Dale Robarts

Dale Robarts was frustrated that he could no longer shovel snow or mow grass at his North Bay home. Constantly out of breath, the independent senior lacked the energy even to attend his granddaughters’ hockey games.

Now 79, Dale made Canadian history at Sunnybrook last year by having two heart valve problems treated with separate, minimally invasive procedures at the same time. Weeks later, his nine- and 12-year-old granddaughters were delighted to spot a cheering Grandpa in the stands at their games.

Dale’s exhaustion was related to a combination of serious heart valve problems. His Schulich Heart Centre team of surgeons and cardiologists, led by Dr. Eric Cohen, recommended a MitraClip procedure to treat his leaking mitral valve and a transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI) for his failing aortic valve.

When Dr. Cohen told Dale he would undergo TAVI and MitraClip procedures a month apart, Dale demurred. He said, “I’m coming 220 miles. Let’s do it all at once.”

Sunnybrook pioneered these minimally invasive procedures for patients too sick or unsuitable for open-heart surgery. Both involve using real-time imaging to thread a device to the heart valve by catheter through small incisions. Patients leave hospital sooner and recover much more quickly than when having open-heart surgery.

The government now funds Sunnybrook’s busy TAVI program but is not yet covering the cost of the MitraClip device, meaning patients who need this procedure continue to rely entirely on donor generosity.

While our heart team has saved hundreds of lives with TAVI and MitraClip in the last few years, Dale is the first patient to have both at once. “With Dale, it was the right thing to do for him,” says Dr. Sam Radhakrishnan, director of the cardiac catheterization labs at Sunnybrook and one of Dale’s physicians. “It does have to be individualized but I believe there will be more patients who could potentially have the procedures at the same time.” Dale is overjoyed at the results. “I’m feeling great now,” he says. His son, Dan, marvels at the difference in his father. “It’s a huge transformation. Before Dad couldn’t walk up more than a few stairs without having to stop and take a break. Now he’s got his old self back. My daughters are thrilled to see him at their games.”

While Dale still relied on his neighbour’s snow blower to clear any major snowfalls from his driveway this winter, he was delighted to shovel the lighter dustings himself.