety concerns — but up to that point he was told he wasn’t right for certain clinics,” explains Dr. Brandigampola. “So, by the time we met, Sean had been sick for at least a year, if not longer.”

It was February 2022 when Sean was diagnosed with schizophrenia — he had what’s described as auditory hallucinations, according to Dr. Brandigampola. “The experience of hearing people speak to you, even when you’re alone — it’s very distressing. Something important to recognize about schizophrenia is one of the first things that happens is people lose the ability to recognize there is something going wrong.”

This is known as a neurological phenomenon called anosognosia. “When people have anosognosia, it doesn’t matter how much you tell them the voices aren’t real or you’re not being followed, they can’t comprehend that,” explains Dr. Brandigampola.

It turns out, Sean’s early symptoms began when he was in North Bay. His first symptoms were very similar to depression, he couldn’t focus and started losing motivation to go to school and going out with friends. Dr. Brandigampola says this is very typical for the early stages of schizophrenia — people start to isolate themselves and lose interest in things. That can go on for months or years before the voices or delusions begin. It’s at that point, many people turn to drugs or alcohol to help alleviate that pain. That’s exactly what happened in Sean’s case.

Almost a sense of relief with diagnosis of schizophrenia

The diagnosis brought almost a sense of relief to Sean. “It was like this validation — that you’re not alone. It is a known condition and there was help available, so really, it was a relief.” 

"It was like this validation — that you're not alone. It is a known condition and there was help available, so really, it was a relief.”

— Sean Heron

Now that Sean was enrolled in the On Track program, he had a full team of professionals ready to help him. As Dr. Brandigampola explains, it’s a recovery focused program. Remission is a step in the process to eliminate the symptoms, but recovery is the goal — to get the patient’s life back on track in terms of school, work, relationships, and hobbies. “We want them living a life that has meaning to them and where they’re pursuing their goals.”

The first step in the treatment is a medication to help quiet the voices. This can take some time to achieve, but Sean responded well. Things significantly improved when he went from oral medication to a monthly injection — it’s long-acting and patients don’t run the risk of forgetting to take a pill daily.

Sean and his dog.

Once he began medication, the next step was to work on the basic structure of his day, because Sean had been spending all of his time alone. That’s where his recreational therapist came into the picture. Patients like Sean are introduced to a variety of interest groups to help them reintegrate into social settings. There are groups for walking, sports, education, and a general recreation group. “Sean was interested in those groups, and that was a way for us to get him out of the house,” according to Dr. Brandigampola.

Full team assembled to assist

Another member of Sean’s team included a neuropsychologist, who did cognitive assessments. This helped prepare Sean for a goal that was very important to him — returning to school.

Incredibly, in September 2022 — only seven months after his diagnosis — Sean enrolled as a part-time student at Carleton University majoring in psychology. “Given just how sick he had been and how he had been isolated for a long time, the groups helped get Sean active again and helped motivate him to ask himself, ‘What else do I want?’” explains Dr. Brandigampola.

Occupational therapists also helped set Sean up for success. “Melissa was my occupational therapist and she helped me get to where I needed to be to start school. She helped me set up appointments with academic advisors to see what kind of credits I needed to continue with. She even helped me pick my courses,” says Sean.

Maeve Blake is a social worker at The Ottawa Hospital.

The team is also made up of 10 primary clinicians — five registered nurses and five social workers. Maeve Blake, a social worker, was one of Sean’s clinicians in his first 18 months of the program. Her role was to oversee, counsel, and support patients like Sean throughout the program. “The primary clinician works closely with the patient and their family if they’re open to that. We can provide psychoeducation about schizophrenia, what recovery can look like, how clients can promote their own recovery, and what helps in terms of lifestyle changes, social supports, substance use — all those kinds of things,” explains Maeve.

How to set patients up for success?

Small goals are set for the patient to help put them on a path for success. “A big piece of the work that I did with Sean early on was behavourial activation. We worked on activity schedules and addressed how his substance use at the time was getting in the way of his recovery and his goals,” explains Maeve.

“Sean wanted to go back to school and finish his degree, so that’s what we worked on. At On Track, we focus on what’s important to the client,” says Maeve. “It’s not about us imposing goals on them but about getting to know them as individuals — help me understand your life and what’s important to you.”

There are common themes within patients, but it’s very much a uniquely tailored approach based on each patient’s needs, according to Maeve.

Sean with his family.

The first year of the program focuses on getting people well and stable, while the second year is about setting goals and helping the patient work towards them. Then by the third and final year, the care team can start to take a step back with a goal of transitioning the patient back to their family doctor.

This specialized program has worked incredibly well for Sean, who is currently in his second year of the program. Maeve says he’s always been internally driven to get better, and she admits that’s not always the case with some patients. “What was lovely to see as Sean’s symptoms became better controlled was how warm and genuine he is. Watching his true personality re-emerge was wonderful and uplifting.”

"This is a young man who got his life back. It’s a family that got their son back. It shows that these types of interventions work.”

— Maeve Blake
When it comes to seeing patients improve, Maeve is quick to point to the scope of the program, and she gives full credit to the patient’s commitment. “The wrap around supports that we offer in addition to psychiatry care are phenomenal. I can’t think of any other program that gives this comprehensive and holistic approach. This is a young man who got his life back. It’s a family that got their son back. It shows that these types of interventions work.”

“I don't know where I would be without this program.”

Today, Sean is 25 and continuing his studies part-time. He still loves playing video games and in the warmer months, you’ll find him biking and hiking — he loves the outdoors. He also continues with the On Track program — a program he’s truly grateful for. “It’s like a gift really. I don’t know where I would be without this program.”

"This is world-class care, and this is what I would want for everybody — certainly my loved ones.”

— Dr. Sarah Brandigampola

Dr. Brandigampola is quick to point out that the program does take self-referrals, so if people have concerns about themselves or someone they care about, they can always call the On Track program and arrange a consult.

For Sean, treatment will be lifelong, but as he gets older, Dr. Brandigampola is hopeful new research advancements — including advancements made at The Ottawa Hospital — will provide patients like him more options.

But for now, this program is an important steppingstone. “This is a critical program for patients with schizophrenia. This is world-class care, and this is what I would want for everybody — certainly my loved ones.”

If someone needs help:

Anyone can self-refer to This is a centralized place to get access to any mental health care (substance use, anxiety, depression, etc.) in Ottawa. The Crisis Line number is: 1-866-996-0991