Published: November 2023

Tanya Di Raddo was 15 years old when she started having severe headaches — she was diagnosed with migraines. As time progressed, the headaches continued. Decades later, she turned to The Ottawa Hospital and was diagnosed with not one, but two illnesses — a brain tumour and multiple sclerosis (MS). 

By her late 20s and early 30s Tanya was married and had two children, and the headaches remained a constant part of her life. As her kids grew, she faced a difficult time when her son began suffering from mental health challenges. He was later diagnosed with first-episode psychosis, so she pushed her health issues to the side and persevered.  

As time progressed, the headaches worsened — there were times when Tanya couldn’t lift her head off the pillow because the pain was so debilitating. It was still considered a migraine, but she also started to notice something wrong with her right hand. “I don’t know if I’d describe it as tremors, but my right hand would form a claw,” remembers Tanya.  

Shocking discovery of a brain tumour plus an MS diagnosis

By the spring of 2021, Tanya started to experience pain in her left eye — soon her vision deteriorated significantly. You know when you see dark clouds in the sky? It was like that in front of my eye. I could kind of see peripherally, but at night, I couldn’t see car lights out of that eye at all, not even colour,” explains Tanya. 

Tanya and her cat, Zeus.

“I knew something big was wrong for a long time, so in some ways, the MS diagnosis made sense, but the discovery of a tumour as well was a shock.”

— Tanya Di Raddo

After an extensive examination by her eye doctor, she was referred to the University of Ottawa Eye Institute of The Ottawa Hospital. She met with a neuro-ophthalmologist and was diagnosed with optic neuritis, an inflammation that damages the optic nerve. However, Tanya also needed further testing to better understand the root of her headaches and vision loss. She never imagined what that test would reveal. 

Read our Q&A with Dr. Fahad Alkherayf

MRI results showed both MS lesions and a brain tumour. “I knew something big was wrong for a long time, so in some ways, the MS diagnosis made sense, but the discovery of a tumour as well was a shock,” explains Tanya. 

She was immediately referred to Dr. Fahad Alkherayf, a leading skull base neurosurgeon at our hospital. The MRI from mid-summer 2021 showed a large tumour at the back of her brain. “It was a three-and-a-half by five-centimeter mass — the size of a small orange. It was a meningioma, which is a benign tumour that is slow growing, but it was putting pressure on her brainstem and affecting her neurological function,” explains Dr. Alkherayf. 

Due to the size of the tumour and the impact it was having on Tanya’s life, Dr. Alkherayf believed surgery was needed within a few months.  

In the meantime, she turned to The Ottawa Hospital’s MS Clinic where she met Dr. Mark Freedman, a world leader in MS treatment and research. “She was referred to us after having her vision affected back in mid-2021. We proceeded to confirm a diagnosis of relapsing-remitting MS and then got her onto effective therapy as soon as possible,” explains Dr. Freedman. 

A plan for specialized brain surgery

As her MS treatment got underway, surgery to remove the tumour was scheduled for early November. According to Dr. Alkherayf, the surgery carried significant risk.  

The tumor was pressing at the back of the brain — which we call the cerebellum — as well as on the brainstem.” he says. “The brainstem is the main structure which controls a person’s ability to breathe, walk, and state of consciousness.” 

“It’s thanks to having a specialized team who work closely with our neuro-anesthesiologists to operate this equipment that we’re able to provide this technique.”

— Dr. Fahad Alkherayf

Neural monitoring, with what’s known as interoperative neuromonitoring, is an important part of this type of specialized surgery. It allows neurosurgeons to watch the patient’s brain and brainstem functions while attempting to remove the tumour. This is where The Ottawa Hospital excels.  

“We’re lucky in that we have good support from the hospital where we can do two or three surgeries at the same time with the ability to monitor the patient,” says Dr. Alkherayf. “It’s thanks to having a specialized team who work closely with our neuro-anesthesiologists to operate this equipment that we’re able to provide this technique.”

The Ottawa Hospital has invested to support this expertise, as it can be challenging to have the right people to operate specialized equipment and interpret the information. 

During Tanya’s operation, the surgical team sent a signal through the brain to stimulate her muscles to ensure they were responding during the operation. “Even though she was asleep, we’re still able to look at the function of the brain and brainstem, as if she’s awake,” says Dr. Alkherayf. 

Additionally, the system also helps the surgical team monitor the cranial nerve, which controls swallowing, for example. This prevents any possibility of damage during the surgery. If the nerves become irritated during the operation, the surgical team gets a signal.  

“When that happens, we stop immediately and change our course of action during the surgery,” says Dr. Alkherayf.

“If you don’t have that technology, then there is the risk of causing damage and you wouldn’t notice it until the patient wakes up.”

— Dr. Fahad Alkherayf
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During an almost eight-hour surgery, the large tumour pressing on Tanya’s brainstem was completely removed.
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Not just saving a life, but also maintaining quality of life

For Dr. Alkherayf, it’s not only about saving a life, but also about maintaining quality of life. He acknowledges it puts more stress on the team knowing they are caring for a young person, who has many years ahead of them.  

“A good analogy is a bomb squad. They want to disable and remove the danger without causing any problems or damage,” he says. “That’s what we’re doing when we remove a tumour like this. We want to remove it without causing any other damage that could impact the patient’s life.” 

The good news for Tanya is the whole tumour was removed during the almost eight-hour surgery. This provided her relief from the excruciating headaches she suffered, and her vision has improved, but colour is not crisp yet. “It’s like an older TV. It’s not 20/20, but it’s better than it was,” explains Tanya. 

Looking forward

It’s been two years since that complex surgery with no signs of recurrence to date, and she’ll be closely monitored by Dr. Alkherayf for up to 10 years. 

Tanya also continues to be in the care of Dr. Freedman for her MS. She has some challenges with her mobility and regularly uses support to get around, and MS flare-ups continue to impact her day-to-day living.  

“I’m doing better today, but cognitively it impacts my life,” she says. “It’s the little things we take for granted that I notice, like leaning forward to make a meal or cutting something. The numbness in my fingers makes it difficult, and sometimes my leg will give out.” 

The reality of facing two serious illnesses at the same time is not a uniqueness Tanya was aspiring for or ever thought she’d face, but she’s grateful to have access to the best treatment options available, from complex surgery to ongoing, compassionate care.

Tanya Di Raddo with her husband and daughter.

Published: October 2023

These days, when Amy Volume swings her leg over her motorcycle, it’s still a bit of a surprise. After a lifetime of pain, the announcer best known for entertaining listeners on CHEZ 106 radio had hip replacement surgery in May 2023 by the skilled orthopaedic team at The Ottawa Hospital.

Discomfort and pain plagued Amy her entire life. As a baby, she was always crying, well beyond just a colicky infant, so her parents sought out answers. “I was officially diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis — an autoimmune disease — at the age of 18 months. My entire life I have grown differently,” explains Amy.

As a result, she spent much of her life in and out of the hospital. Her care started at SickKids in Toronto, but when CHEO opened its rheumatology clinic, Amy was able to be cared for in her hometown. By 16, she became a patient of The Ottawa Hospital and she’s been cared for here ever since.

“I have surgeons working at both the General and Civic Campuses. I have seen from an early age that the orthopaedic team is very invested in their patients' care.”

– Amy Volume

“I have surgeons working at both the General and Civic Campuses,” she says. “I have seen from an early age that the orthopaedic team is very invested in their patients’ care.”

Amy Volume in the CHEZ 106 studio.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis causes your immune system to attack healthy cells in your body and results in painful swelling, usually in joints. Long-term, this can damage the joint tissue causing chronic pain, lack of balance, and deformity. While it can develop at any age, it’s most common in adults in their sixties. “People do think that what I have happens to older people. This has been my life story,” explains Amy.

It’s certainly taken a toll on Amy’s body. As a result of the medications Amy takes, her body can’t fight infection. When she was a little girl, Amy got chickenpox and was hospitalized for three weeks. It also affected how her bones grew when she was young.

“It doesn’t just destroy your joints, which then leads to you having bone on bone contact, which creates terrible problems. It also attacks soft tissues, your organs, and your blood,” explains Amy. “You can tell when I’m having a rough day because I sound extra rough on the radio, but that’s my paycheck.”

Much of the pain Amy has experienced is because of her hips. They never formed properly when she was young, and she has hip dysplasia on both sides — a known risk factor for early hip arthritis.

“It’s all just bone on bone. And when that happens, as you can imagine, it’s just extreme pain, which interferes with your daily life. It makes normal activities near impossible, which also has an impact on your mental health.”

Radio host Amy Volume has been an orthopedics patient at The Ottawa Hospital since she was a teenager.

Hip replacement surgery by a specialized team

Amy was only 17 when she had her first bone surgery at the Civic Campus. She had her left toe joint removed because it didn’t grow properly, and it was replaced with a steel bar.  

“The prospect of not getting relief from this pain or losing my ability to walk — of having the hope of meaningful medical intervention and recovery slip away really spooked me.”

– Amy Volume

While the orthopaedic team at The Ottawa Hospital has been caring for her for twenty years now, most recently, her hips started to give her a great deal of pain — impacting her life, including keeping up with her two children, riding her motorcycle, and her overall mobility.

By 2022, the pain became unbearable. “The prospect of not getting relief from this pain or losing my ability to walk — of having the hope of meaningful medical intervention and recovery slip away really spooked me,” she recalls. ‘I can’t give up hope,’” Amy wrote in her blog.

The chronic pain that Amy has lived with is where Dr. Paul Beaulé, Professor of Surgery and an orthopaedic surgeon at The Ottawa Hospital, comes into the picture.

“Amy suffered from hip pain and a lack of function for over a decade. She had an underlying malformation of a joint that was probably present when she finished growing,” explains Dr. Beaulé. “At some point, the hip starts manifesting itself to the point where it’s not functioning properly because of the malformation.”

Amy’s right hip joint was too damaged to save, but because of research and technology advancements, there was a good plan to get her quality of life back, thanks to a specialized surgery,” explains Dr. Beaulé. “Using a total hip arthroplasty anterior approach, she could go home the same day. Because of this approach, her muscles aren’t damaged. That means when she’s done healing from the surgery, she can resume her activity more rapidly and have a good quality of life.”

Thanks to these advancements, Dr. Beaulé says Amy can expect a good 20 years of function with no major issues. “Amy truly is a poster child for the best possible outcome.”

An x-ray showing Amy’s new hip joint.

Research aims to improve hip surgery

Dr. Beaulé knows the impact that preserving and replacing hips can have on patients — especially young patients like Amy.

“Research helps us better understand what we’re doing in the operating room and asks the question, ‘Is this the best we can do?’”

– Dr. Paul Beaulé

One area of research that is of particular interest is surgery that can improve pain, stop damage, and prevent a hip replacement in people with pre-arthritic hip disease — that includes preventing and treating hip problems in young athletes.

Another key focus for Dr. Beaulé is studying the results of The Ottawa Hospital’s same-day joint replacement program, which focuses on getting patients home as safely and early as possible. “Research helps us better understand what we’re doing in the operating room and asks the question, ‘Is this the best we can do?’” says Dr. Beaulé.

Amy is a big proponent of research and the possibilities it could create for her and other patients — especially knowing she will face more orthopaedic surgeries in the future. That’s why she’s also open to participating in research studies so more can be learned about her illness.

“We’re always learning, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. I’m always raising my hand and saying yes to the next thing, because we are blazing a trail, and I might make it easier for the next kid that comes along with this weird disease because something worked for me — it might give hope to others.” 

She’s grateful for the work of the orthopaedic team at The Ottawa Hospital, including the Research Chair in Regenerative Orthopaedic Surgery, and what their research could mean for patients in the future as well.  

Read our Q&A with Dr. Beaulé

"You're a part of the scientific frontier that is going to improve the quality of life for all Ontarians, Canadians, and perhaps even globally. It’s the big picture.”

– Amy Volume

“I think that the more people that you can encourage to get on the research train the better. You’re a part of the scientific frontier that is going to improve the quality of life for all Ontarians, Canadians, and perhaps even globally. It’s the big picture.” 

Getting her life back

Following her surgery, Amy was amazed to be up and walking in no time with the assistance of crutches. While there was some initial post-op pain, she was back on the air within 11 days.

Now, several months later, she’s started to see the impact this specialized surgery will have on her long term. “I’m getting into the zone where I’m healthier than I’ve ever been. It’s because The Ottawa Hospital and the surgical teams put their best foot forward in making sure that I have a fulfilling life — that I can keep up with my kids. They’re very fast,” Amy laughs.

Amy Volume enjoying one of her passions, riding her motorcycle.

“I say thank you profusely to the surgeons, but I know to them it’s their 9 to 5 job, that’s what they’re doing constantly, day-in and day-out. They are rock stars – they are who I idolize.”

– Amy Volume

She’s also truly grateful and in awe of the work of her surgical team. “I say thank you profusely to the surgeons, but I know to them it’s their 9 to 5 job, that’s what they’re doing constantly, day in and day out. They are rock stars – they are who I idolize.”

For now, Amy enjoys being able to ride again and is grateful for the quality of life she’s been given. While she knows there will be more surgeries down the road on her other hip and right toe, she has complete confidence in what her care team has planned for her.

“I saw my surgeons in my follow-up care, and I know they’re invested in my continued success, which is really nice. And it makes me feel good about the future, because I know I will be seeing them again. It’s nice to know you have that team of experts on your side.”

Update: October 2023

Over the past few months, we’ve had the distinct privilege of working closely with Alison Hughes to share her story. Only 37 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she wanted to raise awareness, especially among other young woman like her.

We are heartbroken to learn that Alison passed away on Wednesday, October 11, 2023. We offer our deepest condolences to all those who knew and loved her, and we remain profoundly inspired by her.

Originally published: September 2023

This is Alison’s story told in her own words.

I wanted to share my story now, because I want more young women to have a story they can relate to. Sadly, breast cancer doesn’t just affect women over 50. By sharing my story, I hope I can help younger women better understand what this journey is all about, because I didn’t really have that when I was first diagnosed ten years ago. 

At that time in my life, I owned a consignment store specializing in women’s fashion. I love fashion, so it was a great fit for me. I also had two young children — life was busy.  

But then I got the shock of a lifetime. It started when I found a lump on my right breast, and I remember telling my husband at the time that it hurt. He told me not to freak out, but I just had this feeling something was wrong, so I called my doctor.  

Little did I know, that was the beginning of my breast cancer journey. I was sent for a mammogram, just to be safe. It was a Friday, and I remember walking into the office and looking around and seeing older women — I was young and hip — no one else looked like me. It wasn’t long after the mammogram that I knew something was wrong. The busy office went quiet, it was like I’d stepped into a movie. Other experts came in and examined my results. It turned out I had stage 3 breast cancer.  

My way of coping with a breast cancer diagnosis

I remember someone talking to me, but I honestly don’t remember what they said. Then a lovely nurse sat next to me, and that’s when I felt a tear drop out of my eye, and then I slowly started to cry.

“I can’t do this…I have no room in my life for this right now – this can’t be happening!’

— Alison Hughes

I drove back to my store and remember thinking ‘I can’t do this. I have a two-year-old and a three-and-a-half-year-old. I have no room in my life for this right now – this can’t be happening!’ 

But it was happening, and within two weeks, I had a PICC line inserted, and chemotherapy soon followed. The news of my diagnosis was particularly difficult for my parents because my dad’s mom died from breast cancer in her mid-thirties. So, I said ‘We have one day to cry and then after that, for the outside world, there’s nothing happening.’ We hid my diagnosis from almost everyone — that was my coping mechanism. Everyone has their own way of coping – this was mine. 

Soon, I met Dr. Mark Clemons. I refer to him as my first oncologist and now my forever oncologist. We clicked. He was well informed, supportive, and had time for all the questions we had for him. He gave me confidence to know that the choices he was making were not from just a singular perspective, he was looking at my total healthcare options.  

Alison Hughes with her two children, Rosie, and Raffi.
Alison is living with stage 4 breast cancer.

The specialized team ready to handle my care

But he wasn’t alone. There was an entire team at The Ottawa Hospital ready to help me have more time to watch my children grow.  

From September to December 2013, I underwent chemotherapy, but by the fifth and sixth treatment, I was hit hard. My beautiful hair fell out, my skin turned gray, and I was in bed all the time. Then in February of 2014, just as I gained back most of my strength, I had a mastectomy. During that operation, a bunch of lymph nodes from under my right arm were removed and sent for testing. We’d later learn that more than half of them were cancerous. That’s when radiation treatment started. 

The care was amazing, and so were the resources made available to me afterwards, because that is a difficult operation to undergo. I had access to psychosocial oncology, as well as a dietitian.  

By that summer, I started feeling better, and that’s when I started telling people what I had gone through. Sometimes they’d turn white as a sheet when they heard the news — I really believe it’s because there’s not a lot of women my age that relate to this kind of a diagnosis.  

Then after five years, I was doing well and released from the cancer program. I had successfully recovered from breast cancer — or so I thought.  

Devastation when cancer metastasized

In 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, I experienced a ton of pain in my back and my hips. I started physio and got relief for a few days but then it came back. One day at work, I tripped on a mat, fell, and couldn’t get back up at first. I kept getting this insane spasm. Later that night my parents found me on the floor, unable get up. They helped me into bed, and I stayed there for four days. 

Then one day my daughter noticed my leg looked like I’d been burned by a big rod. I looked at my kids and I said, ‘I think I should go to the hospital.’ Little did I know my world would be turned upside down, again. 

“I went from seeing a physiotherapist because of my back pain to stage 4 cancer with possibly only months to live. It was almost too late.”

– Alison Hughes
Soon, I discovered my breast cancer had metastasized. I had compression tumors on my spine and a lesion in my lung. I had a tumour on my liver, and there was cancer in my stomach and in my bones. I also had multiple moving blood clots, which caused that mark on my leg. It was kind of like the house was lit on fire and it was going up in flames. Suddenly, I went from seeing a physiotherapist because of my back pain to stage 4 cancer with possibly only months to live. It was almost too late.   

My body was riddled with cancer

The next thing I knew, I dove back into treatment. I had a radiation team, an oncology team, and a palliative team. I had a home nurse as well as psychological support. The resources are unbelievable.  

I moved back in with my parents, along with my kids who were then 10 and 12, because I was at a point where I couldn’t climb a set of stairs, and I couldn’t really function on my own. In addition to the blood clots, I had multiple broken bones from the cancer and crooked shoulders from all the broken bones in my back. I was either in a wheelchair or walked with a cane, and my stomach was really bloated because of the disease. There was just so much going on — my body was in emergency mode.  

While my extensive team at the hospital mobilized, my parents took care of me and the kids, and our incredible network of neighbours rallied alongside us. That meant I could be in treatment, and the kids could still have some normalcy — they could go outside and play.  

Alison with her parents and children.

Finally, there was some good news

From June 2021 through until February 2022, I had radiation led by Dr. Laval Grimard to help with the cancer in my bones, followed by chemotherapy. After a clinical trial was not successful, Dr. Clemons tried me on a new chemo option that finally brought some hope. In June 2022, I started to feel better.

By that summer, my spine started straightening, I could move better. And my health continuously improved. All my bones healed, the tumors shrunk, and I could walk unassisted most of the time. I was back working part time as a background actor in movies — maybe you’ve seen me in a Hallmark movie — I also do some modelling.

By the spring of 2023, I had a clear scan, and I went overseas to spend some time in Oxford and London — it was spectacular. But when I returned home in early June, I could feel my body grinding to a halt. I could barely walk. The next thing I knew, I was in a wheelchair — I couldn’t walk. It happened fast.

Alison on set.

Little did we know what would come next

Once again, I was thrust into emergency mode to determine what was happening. I had x-rays and scans, and I don’t think any one of us expected to see what we saw on those scans. I was pretty sure this was it for me.

There were new lesions on my lower spin and this time they also found a tumour on my brain. Immediately, my care team acted. My new plan included five radiation treatments on my back and one on my brain. Then I started a new type of chemo treatment in August. This chemo is at the forefront of treatment options, and I can’t thank Dr. Clemons enough. I call it the Cadillac of treatment — I feel really lucky. And the way I see it is, if I can be an early user of this drug and they can learn from me, that’s a good thing.

“My philosophy is, if you can test me or use my blood or do something with me that's going to make things better for someone else, sign me up.”

– Alison Hughes
In fact, when it comes to clinical trials, I’m in total favour of getting involved. I told them, ‘You can poke me, learn from me, use me as a case study. Let students practice on me.’ I’m already sick, so my philosophy is, if you can test me or use my blood or do something with me that’s going to make things better for someone else, sign me up. I just feel so fortunate to have this level of care and access to clinical trials — even if the one I tried didn’t work, it gave me time. And the medical team learned because of me.
Alison with her two children, Rosie, and Raffi.
Every day I’m so thankful to have this precious time. Dr. Clemons has even given me the nickname “Puss in Boots” because it’s like I have nine lives. He has such a unique and special way with patients. He asks, ‘What life are we on?’  

In fact, I often find myself thinking, ‘Who gets this many chances?’ And that’s why I’m sharing my story. I’m fortunate for the care, the support, and the learning because life doesn’t always gets perfectly tied with a bow — not everyone gets a bow.

I don’t know what the future holds.

I just want the chance to be here for my kids and my family. I do my best to make every day a good day with them and hope that science continues to improve. Today, Rosie is 13 and Raffi is 11. I’m learning to become a mom of teens. I like to think about their high school graduation and university life. I just hope I’ll be able to keep watching them grow, even when they don’t need me as much.  
Download episode #86 of Pulse Podcast to hear Alison’s story and why she wants to help other young women who face a breast cancer diagnosis.

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Published: August 2023

For almost a year, the last thing Aida Attar remembered about a trip to her friend’s cottage on August 27, 2022, was they had stopped for snacks in Smith Falls. The next thing she recalled was waking up in the ICU of the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital — two months later. She had been airlifted to our hospital’s Trauma Centre after suffering a seizure while swimming and then drowning as a result. While she had been resuscitated, this young woman was clinging to life and multiple specialty teams came together to help save her.

It was that late summer day in August when the 18-year-old university student was swimming in a lake with her friend, Taylor. Taylor has since explained to Aida that while they were together in the water, Aida started staring off. “I just suddenly looked off in the distance. I let go of the floating dock and I went under,” explains Aida. “My friend thought maybe I just dunked my head in the water to cool off, but then she grabbed me by the hair and pulled me up to the surface.” 

What no one realized at the time was she’d had a seizure, which incapacitated her and caused her to go under.

From that moment, there was a flurry of activity to help revive the young woman. As Aida’s friend worked to keep her head above the surface, Taylor’s mom hurried into the water to help bring Aida to shore as she remained unresponsive. Meanwhile, Aida’s grandfather rushed away on an ATV to meet the paramedics, who had been called and were trying to reach the remote area as quickly as possible.  

With help on the way, intense efforts continued to try to revive Aida, including CPR. But by this time, she started vomiting and her jaw was locked – so she was aspirating her vomit. It was a terrifying situation for everyone involved who were all desperately trying to help Aida. 

The race to get lifesaving care

Paramedics rushed the young woman to the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital – still unresponsive. Aida’s family, many of whom have cottages in the area, quickly assembled to be by her side, including her aunt, Dr. Catherine Mann.

Thankfully, Aida was resuscitated and stabilized thanks to a team there led by Dr. Annelise Miller, but it was determined she needed specialized care, so the decision was made to airlift her to The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus, home of the region’s only trauma centre for adults.

Her care in Smiths Falls was crucial to what would follow, according to Dr. Erin Rosenberg, an ICU physician at The Ottawa Hospital. “The Smiths Falls team did an absolutely incredible job of resuscitating her and getting her back. When she was transferred to us, her ARDS, or acute respiratory distress syndrome, was so bad that we couldn’t provide her with enough oxygen, even with the ventilator,” she recalls. “That’s why she needed to go to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute to be put on the ECMO.”

The team at Civic Campus, led by Dr. Akshai Iyengar, stabilized Aida and then she was transferred to the Heart Institute through the tunnels of the hospital. She was placed on the ECMO machine, and the wait began.

An ECMO (extra corporeal membrane oxygenation) is used to pump blood outside the body to a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends rewarmed, oxygen-filled blood back to tissues in the body. This machine allows the blood to bypass the heart and lungs, giving them time to rest and heal.

Aida Attar at the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital.
Aida Attar at the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital.

Aida remained on the machine, in a medically induced coma, for 35 days while her family endured an excruciating wait. “I’m grateful for all the work the Heart Institute did to get me on the ECMO and for not giving up on me over that time,” says Aida. 

Dr. Erin Rosenberg
Dr. Erin Rosenberg works in the ICU at The Ottawa Hospital.

Youth was on her side

The first glimmer of hope was weeks later, in early October, when Aida was removed from the ECMO machine and returned to the ICU at the Civic Campus – she was still in critical condition. That’s when Dr. Rosenberg first met Aida.

“We see a lot of really sick people in the ICU, but what we don't often see is people who are as young as her. When we do, it can feel like the stakes are higher — there's an entire life ahead of her.”

– Dr. Erin Rosenberg

“We see a lot of really sick people in the ICU, but what we don’t often see is people who are as young as her. When we do, it can feel like the stakes are higher — there’s an entire life ahead of her.”

Aida’s age was also on her side. “I told her parents at the time, if she was 40 or 60, we would be having a very different conversation. I don’t think she would be here,” recalls Dr. Rosenberg. “What was on her side was the fact that she was 19 years old. Her brain and her body will be a lot more able to get through this compared to someone older than her.”

Aida’s family continued to be by her side – watching and waiting. “She had turned 19 during that time, and her body has been through so much,” recalls her aunt, Dr. Mann. “She’d been under anesthesia for five weeks. She was slowly weaned from that, and then her lungs had to get used to not being ventilated. So the care team took gradual steps to remove her from the ventilator. First, it was 30 minutes, then a couple of hours, and they continued that process.”

A weakened state and confusion

When Aida finally regained consciousness, she was weak after being in a critical state for two months. “I had no muscle tone. I couldn’t sit up on my own. I couldn’t walk. I don’t even remember being able to move my arms to scratch myself because I was so weak.” 

“I couldn’t retain information. It was hard, but the team helped get me through those moments including one physiotherapist in particular, Michelle Cummings. She had a huge impact on my recovery.”

– Aida Attar

Aida’s immune system was also weak, and she was at risk of infections. Often, she would open her eyes and get very confused. “Any time she would sort of come to, or even if she didn’t have her eyes open, we would provide her some comfort as to what happened and where she was — even if we had to do that repeatedly,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “It was just like the first time she was hearing it again.” 

Finally, Aida was able to move out of ICU and into what’s called AMA (Acute Monitoring Area) for about a week. There she had the tracheotomy tube, catheter, and feeding tube removed – she was able to start eating on her own again. 

Although there were some signs of improvement and Aida was surrounded by an exceptional care team, she remembers going through many emotions. “I felt very alone. Even if my family had been there 23 hours and 59 minutes of the day, that one minute alone felt like a year. I was shy, and I didn’t understand what was going on. I couldn’t retain information,” explains Aida. “It was hard, but the team helped get me through those moments including one physiotherapist in particular, Michelle Cummings. She had a huge impact on my recovery.”  

Aida Attar and Michelle Cummings.

How our Rehabilitation Centre helps Aida’s recovery

The CAREN system

CAREN stands for Computer-Assisted Rehabilitation Environment system. The 180-degree screens work in combination with a moving platform, a remote-controlled treadmill, and surround sound.

As Aida’s recovery continued, she started to understand the complexity of what her body had been through because of this traumatic experience. By mid-November, she moved to our Rehabilitation Centre at the General Campus – this would be another big step in Aida’s recovery.  

The care in rehab was two-fold — to help both her body and her brain recover. Part of learning to walk independently again involved using the CAREN system, a unique 3D virtual reality system funded through community support in partnership with the Canadian Armed Forces. But because she had an anoxic brain injury, caused by a complete lack of oxygen to the brain while she was underwater, a big part of rehab was focused on treating her brain injury. “My memory was just shot — I couldn’t remember anything short-term,” says Aida. “My speech was mixed up. My brain was not braining, and it needed some help.”

Incredibly, after everything Aida went through, on December 8, 2022, she was able to go home. She walked out of the Rehab Centre on her own, and her memory continued to improve. It was a recovery beyond what Dr. Rosenberg expected. 

“She actually exceeded our expectations in terms of how fast she would get better.”

– Dr. Erin Rosenberg

“I remember initially preparing her family to anticipate her being in the ICU until December and probably in the hospital longer than that. So, she actually exceeded our expectations in terms of how fast she would get better.”

Today, Aida is getting her life back on track — she’s stronger each day. She’s driving again, working in retail, and plans to return to Carleton University in the fall to continue her studies in neuroscience. “I had finished my first year of university before the accident. I worked as a research assistant in a neuroscience lab at Carleton in the summer of 2022. In fact, I was working on a traumatic brain injury project at the time.”

Deep gratitude for those who saved her life

While she doesn’t remember many details from the first half of her hospital stay, Aida is grateful for the team that gave her a fighting chance. “I would be dead if they hadn’t done all that they did. The doctors just worked so hard. I mean so many things went wrong. I had blood infections and allergic reactions — I was just a hot mess. They kept going — they didn’t lose hope or give up on me. It was the next level of care, and I don’t think I would have got through it without that.”

Aida Attar at home with her family.
Aida Attar at home with her family.

“The healthcare team works hard, and these people worked hard. We’re deeply grateful to everyone, in particular Drs. Iyengar and Rosenberg. It was traumatizing for our whole family and that team never gave up on Aida.”

– Dr. Catherine Mann

Every step of the way, there was exceptional care — something that’s not lost on Dr. Mann. “There were a whole bunch of incredible people and a couple that stand out. When Aida arrived at the Civic Campus, Dr. Iyengar was there, and he was devoted. Then Dr. Rosenberg was there for each day when Aida returned to the Civic’s ICU in October and so many others.”

That’s what inspired Dr. Mann, who was a physician at The Ottawa Hospital for 22 years, to make a gift to The Ottawa Hospital — a thank you to the team that saved her niece’s life. “The healthcare team works hard, and these people worked hard. We’re deeply grateful to everyone, in particular Drs. Iyengar and Rosenberg. It was traumatizing for our whole family and that team never gave up on Aida.”

For Dr. Rosenberg to see this success story is what she loves about her job. Not every story ends this way but when it does, it’s rewarding for the whole team. “Aida came back to visit in the ICU a couple of weeks ago, just to say hi to everyone. And everyone was so happy to see her — they remember her as a patient, all the nurses. I think seeing those success stories are really, really rewarding for us. And I think it’s why we do what we do.” 

Aida Attar returning to the water for the first time since her seizure.
Aida Attar returning to the water for the first time since her seizure.

Stepping back into the water

In late May of 2023, Aida was visiting her aunt’s cottage and she went back into the water for the first time since the accident. As she felt the cold water on her feet and legs, memories started to flood back to her. “I instantly remembered when I was in the water with Taylor. It took me back to that day, and that was shocking because I didn’t think I would have remembered that.” 

While she’s grateful to have her life back, there is still the unknown of what caused the seizure that day. Tests continue, but for now she takes precautions like wearing a lifejacket when swimming. “That piece is also hard for me. It’s hard to have gone through all that and not have an answer as to why this happened.” 

But what she does know, is she wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for each person who played a part in her recovery, and for that she’s grateful.  

If there’s one word that comes to mind when you first meet Major James Morrison (Ret’d), it’s “dedication.” He is deeply dedicated to his country, his wife, and our healthcare system. It’s a loyalty that spanned decades — the major will be 100 years old in 2024. He was born the same year The Ottawa Hospital Civic campus first opened in 1924.

Major James Morrison with his wife, Betty.

Every year, for the last 29 years, Major Morrison has generously donated to The Ottawa Hospital.

“I owe it to the hospital for the care they gave me.”

— Major James Morrison

When asked what motivates him to give so loyally, he answers with a charming smile. “Well, mostly because I was a customer there. And I owe it to the hospital for the care they gave me.”

First, it was heart issues. Then, ten years ago, prostate cancer.

“I was treated very well there,” he says, recounting how, at the end of his cancer treatment, he got to ring the bell not once, but eight times.

“Because that’s the Navy tradition. That’s either noon or midnight,” he explains, referring to the tradition of ringing of the ship’s bell eight times to mark the “end of watch,” or in some instances, as a nautical euphemism for finished.

Despite Major Morrison’s nod to this special tradition, it was not the Navy where he spent his long career, but the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he enlisted at just 18 years old.

“I was only 118 pounds and they said, ‘We can’t take you until you’re 120. Go home and fatten up.’ So, I went home and fattened up,” he recounts.

During the Second World War, he was posted to the Southeast Asia Air Command, and following the war, he transported prisoners to the War Crimes Trials.

Major Morrison married the love of his life, Betty, in 1951, and together they started a family. His career took them to various posts across Canada, and in 1970, he was an Officer Commanding at the Canadian Armed Forces Operation Centre in Ottawa, where he delivered instructions when the War Measures Act was invoked on October 16 of that year.

Later in life, he began patrolling public areas of the airport as the Ottawa Airport Watch, and Betty accompanied him on many of those night shifts. He made his final patrol in January 2014 — on his ninetieth birthday.

These are but a few milestones on a journey that has spanned nearly 10 decades on this earth, from the highs of first enlisting as a young man to the lows of his wife’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. “She doesn’t know who I am anymore.”

The two have been married 72 years, and not a day goes by that he doesn’t visit her.

It’s clear Major Morrison is loyal to the core. And while many of his stories are about the past, it’s the future he wants people in Ottawa to focus on; and he encourages others to support The Ottawa Hospital’s Campaign to Create Tomorrow.

“You should invest in this because you may need it in the future at some point.”

— Major James Morrison

The $500-million campaign is the largest in Ottawa’s history and sets in motion a vision to completely reshape healthcare by building the most technologically advanced hospital in Canada and taking groundbreaking research and innovation to unprecedented heights. And it’s something Major Morrison believes is worth supporting.

“You should invest in this because you may need it in the future at some point,” he offers as wise advice to generations that follow. “This new campus is for them.”

The new hospital is expected to open in 2028, and we would love to see Major Morrison there on opening day. “I was sort of looking forward to seeing it,” he says.

Major James Morrison, thank you for your service to our country and our community.

Published: April 2023

If you pass by the new campus development site on Carling Avenue, you’ll notice action. Construction on the 50-acre site is in its first phase — that means prepping the land for the new hospital campus and building the parking garage. After years of planning and re-imagining what the future of healthcare could look like, the vision to replace the near century-old Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital is becoming reality.

Once completed, the new state-of-the-art campus will be a catalyst for reshaping healthcare for patients across eastern Ontario, western Quebec, and Nunavut. The potential for research breakthroughs could be limitless, especially when seeking new treatments and finding cures for cancer, stroke, Parkinson’s, ALS, and other diseases.

When the new campus opens its doors, it will build on Ottawa’s leadership as a hub for healthcare, research, and training — attracting the best medical minds and scientists in the world. And most importantly, it will transform the patient care experience.

Jason-Emery Groën is the Vice‑President, Design Director at HDR.

What will you experience when you step into the new hospital campus?

A project of this magnitude includes a vast team, but with one shared goal — to create an exceptional experience for our patients, their families, and our staff.  

That’s where Jason-Emery Groën comes into the picture — he’s the Vice-President, Design Director at HDR, an architecture and engineering firm working on the project. Jason-Emery has over two decades of experience on a global scale — his design experience is wide-ranging, including complex multi-billion-dollar healthcare facilities and campuses.  

“Our team views this project as an extremely rare, perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine spaces and environments where healthcare is delivered.”

– Jason-Emery Groën

“Our team views this project as an extremely rare, perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine spaces and environments where healthcare is delivered,” explains Jason-Emery. 

As plans continue to take shape for the design of the new hospital campus, Jason-Emery can help us visualize the healthcare experience. He starts from the moment you arrive at the main plaza and enter through the front door into the bright and open concourse along the front of the new building. “The concourse is a double-height space with two main towers that span across the main entrance.”

Straight ahead will be the information desk, where some key, high-volume clinics are nearby. This will minimize the travel distance for most people coming and going from the hospital. To the left will be the taller in-patient tower, containing a series of in-patient rooms with a dedicated focus, such as the mother-baby unit, critical care, and acute care. To the right will be the tower that will house a host of other services, including in-patient and out-patient mental health services.

As Jason-Emery explains, there is a key objective in mind when planning the main plaza of the building. “It’s to bring everyone to a central and similar location upon arrival. As visitors move through the main corridors, the design aligns these along the exterior of the building facing the main plaza so, you can always look outside and see where you came from. That is a very simple human requirement, and we feel it’s very important in a space that is about wellness.”

In episode #81 of Pulse Podcast, listen to Jason-Emery Groën describe the future of healthcare as plans continue for the new campus development site on Carling Avenue.

Listen Now:

What will the new trauma centre mean for patients?

How patients arrive at the new campus in emergency situations will also be a newly designed experience — one that’s intended to deliver care as quickly as possible. From dedicated access routes for ambulances to a rooftop helipad to state-of-the-art surgical suites and operating rooms with the most advanced technology, this will all contribute to a more streamlined ebb and flow for patients and staff. 

Our hospital is home to the only Level 1 Trauma Centre for adults in eastern Ontario, serving 1.3 million, primarily in the Ottawa regions, but some coming from as far away as Nunavut, and the need for care continues to increase. Over the last five years, there has been an approximate 40% increase in trauma codes activated by the team, with falls and motor vehicle collisions as the leading causes of injuries.  

For Dr. Edmund Kwok  the Deputy Head of Quality, Safety & Performance in the Department of Emergency Medicine at The Ottawa Hospital  the new efficient flow of the Trauma Centre will be a game changer for this team.  

“We’re in the early stages of planning, but part of that includes trying to understand from a care perspective what’s the most effective, efficient way to deliver the care for these patients,” says Dr. Kwok. “That includes things like proximity to key resources like CT scans and operating rooms.” 

The plan for new surgical suites is an interventional platform, meaning it will bring together surgical suites and radiology all on a single floor. “That is fundamental to the core of the services delivered in a trauma centre,” explains Jason-Emery. “A lot of advancements are happening in that sphere of healthcare. For example, hybrid operating rooms with space built in for diagnostic imaging to take place right in the room. So, the design needs to be flexible for future technological changes.” 

Dr. Edmund Kwok, the Deputy Head of Quality, Safety & Performance in the Department of Emergency Medicine at The Ottawa Hospital.

Intentional design that considers the patient and their loved ones

As Dr. Kwok explains, time is of the essence when seconds matter, so deliberate design is key for the trauma centre. “We want a design where patients will flow through with as little physical movement as possible. We’re also looking at how people interact with the space around the patient. For example, how do we design the placement of equipment in the trauma bay? When the patient does need to be moved, how do we seamlessly move not only the patient but also their whole care team?” 

“I think we have the ingredients for a real world-leading trauma centre here. I think this is a foundational piece to attract talent. It will have a kind of domino effect where people are excited and they will want to come and learn and practice.”

– Dr. Edmund Kwok

Also considered in the planning will be the patient’s family and loved ones. Whether they arrive with the patient via ambulance or on their own, these loved ones are anxious for information. “It can be quite stressful for those loved ones,” explains Dr. Kwok. “We need to provide them with a quiet, private space where our social workers and other team members can communicate with them — away from the hectic action that is happening in the trauma bay. Those are important pieces that we need to think about.”  

From the physical design of the new trauma centre to the human factor considerations for patients, staff, and families, there will be a long-term impact. “I think we have the ingredients for a real world-leading trauma centre here. I think this is a foundational piece to attract talent. It will have a kind of domino effect where people are excited and they will want to come and learn and practice,” says Dr. Kwok. 

How will single-patient rooms change the patient experience?

TOH_Electronic Glass Window_Colour

Floor-to-ceiling windows for an abundance of natural light.

TOH_Interactive-Smart-Screens_Colour

"Smart" in-room digital screens will connect patients to their care providers, health information, and appointments while allowing them to order a meal and stay in touch with loved ones.

TOH-Icon_Shower_Colour

Private, accessible bathrooms, each with their own shower.

TOH_LovedOne_Colour

Space for loved ones to spend the night.

TOH_Patient in Bed_Colour

Extra space around the patient bed will give healthcare workers unfettered access to deliver care.

For patients who are admitted to the hospital, the new campus experience will be transformational. The most significant change will be single-patient rooms — this is becoming the gold standard for new hospitals around the world.  

“This has been part of the communication and engagement with many community members. Imagine seeing the land and the sky simultaneously — it is important for many cultures. Just having the ability to see that, frankly for anyone, we think is fantastic.”

– Jason-Emery Groën

When you enter the patient room, you will see full-length windows, intentionally giving patients an unobstructed view from their bed of the sky to the ground. It seems simple, but this is an important part of the wellness journey. “This has been part of the communication and engagement with many community members. Imagine seeing the land and the sky simultaneously — it is important for many cultures. Just having the ability to see that, frankly for anyone, we think is fantastic,” says Jason-Emery. 

Giving patients greater control over their environment is also an important design consideration. For example, the design team is exploring the possibility of using “smart glass” to build in more customization. The specialized glass can darken or turn opaque, allowing a patient to adjust the amount of light coming into the room with the touch of a button.  

There will be a bedside terminal integrated with a digital smart screen that will allow staff, patient, and their loved ones to track health information. It will also help keep patients connected with people outside the hospital. 

A key design element of the patient room also includes the private washroom and the patient’s ability to move in and out of it. “This is quite an innovative design,” explains Jason-Emery. “We are studying a double-door system that slides open to provide four times the amount of clearance and access to the space than is typical in a hospital patient washroom. This is important in terms of thinking about the need for healthcare moving forward, an increasingly elderly population with mobility challenges. So being able to widen that access in a way that still is discreet and promotes its privacy is being factored into the design.”

While each patient room will include space for a loved one to spend the night comfortably, family lounges are being designed as well. “It’s also about families having appropriate spaces to gather,” explains Jason-Emery. “Even though we’ve created a single-patient room, that doesn’t mean it can accommodate a large family or gathering. Even beyond that, what if a family might have a particular ceremony they wish to partake in? Could they smudge, for example, or partake in other cultural activities?”

How will the new campus prioritize accessibility?

While the patient rooms will be fully accessible, the new hospital campus will be a welcoming place for everyone. “Accessibility has been embedded into all aspects of the design process of this project,” explains Marnie Peters, the accessibility expert for the new hospital campus.

It goes beyond the washroom in the patient’s room with the double sliding doors and the direct route from the patient’s bed to the toilet or the roll-in shower. “We want every washroom to be accessible. So, anybody — staff, visitors, patients — can use any bathroom. This is a basic human need,” explains Marnie.

Another key factor is making sure all spaces are accessible for people using mobility devices and other health equipment. There’s also the consideration of clear directional signage that’s easy for people to understand. Marnie explains that asking a patient to follow the red dots to get where they need to go might not be possible for someone who is colour blind or has low or no vision. “So, we’re going to look at different strategies for signage and wayfinding, and how that works together. This will complement the seamless architecture in terms of direct and intuitive routes and making it easy for people to find their destination,” says Marnie.

Marnie Peters, an accessibility expert for the new hospital campus.

Even arriving at the hospital will provide patients, their families, and staff with more ease when it comes to accessibility. There will be 72 accessible parking spaces, including a large number that will be van-accessible parking spots, and 144 limited mobility parking spaces — which are meant for those who might not need a larger accessible spot, but still need closeness to the entry.

“It's an honor and a pleasure to be working with a really talented group of people, but also to be able to make sure that this premier hospital will be fully inclusive for everybody in the community.”

– Marnie Peters

Another new aspect of the design will be exterior moving sidewalks to help reduce fatigue and allow people to get to their destinations with less stress. As the detailed design process continues, Marnie will be there with a specific focus to create a welcoming environment for all. “It’s an honour and a pleasure to be working with a really talented group of people, but also to be able to make sure that this premier hospital will be fully inclusive for everybody in the community.”

The future is closer than ever

While the design work continues and the early construction phase moves forward, the pieces are starting to take shape. The future home of the new campus offers an incredible opportunity to provide the space for state-of-the-art care and recovery for patients. Research will also be a vital component — our world-leading research will be integrated into every aspect of the campus. This gives patients access to innovative and potentially life-saving therapies — building on the successes we’ve seen to date. The impact of what happens inside will have a ripple effect through the region, across the country, and around the world. Ultimately, patients will be the ones who see the real benefit.

As we head into the 100th anniversary of the Civic Campus next year, we are once again building a hospital for future generations. But this time, it will pave the way for a transformation of healthcare unlike anything we’ve seen before. For Dr. Kwok, it means having a building that matches the capabilities of the incredibly talented people working there. “I think it’s time for Ottawa to have a re-design, a bigger hospital, and trauma centre for sure. We will need the capacity physically to deal with what’s asked of us. So, it will be great for the city, for the region.”

Published: April 2023

Find out why he credits a “prehab” study for his quick recovery 

In May 2021, Christopher Wanczycki’s oncologist gave him some unexpected bad news — there was a two-inch tumour in his rectum. Five weeks after his January 2022 cancer surgery, the 63-year-old was back on the cross-country ski trails. He credits his quick recovery to participating in a national “prehab” clinical trial led by researchers at The Ottawa Hospital.  

“Without this program, I can’t imagine what my recovery would have been like,” he says. “I would highly recommend it for anyone in my shoes getting ready for surgery and for post-surgery recovery.” 

Christopher underwent aggressive radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the stage 3B tumour in his rectum, and his oncologist recommended surgery to confirm all the cancer was gone. 

“I was kind of beaten up at that point, and my oncologist had mentioned that it would take a couple of months for the effects of the chemotherapy to leave my system,” he remembers. “At a final chemotherapy infusion round, I was advised to bulk up, to just eat whatever I could to gain back the weight before my surgery.” 

Christopher had lost 37 pounds during chemo and had little appetite. In addition, the swelling and numbness in his legs and feet from chemo made walking uncomfortable. 

He took the time between the end of his chemotherapy in October 2021 and before his January 2022 surgery to try to gain some weight back, start some mild exercise, and return to his regular activities. 

Christopher Wanczycki skiing.

That’s when prehab kicked in. At the suggestion of his cancer coach, a person assigned through the hospital to help patients navigate their cancer journey, Christopher agreed to join one of the world’s largest prehab clinical trials in November 2021, led by Dr. Daniel McIsaac and his team. 

What is prehab?

“Prehab is a bit like training for a race, but instead you’re training for surgery,” said Dr. McIsaac, a scientist and anesthesiologist at The Ottawa Hospital, and Chair in Innovative Perioperative Care at the University of Ottawa. “It’s structured, sustained exercise and nutrition over time that makes the muscles, heart, and lungs stronger. A lot of the exercises focus on strengthening the legs and abdominal muscles, which you need to get out of bed after surgery.”

“Prehab is a bit like training for a race, but instead you’re training for surgery.”

– Dr. Daniel McIsaac

Previous studies have shown that young, healthy people who did prehab before surgery recovered faster and had fewer complications.  

“We know that the healthier someone is going into surgery, the sooner they will recover and get back to their daily activities,” said Dr. McIsaac.  

However, most Canadians who need major surgery are 65 or older, and many more are weakened by health challenges. While this population has a lot to gain from prehab, it’s usually harder for them to complete the exercises.     

Dr. McIsaac’s research program aims to make prehab more feasible for older people with health challenges, so they can reap the rewards of a faster recovery. 

What does prehab look like? 

When Christopher joined the prehab study in November 2021, research assistant Keely Barnes showed him exercises and stretches to do at home at least three times a week and gave him written and video instructions to follow. Most of the exercises could be done while sitting in a chair.  

Christopher Wanczycki skiing.

Keely also asked him to walk, bike, or swim for at least 20 minutes, three times a week and gave him a pedometer to track his distance. 

Christopher loved skiing, biking, and other outdoor activities before his cancer diagnosis, so he didn’t mind all the exercise. In fact, he enjoyed the distraction.    

“I discovered as a cancer patient, you need something to focus on daily, just to get your mind off things,” he says. “With this study, I decided to give myself a goal, something to focus on each day, and strive to increase the exercise repetitions each week.”  

Keely called Christopher every week to see how many repetitions and steps he’d done. Not only was this good motivation to do the exercises, but she also checked to see if any of the exercises were causing him trouble. Together, they figured how to adapt them.  

By mid-December 2021, Christopher started cross-country skiing again. All that exercise had also improved his appetite, which helped him gain back the weight he’d lost during chemo.  

Research with patient experience at the core 

“Patients have told us loud and clear that prehab research needs to be a priority,” said Dr. McIsaac. “They are eager to get back to their daily lives after they’ve had surgery, and prehab can help them do that.”  

However, like with any exercise, you need to put in the work to get the benefits. And for older people living with pain and other health issues, putting in that work can be more difficult.  

A pilot prehab study run by Dr. McIsaac’s team found that older patients with health issues who had at least 80% adherence to the prehab program could walk farther and had lower self-reported disability scores after surgery compared to those who did not participate. However, the average adherence was only 60%, not enough to see benefits.  

“For a prehab program to be successful, we need to support and motivate participants and personalize the exercises to their needs.”

– Dr. Daniel McIsaac

Based on these findings, the team added more personalized and tailored programming to their current national prehab trial at 11 sites across Canada. This trial recruits about 10 new patients a week, and so far, overall adherence has been much closer to 80%. The team aims to recruit 750 people by the end of 2023, with results published in the subsequent years. 

“For a prehab program to be successful, we need to support and motivate participants and personalize the exercises to their needs,” said Dr. McIsaac. “Our research assistants call participants week after week, so they get to know them well and can help them through any challenges they’re facing.” 

This year, the team plans to launch a smaller trial in Ontario to test a different way of delivering prehab through virtual group sessions. Unlike the national trial where patients are recruited by their surgical team, patients will be able to refer themselves to the trial.   

“If we want to bring prehab into everyday clinical practice, we need a process that will work in the real world,” says Dr. McIsaac. “We think that virtual group sessions will probably be more feasible for healthcare providers than individual phone calls. But we won’t know if that model works for participants unless we test it.” 

Patient partners share key insights 

One of the team’s secret weapons is having patient partners on their side. Team members like Gurlie Kidd, a retired social worker who had surgery at The Ottawa Hospital in 2017, help make sure the research stays relevant to patients.  

Gurlie’s input has helped the team better understand how and when to ask surgical patients about taking part in studies, to reduce the burden put on patients. She and other patient partners have also helped the team set priorities and adjust the study’s design, including sending regular updates to patients involved. 

“As a member of this research team, I have felt heard,” says Gurlie. “There is a respect for patients and patient input that is kind of amazing. It legitimizes some of the things that we have gone through and acknowledges our expertise.” 

“I can’t imagine what my recovery would have been like without it” 

After two months of prehab, Christopher felt confident and ready when his surgery date arrived in January 2022. The colorectal surgery went well, and his surgeon removed some additional Stage 1 cancer that was growing near the tumour.  

Christopher was amazed by how soon he could leave the hospital after surgery. 

“A cancer diagnosis is never easy. The treatment phases are challenging, and I believe participating in this prehab clinical trial was an important part of my treatment plan.”  

– Christopher Wanczycki

“My surgery was on a Monday. By Wednesday, I could sit in a chair to eat lunch. On Thursday, I had dressed myself, and was up at the nursing station trying to check myself out. By Friday, I was climbing the stairs at home. That would not have been possible without the prehab program.” 

Christopher and his wife at Gros Morne Summit September 2022.

He continued to do prehab exercises for a month after his surgery. A week later — only five weeks after surgery — he was regularly back on his cross-country skis. In April 2022, he was finally declared cancer free.  

In September 2022, Christopher hiked to the top of Gros Morne Mountain in Newfoundland with an ileostomy bag, just eight months after his surgery.  

He’s grateful to be able to be back to all those activities he loves and credits the prehab study for his quick recovery. 

“I’m 100% certain that it does make a difference physically, but also psychologically, to give someone goals, something to work towards. Also, cancer is so hard on your family, on your wife and kids. With this exercise program, my wife could see my progress, and that I was getting better.”  

In December 2022, Christopher underwent a successful ileostomy reversal operation. He has since resumed downhill and cross-country skiing.  

 “A cancer diagnosis is never easy,” he says, “The treatment phases are challenging, and I believe participating in this prehab clinical trial was an important part of my treatment plan.”   

Christopher with his family.
Christopher with his daughter and friend.

All research at The Ottawa Hospital depends on infrastructure and support services funded by generous donors to The Ottawa Hospital Foundation. Dr. McIsaac’s research is also funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the PSI Foundation, the International Anesthesia Research Society, and the Canadian Frailty Network and enabled by the Ottawa Methods Centre and the Office for Patient Engagement in Research Activities

Published: March 2023

The search for the silver bullet for sepsis has been decades in the making. However, The Ottawa Hospital is taking a big step forward in the next phase of a world-first clinical trial using stem cells in patients with septic shock — not so much a silver bullet, but a seed that could lead to future innovative treatment options and impact millions of patients. The hope is to not only save more lives but also improve the quality of life of those who do survive this devastating illness.

Sepsis is caused by our own body’s response to infection. When that infection spreads through the blood stream and over-activates the immune and coagulation systems, it can cause the heart and other organs to fail. Sepsis is associated with a death rate from 20% to 40% and upwards from that, depending on the patient. Survivors of this devastating condition often have their quality of life impacted and often for the long term. Sepsis knows no borders and impacts people globally.

What is Sepsis?

Sepsis occurs when the body has an extreme, life-threatening response to an infection. The infection includes bacteria that enter the blood stream, triggering a chain reaction during which the patient’s immune system response damages its own tissues, potentially leading to organ failure and death.

Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre is an intensive care unit (ICU) physician and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, and it’s her care of critically ill patients that has motivated her research into sepsis. Over the years, she’s witnessed the debilitating impact it can have on patients and their families. “It’s why I’m doing this research. As researchers, we love science. We love posing questions and the thinking that goes with these questions, and we love the answering those scientific questions. But the main reason we’re doing research is to help patients,” says Dr. McIntyre. “If there’s some way we can just move that needle to help these patients and their families, that just means so much.”

The global impact of sepsis

Sepsis is recognized as a global health priority. It’s estimated there are 48.9 million cases of sepsis annually and 11 million sepsis-related deaths — those account for almost 20% of global deaths. It is also the leading cause of death among COVID-19 patients.

To put that in perspective, a study published in 2021 led by researchers at The Ottawa Hospital and ICES (Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences) showed that severe sepsis is linked with higher mortality, increased hospital readmission, and higher healthcare costs. In Ontario alone, sepsis related costs are estimated at $1 billion per year.

“It’s the complexity of the infection and the challenge that drew me to the research, but also knowing the potential to really help patients and see if we can make them better.”

– Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre

According to Dr. McIntyre, sepsis is the most common reason why patients are admitted to ICUs. “They account for about 20% of the cases in the ICU at our hospital. From a provincial glance, over a four-year period, there were 270,000 cases of patients that were admitted to hospitals in Ontario for infection — about 30% had the more severe form of sepsis, with infection plus organ failure which amounts to about 67,500 patients a year in Ontario alone – it’s staggering,” explains Dr. McIntyre.

These data are a key motivator to learn more about sepsis and how to treat it. “It’s the complexity of the infection and the challenge that drew me to the research, but also knowing the potential to help patients and see if we can make them better,” says Dr. McIntyre.

Putting a face to the impact of the infection

Ten years ago, sepsis changed the life of Christine Caron — a single, working mother with four children who, at the time, ranged in age from 15 to 24. Throughout the winter and spring of 2013, she hadn’t been feeling well. Then in late May, while playing tug-of-war with her four dogs, her left hand was accidentally nipped. “It wasn’t a serious bite, just a break in the skin. I had no redness or pain, so I washed it out and disinfected the area,” recalls Christine.

Four days later when Christine was at work, she realized she hadn’t gone to the bathroom all day — eventually she learned this was because her kidneys were shutting down. The following day, she set out for a morning run. “I was winded and had to walk home but felt better after a shower. Later that day, I had terrible stomach pain — like someone had punched me in the stomach — and felt disoriented. I went home and slept. My son woke me up at one point to say I was breathing funny, but I assured him I was fine and fell back to sleep. I was shocked when I woke up and realized how long I had been asleep,” says Christine.

Christine Caron is a survivor of sepsis.

She remembers feeling agitated and more symptoms developed, including sweating despite feeling cold and becoming very thirsty. She went to a local urgent care centre, but it was closed. “I had no idea how sick I was, and the thought of sitting in an emergency department was overwhelming. I decided if I wasn’t feeling better in the morning that I would go to the hospital then.” 

Later that night, while her children slept, she became very sick — flu-like symptoms as she describes it. “I lay on the bathroom floor, probably ‘till three in the morning. I thought about calling an ambulance, but I didn’t want to wake up my family,” says Christine. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I now know this was delirium.”

The next morning, a friend took Christine to a local hospital. “I was dizzy, I could barely breathe. I handed my health card to the attending nurse and then I collapsed,” explains Christine.

Christine wouldn’t regain consciousness for a month. On June 13, she woke up at the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital to learn the devastating news of what sepsis had done to her body. This was when she heard about septic shock for the first time. “I had bronchitis that progressed to walking pneumonia. It was this condition that compromised my immune system resulting in the reaction to the bacteria when I was nipped by my dog. It quickly escalated to septic shock.”

As it would turn out, the sepsis infection had caused irreparable damage. By June 22, Christine began a series of surgeries to amputate her legs, her left arm, and remove dead tissue from her remaining limb and her face — changing her life forever. Little did she know at the time, but this set her on a path of becoming a voice for sepsis survivors. By early July, she was released from the hospital and would learn a new way of life at our Rehabilitation Centre, where she learned to walk again and received support for PTSD. Today, Christine is an active advocate for sepsis survivors, awareness, and for research.

Moving the needle for sepsis treatment

For decades, there has been little progress in advancing specific treatment for sepsis, but world-first research at our hospital shows that a specific type of stem cells may be the key to helping balance out the body’s immune system to improve its response to sepsis. Laboratory studies and early clinical trial results were so promising that Dr. McIntyre’s research was awarded $2.3 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Stem Cell Network to begin a larger trial. “Researchers around the world have spent decades trying to find new therapies for septic shock, but so far nothing has improved survival, nor the quality of life for survivors of this devastating illness,” says Dr. McIntyre. “We urgently need new treatments for septic shock and to test them in randomized controlled trials like this one.”

This injection of funds will allow the team to expand the trial to 10 centres across Canada to see whether the stem cells can reduce patients’ needs for organ support in the ICU.

For Dr. McIntyre, this research, which is a huge collaboration among hospital colleagues, including Drs. Duncan Stewart, Dean Fergusson, and Shirley Mei, as well as colleagues throughout Canada and abroad. It provides hope that years of dedication to this mysterious illness may finally move the needle forward for sepsis treatment. “These stem cells hold, in my opinion, immense therapeutic promise for the treatment of sepsis, because these cells act through many mechanisms that relate to sepsis. Not only do they recognize and ultimately kill the bugs causing the infection, but they also calm the immune and blood-clotting responses that our body has to the infection,” explains Dr. McIntyre.

“I see this trial as the very first beginning — it’s a little bud, and we’re just going to grow from it.”

– Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre

And while Dr. McIntyre says her research has shown these cells have other benefits, such as restoring energy to the tissues, and reducing vessel leakiness and the swelling that goes with it, treating sepsis is still an enormously complex problem. “We can’t expect that there’s a silver bullet that’s going to completely cure sepsis, but from what we have learned so far, these cells have the potential to make a real dent in the immense death from sepsis, and we hope will improve the quality of life for survivors of this devastating illness.”

Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre is an intensive care unit physician and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital.

The “little bud” that will grow into future sepsis research

This clinical trial is just the starting point to learn more about this deadly infection, and the results will help inform future trials. As the research advances, and more is learned about how the body responds to these cells during sepsis, it will help identify future patients that may have the most to benefit. “So, I see this trial as the very beginning — it’s a little bud and we’re just going to grow from it,” explains Dr. McIntyre.

The growth of this research has been cultivated by what Dr. McIntyre describes as a major collaborative team approach. It includes researchers, both basic and clinical, cell manufacturing experts, trainees, project managers, clinicians, and nurses, as well as patient and family partners, and sepsis survivors, like Christine, who is the lead patient partner. “Working with these patient partners has just been illuminating about post-sepsis survivorship. People like Christine have been so helpful in enabling us to understand the need to study more about the survivorship of these patients and their families, and the quality of that survival,” explains Dr. McIntyre.

“Sepsis took so much from me — it scarred me in so many ways. We need to advocate and educate because sepsis does not discriminate.”

– Christine Caron
Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre with Christine Caron, who is a lead patient partner in sepsis research.

There’s a mutual admiration between the two women, who have each seen sepsis through a very different lens. Christine is thrilled to have her voice heard and to see that needle move forward. “Dr. McIntyre’s research is phenomenal because a lot of patients come out with organ damage, and stem cell research could save so much for so many people. Wouldn’t it be so wonderful if it did?” Christine adds, “Sepsis took so much from me — it scarred me in so many ways. We need to advocate and educate because sepsis does not discriminate.”

“If there's something that we can do to reduce death and help how patients survive this immense illness, we’ve just got to go there.”

– Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre

And so, for Dr. McIntyre, it’s those faces she sees in the ICU and those like Christine, who work alongside her, that continue to motivate her with each step forward in the search for answers in this challenging puzzle of sepsis. “If there’s something that we can do to reduce death and help how patients survive this immense illness, we’ve just got to go there.”

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

Published: February 2023

During her 29 years as an elementary school teacher, Pat crossed paths with hundreds of students and their parents. However, there was one family in particular that changed her life.

Having grown up in the Montreal area, Pat attended McGill University where she received her teaching degree. The early days of her career were spent in the classroom before she became a fieldworker who travelled to different schools in her district, conducting workshops on how to use multi-media systems. Back in those days, it was slides and overhead projectors. Pat eventually returned to teaching, and that’s how she met her future husband and the two boys she would eventually adopt as her own.

“I was teaching Robbie in Grade 5, and that’s when I met his dad, John, at a parent-teacher interview. He was a widower — he had lost his wife, and the boys had lost their mother, to cancer. Robbie’s older brother, also named John, was in high school,” explains Pat.

There was a spark, and the couple eventually married. In the early 80s, the family left Quebec and moved to the rural community of St. Eugène, east of Ottawa, where they bought a hobby farm. Pat eventually retired from teaching and opened an antique and craft shop. John, who retired as Vice-President of International Paints Canada, spent his time with horses on the farm. It was a life the couple enjoyed — one filled with fun and laughter. As the couple watched the boys grow into young men — they would soon turn to The Ottawa Hospital for help.

Compassionate care always remembered

The family’s first interaction with our hospital came in 1984 when Robbie was diagnosed with AIDS at age 19. But it would be many years before he would reveal his diagnosis with his family — about two years prior to Robbie’s death, he shared the news with his parents.

“The hospital care team treated him with humour and grace at a time when some people didn’t want to touch or be near AIDS patients. They were wonderful.”

— Pat

Pat and her family.

It was a difficult time for the family, but Pat will never forget how the team cared for their son. “This was the hardest part for me because he had to bear this burden on his own, but The Ottawa Hospital did a fabulous job with Robbie medically. He was on a protocol known as AZT, and he survived longer than most other AIDS patients his age at that time.”

“But Robbie was also a character and was oodles of fun,” explains Pat. “The hospital care team treated him with humour and grace at a time when some people didn’t want to touch or be near AIDS patients. They were wonderful.”

Sadly, Robbie passed away in 1996 at the age of 31. When he died, he was surrounded by love, and to this day, Pat still acknowledges the compassionate palliative care he received at home from Dr. Louise Coulomb.

The Ottawa Hospital impacts each family member

That was just the beginning of the family’s connection to our hospital. After Robbie died, Pat and John Sr. had their own firsthand experiences being cared for at the hospital — mostly from the orthopaedic team. “John Sr. had three knees replaced. I had two knees, and a hip replaced and I’m currently waiting for another hip surgery. I’ve had 13 hand surgeries and multiple foot surgeries. All together, it’s a long list,” says Pat.

Then on July 1, 2015, the family was shocked to learn John Jr. had pancreatic cancer — a devastating diagnosis. In Canada, the five-year survival rate is 10%. Once again, the family turned to the expertise of The Ottawa Hospital, and John Jr. underwent extensive treatment that included Whipple surgery. She credits Drs. Richard Mimeault and Guillaume Martel for saving his life. In fact, Dr. Martel was appointed the first Arnie Vered Family Chair in Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary Research in 2019. This research chair was made possible through generous donations from the Vered Family and other supporters. The goal of the chair is to focus on improving treatment for patients with cancers such as liver, pancreatic, gallbladder, and bile duct.

Pat is leaving a gift in her will to The Ottawa Hospital.

“My John is alive and well for six years now. He’s a miracle boy. So do you think I owe the hospital something?”

— Pat

Later, tumours were discovered on his liver — another devastating blow. His care team performed what’s known as TACE — transarterial chemoembolization — which is a procedure that involves injecting a combination of cancer-fighting drugs and an agent to cut off the tumour’s blood supply. It causes little to no effect on the function of the liver. “My John is alive and well for six years now. He’s a miracle boy. So do you think I owe the hospital something?” says Pat.

Sadly, John Sr. passed away just a few months after John Jr.’s diagnosis and therefore never knew his son had survived.

Family lessons in giving back

Each time a family member needed our hospital, Pat has been deeply grateful for the expertise and compassion she’s witnessed ─ and that’s how she became a donor. Following each experience, she always made an effort to give back. Over the years, she supported the hospital through the Gratitude Award Program and through annual donations.

“Look at what they’ve done for my family. It meant everything to have that care.”

— Pat

After her husband’s death in November 2015, Pat began to consider the legacy she could leave for generations to come by leaving a gift in her will to The Ottawa Hospital. “Look at what they’ve done for my family. It meant everything to have that care.”

When Pat reflects on why it’s important to support our hospital, she gives credit to her parents and the lessons they taught her about philanthropy. Those lessons live on in her today. “I may have had the best parents a kid ever had, but my mother was exceptional. My dad was too. They were both teachers and mum said, ‘I can’t afford to give a lot of money, but I can afford to canvass.’ She did a lot of door-to-door canvassing, and always said, ‘It’s our duty to leave the world a better place than we received it.’, so a little bit of that has rubbed off on me.”

Pat with pictures of her family.

Jeannette Cheng shares the story of the traumatic motor vehicle collision — and the subsequent care she received — that changed the course of her life and inspired her to become a healthcare worker. Here is Jeannette’s story in her own words.

On August 18, 2007, after a night out with a group of fellow fourth-year Information Technology students from Carleton University, I struggled to fall asleep. I was eager and excited about the white-water rafting trip we had planned for the next day. I did manage to fall asleep eventually, but the next thing I remember was waking up in The Ottawa Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit two weeks later.

Amid my confusion, my caring and empathetic nurse explained I had been in a collision. She told me our car had been T-boned by an oncoming truck on the way to white-water rafting. I didn’t remember a thing about that morning, but apparently, I had been sitting in the back middle seat, where there was only a lap belt for protection, and I sustained life-threatening injuries that required me to be airlifted to the only adult Level 1 Trauma Centre in eastern Ontario — at The Ottawa Hospital.

I was in bad shape when I arrived. I had emergency surgeries to remove my spleen, a craniotomy to repair my fractured skull, and another surgery to stabilize my pelvis. I had chest tubes inserted because my lungs had collapsed, a tracheostomy to help me breathe, and an abdominal abscess removed.

Compassionate care during a terrifying time

I spent one month in the ICU before being moved to the trauma unit, where I experienced an upper gastrointestinal bleed. This was extremely serious, and I was terrified. But when my attending physician, Dr. Giuseppe Pagliarello, came to see me I experienced an inspiring, life-changing moment.

Dr. Pagliarello came to my bedside, held my hand, and spoke clearly and confidently about the next steps for my care. I was taken with his compassion, and that small gesture of holding my hand showed me I wasn’t alone. It was his kindness in that critical moment that inspired me to pursue a career in healthcare.

“I was taken with his compassion, and that small gesture of holding my hand showed me I wasn’t alone. It was his kindness in that critical moment that inspired me to pursue a career in healthcare.”

– Jeannette Cheng

Months of rehabilitations and recovery

Still, my road to recovery was far from over. After spending two weeks in the trauma unit, I spent another two weeks in the general surgery unit before going to The Ottawa Hospital’s Rehabilitation Centre. Over the course of two months, I relearned basic skills, including how to feed myself, talk, and walk again.

Throughout my time at The Ottawa Hospital, I received support from countless physicians, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and more. These people were unbelievably dedicated, compassionate, and patient.

I left the hospital after four long months with a new appreciation for all the little things we take for granted, like being able to walk without assistance. I also had a deep sense of gratitude for the exceptional care I received when my life was on the line, and I had a newfound desire to provide that same care to others.

A new calling

When I was able, I returned to complete my final school year in Information Technology, but that desire to care for others didn’t go away. So, I made a transition towards healthcare by returning to school to become a Registered Nurse. And in April 2018, I began working at The Ottawa Hospital – in the very same trauma unit that saved my life. Now, I’m able to provide the same kind of compassionate care to patients that I received more than a decade prior. Being able to share my story with some of my trauma patients has shown them that they, too, are not alone in their recovery process.

“The motor vehicle collision was a life-changing experience that has directed my path to continue to make a difference in my community.”

– Jeannette Cheng

When I made the decision to become an RN, I never imagined I’d end up caring for people during a global health crisis, but that’s precisely what happened. At the height of the pandemic, my floor became a designated COVID-19 unit. It was extremely challenging to see so many patients suffering from COVID while not being able to see their loved ones, but it was also a privilege to be able to care for them.

After recovering from a serious collision, Jeannette Cheng became a nurse at The Ottawa Hospital.

The motor vehicle collision was a life-changing experience that has directed my path to continue making a difference in my community.

Jeannette Cheng, shown in her PPE, when she worked on the COVID-19 unit at The Ottawa Hospital.

Working with trauma patients, as well as COVID patients, allowed me to do that.

Being a nurse has taught me how important it is to have hope while also accepting the unpredictability of life. And my story is a reminder of the impact compassionate care can have on someone. It’s a reminder that something as simple as holding a person’s hand in their moment of need can change their life forever.