Living with stage 4 medullary thyroid cancer hasn’t changed the positive attitude that Matt Zanutta carries with him each day. With his construction business growing and a young family at home, everything was moving in the right direction for Matt until a fall on a job site led him down an unimaginable path that eventually led to his cancer diagnosis in 2020 at the age of 29.

Matt’s wife, Justine Zanutta, will never forget the day she got the news. She was sitting at home, holding the couple’s first child — their newborn son. “It was hard to process the news. It just flips your world upside down. At the time it feels like you’re being robbed of the best years of your life,” explains Justine.

When he was referred to The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre for treatment, Matt underwent several surgeries and then radiation. It was an already a difficult time, made even more challenging because of the pandemic but his medical team helped him maintain his top-notch attitude. “Drs. Scott Laurie, Marc Gaudet, and Michael Odell were unbelievable, and the support the nurses provided every time I was in the hospital was incredible. It was during the early days of COVID, so it was hard times because I couldn’t have my family with me. You don’t appreciate the care until you experience it,” says Matt.

“The chemo drug Matt is on today wouldn’t be available without advancements in medicine. What matters is raising money for cancer research to support new, innovative treatment options for not only Matt, but many other people as well.”

— Justine Zanutta

In late 2022, Matt’s cancer started to spread quite aggressively, and he started targeted chemotherapy treatment — a newer drug that has only been in Canada for a year. Through it all, Matt continues to run his business. He and Justine know cancer research advancements are crucial. “The chemo drug Matt is on today wouldn’t be available without advancements in medicine. What matters is raising money for cancer research to support new, innovative treatment options for not only Matt, but many other people as well,” explains Justine.

Matt Zanutta and his wife Justine, with their son Laiken, created Team Top Notch to raise money for The Ottawa Hospital as part of Run for a Reason.

The couple’s desire to say thank you and to raise money for cancer research is how Team Top Notch came to be in May 2022. The couple created a Run for a Reason team and brought together family and friends. “Everyone always asks me how I’m doing, and my answer is always ‘top notch’, and so that’s how the name for the team came together,” says Matt.

The team loved the first-time experience and they’re back again for 2023. “It was awesome. It was our first race weekend, and we had a really great time. It was all smiles the whole 5k, and we raised $15,000 for cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital. That was huge for us, and it makes us feel good to give back,” explains Justine.

Together, this team is fueling cancer research while maintaining a top-notch attitude that they know will help them as they take each step in this cancer journey together, as a family.

Team Top Notch.

Every once in a while, there is a movement that brings people together — a movement to inspire hope for the future.

When Sindy Hooper was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2013, a movement was born. While Sindy faced an uncertain future, she forged ahead, determined to beat the odds. Her treatment included Whipple surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. She was able to withstand chemo and radiation treatments so well that she continued training for Ironman Canada.

Sindy also spearheaded a team, known as Marathoners Gone Viral, to raise money for pancreatic cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital. The team included 100 participants and raised over $100,000 as a part of the fundraising component of Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend (TORW) in May 2013.

Marathoners Gone Viral, the initial name of Sindy’s team, to fundraise for cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital.

It was that year that Alex Stewart first met Sindy. He was just out of university and working at a specialized training centre for athletes, where Sindy was training for her Ironman. Alex had heard Sindy’s story, and explained he was considering a triathlon, but Sindy convinced him to try a half-Ironman first — he also joined Marathoners Gone Viral. Alex and Sindy have been friends and have trained together ever since. In fact, Alex now calls her his triathlon mom. “Watching her drive and dedication over the years is inspiring, but also her mindset has changed over the years. She was super competitive, well she’s still super competitive, but it’s also fun. It’s also about loving life and living life to the fullest,” Alex explains.

In an effort to welcome runners of all levels, the MEMC (Making Every Moment Count) Team was born. The team name came from a conversation between Sindy and her dear friend, Janet McKeage, at Janet’s dining room table. The friends were looking to inspire people and based on that conversation, the new name was adopted. “Sindy teaches me every day to live like that team name. She inspires me and so many others. She created this huge running team and each year we give back to research. We even have our own MEMC running gear. I remember running down a street in Maui, Hawaii years ago and there was someone running towards me with one of our shirts on and I thought, wow this isn’t just in Ottawa,” says Janet.

In the late summer of 2022, Sindy and her family received devastating news — the cancer was back. “It was the situation we feared for the last nine years and nine months. With no curative surgery or treatment, no immunotherapy or clinical trial, I began palliative chemotherapy in October and then some radiation. I’m hoping for a year. I’m hoping for a miracle,” says Sindy.

With news that Sindy’s cancer had spread, the MEMC movement began to surge once again. Within the first few weeks of the team being registered for TORW, it grew to 122 and counting.

Jon Hooper, Janet McKeage, Sindy Hooper, and Alex Stewart are all a part of MEMC team.

“I’m hoping for a year. I’m hoping for a miracle.”

— Sindy Hooper

This year will mark the ninth year for the MEMC team and to date they’ve raised $274,000. Sindy’s goal this year is to top the $300,000 mark. Acknowledging there are difficult days as she endures chemo and radiation, it’s the groundswell of support that continues to push her through, along with the support of her husband, Jon, and her two sons. “I’m completely blown away by the support,” says Sindy.

Sindy continues to live each day with gratitude and to make every moment count — while still giving back to inspire hope, raise awareness, and generate more funds for cancer research. It’s a movement that will certainly be a part of her legacy.

Bridging the gap for her patients is what Dr. Smita Pakhalé focused on in her career. The respirologist and associate scientist at The Ottawa Hospital has spent years immersed in studying better care options for patients suffering from cystic fibrosis, and she’s helped establish a severe asthma clinic at our hospital — a first for the region.

Today, she’s turned her attention to those suffering from sickle cell disease and the creation of a sickle cell lung clinic. “Ninety percent of people with sickle cell disease (SCD) have abnormal lung function. It’s an illness that affects the most marginalized and low-income populations in Ontario,” explains Dr. Pakhalé. “In fact, more than 80% of people who suffer from sickle cell disease are low income. More research and funding are needed.”

To help bridge that gap, Dr. Pakhalé launched the Canadian national registry for sickle cell disease in partnership with the Sickle Cell Disease Association of Canada. Over 350 people living with sickle cell disease receive regular treatment for the disease at our hospital each year.

“It’s really a partnership with different community members and people from different regions, including Kingston, Toronto, and locally too. We always enjoy the race and the festivities around it.”

⁠— Dr. Smita Pakhalé

Her desire to help the most vulnerable communities guides her continued yearly participation in the Run for a Reason event alongside The Bridge team. “It’s really a partnership with different community members and people from different regions, including Kingston, Toronto, and locally too. We always enjoy the race and the festivities around it.”

Last year just before Ottawa Race Weekend, the team lost their longtime captain Ted Bignell, who passed away suddenly. Everyone came together because that’s what Ted would have wanted. “Ted was always our captain, and it was very sad when he died. We’re still searching our souls for how to move forward. We have a lot of healing to do as a team,” says Dr. Pakhalé.

As a way to pay tribute to their captain, last year the team walked the route holding Ted’s picture. It was a special sentiment to recognize all he had done over the years to support the fundraising efforts.

Smita(left) and Ted(back right) with the Bridge team in 2017.

It’s the togetherness of this team that keeps them going, and it will once again this year, as they join and walk the 2 km and 5 km routes with all the support from the crowd. “You know, seeing the big crowd cheering us on and to be a part of that is special,” says Dr. Pakhalé.

It was sunny and warm on June 1, 2014 — a day Jess Lambert will never forget. She was just 20 years old and enjoying an afternoon with friends at a lake near Calabogie. Her friends were cliff diving but Jess was nervous about jumping 20 feet into the water below. “I was running and stopping, running and stopping, then around the fifth attempt I ran and lost my balance at the end of the cliff. I fell and hit a rock that was about a foot into the water,” says Jess.

Jess Lambert was treated at the trauma centre at The Ottawa Hospital in 2014.

Her friends rescued her from the water, but Jess couldn’t feel her legs. While one friend stayed with her, another went for help. It took time for first responders to access Jess in the remote area before they could transport her to an air ambulance waiting in a nearby farmer’s field.

When she arrived at The Ottawa Hospital Trauma Centre at the Civic Campus, an initial examination indicated Jess had no movement from the waist down. “I couldn’t wiggle my toes or feel anything,” remembers Jess. Test results revealed she had a lower lumbar spinal injury, and her organs were compressed against her spine. She was scared she would never walk again.

Jess faced two long surgeries in the days ahead. It was about a week after the second surgery, while in the Intensive Care Unit, when the gravity of the situation hit her. The surgeon who operated on her spine revealed she had a 60/40 chance of walking again. “That was hard to hear. My family was with me, but it was very hard news. I was just 20 years old with a life ahead of me,” remembers Jess. 

She credits her dad for being by her side and helping her through some dark times. “I remember waking up after my second surgery in the middle of the night and in pain. The nurse working that night allowed my dad to stay at my bedside. He was talking me through it and telling me to stay strong. He and my family were a huge part of my recovery,” explains Jess.

“The Ottawa Hospital has amazing caregivers, they’re an amazing team overall, and this is such a great cause to support. They do so much for the community. ”

Jess Lambert

However, Jess was motivated to move her legs again — and the hard work to make that happen began immediately. She started physiotherapy, using a swing to move her from her bed to a wheelchair. “Over those three weeks at the Civic, I slowly regained feeling in my legs. One of my most memorable stories is when my family came in every day and the test would be that they put their finger down by my toe and my goal was to touch the finger. One day, it happened. I could see the tears well up in my family’s eyes by my bed side. I could see how happy and proud they were,” says Jess.

Jess’s next stop was the Rehab Centre at the General Campus where she worked to regain her strength and achieve her ultimate goal of walking again. “We’d do physio and then weights. I was also gaining strength in my arms at that time. I would go around the track at the centre to build up that arm muscle.”

On July 3, only a month following the accident, Jess stood on her own for the first time. By July 17, she was walking around the gym at the Rehab Centre with canes. “By the end of August, I was strong enough to walk on my own without any support and I got to go home — ahead of schedule. It was amazing.”

Over time, Jess got her full strength back in her legs and, incredibly, she completed her first 5 km run just one year after her accident.

Last year, she registered to Run for a Reason to give back to those who helped her. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The Ottawa Hospital has amazing caregivers, they’re an amazing team overall, and this is such a great cause to support. They do so much for the community. “

This year, she will tackle a new challenge. She’s registered to run her first marathon, giving her a whole new reason to train and fundraise. “I couldn’t have asked for better nurses, surgeons, doctors — there were a lot of people who cared for me, and I’ll never forget how helpful they were. I’m extremely thankful for them.”

Today, Jess lives every day to the fullest and she encourages others to never give up their dreams or goals.

In 2021, Jess registered for Run for a Reason to give back to those who helped her.

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

A startling diagnosis

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

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

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

A fight for his life

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

A perfect match

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

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

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

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

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

Thrombosis expertise in Ottawa

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

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

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

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

World-class care in Hematology

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

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

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

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

Road to recovery inspires ‘walker-running’

Bob Hardy, walker running
Robert Hardy walker-running.

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

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

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

A new appreciation for life

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

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

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


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