Patient Stories

Everyone has a story. Meet some of our amazing patients and their families.

15 brain tumours treated in one day
Two life-saving surgeries at once
A breast removed and constructed in 11 hours
Running 5K five months after losing his leg
From debilitating depression to a brighter future
Battling OCD with specialized care
A failing heart averted without open-heart surgery
Endovascular treatment is stopping stroke in its tracks
Precision radiation is destroying tumours without harming quality of life
With your help, we’ve opened the blood-brain barrier to treat the untreatable
Image-guided vascular surgery saves limbs and lives
Newborn Gage’s struggle to survive
Saving lives - two heart valves at a time
Preventing stroke with donor support
Recovering from injury - step by step
Getting back to normal after traumatic injury
Changing outcomes for trauma survivors
Innovative cancer care - when it matters most
Preserving quality of life with leading-edge treatment

15 brain tumours treated in one day

On April 7, 2017, 50-year-old David was in the prime of his life. He went to the gym every morning, never smoked, and followed an extremely clean diet. His children were doing well in school, and David and his wife were enjoying planning their eventual retirement. On April 8th, David was diagnosed with a stage IV kidney cancer, and the outlook was grim.

David knew he was in trouble when he noticed blood in his urine. He went to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed him with kidney cancer that had metastasized to his lungs, liver, bones, and brain. David began researching his options, and learned about Sunnybrook:

“There was a world-class centre just two hours down the road from me.”

During his consultation at Sunnybrook, David was told he was eligible for a very exciting and innovative clinical trial in the United States. “I was impressed. Sunnybrook didn’t want to just keep me in their facility; they wanted what was best for me.”

Fifteen brain tumours and one Gamma Knife

David travelled to Kansas and began treatment. He responded well, but the treatment didn’t protect his brain. His oncologist in Kansas had a frank discussion with him. He had 15 brain tumours that needed treatment. Treating numerous tumours at once wasn’t common practice, and David’s best chances were back at Sunnybrook for treatment using the Gamma Knife.

The Gamma Knife is a noninvasive alternative to the traditional method of radiation of the whole brain which can damage healthy tissue and interfere with memory and other cognitive functions. It targets tumours with precision allowing for safe delivery of radiation. Without the need to recover from incisions or anesthesia, patients treated this way are often in and out of the hospital in one day. David went home after his first treatment. “They mounted a frame on my head, and melted pins into my head to hold the frame in place. When I got home, I had some discomfort where the pins were, and only a mild headache.”

David’s second treatment was with the newest version of the technology. The Gamma Knife Icon does not require a surgically-fitted frame. David describes his second treatment as a “cakewalk.” Doctors fitted him with a mask instead of the frame. There were no pins, no pain, and no discomfort.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Two life-saving surgeries at once

Myla was 36 weeks pregnant with twins when she developed a blood clot in her brain and was rushed to her local hospital.Doctors there told her family there was nothing they could do. At Sunnybrook, a team of 14 saved all three lives.

Myla was 36 weeks pregnant with twins when her husband found her unconscious and non-responsive in their home. The week before, Myla was perfectly healthy. In fact, her pregnancy had been completely normal until that day.

Doctors discovered a blood clot in her brain

Myla doesn’t remember much about the incident. She had a headache, and after taking an aspirin, she went to bed, where her husband recalls finding her breathing heavily. When she wouldn’t wake up, he called 911 and she was taken to hospital. There, the doctors ordered a CT scan and discovered a blood clot in her brain. They told her husband and 18-year-old daughter there was nothing they could do – Myla and the twins wouldn’t make it.

But then, a nurse noticed Myla’s hand move. The doctors tested her reflexes and recognized that she had a chance for survival. She was immediately transported to Sunnybrook.

A craniotomy and C-section

Half an hour later, a team of 14 including a neurosurgeon and obstetrician were ready for Myla in the operating room. The team discussed all the possibilities and created a plan that balanced competing factors. The pressure on her brain needed to be relieved, but her blood pressure needed to remain high enough to pump oxygen to her brain and support her babies. They decided to perform a craniotomy, followed immediately by a C-section.

Both procedures were successful and Myla’s healthy twin girls were safely removed and placed in incubators; Jamie was just under six pounds, and Samantha was just under five.

Myla was unconscious for three days. When she woke up, she didn’t know that she’d had a C-section or major brain surgery until she saw herself in the mirror. She spent three days in recovery before she saw her babies. “I was weak, but I was just so in love with my babies.”

Home with her family

Myla spent three weeks in recovery , and made a remarkable recovery. Very quickly, she could walk, balance herself, and passed all the cognitive tests. She was sent home to join her new family.

Myla doesn’t remember the incident, which she is appreciative of. The only thing that reminds her that it ever happened at all is a dent on her forehead where her doctors cut through muscles during her craniotomy. “It’s like a bad dream. I’m so grateful. If we hadn’t been brought to Sunnybrook, the three of us would be gone.”

For Myla and her family, life is back to normal. They are healthy and busy, as any family with twins would be.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

A breast removed and constructed in 11 hours

Claire spent her career supporting patients with cancer, but after one phone call on her 57th birthday, she became one of those patients at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre.

Long before she was diagnosed, breast cancer was a part of Claire’s life in a profound way– it was her life’s work. Claire has spent the majority of her life as a psychotherapist for cancer patient groups, and has spent hours researching and teaching. All it took to cross over the threshold between professional and patient was a single phone call on her 57th birthday.

Claire came home that evening to find her husband sitting on the couch with a look on his face she says she can’t describe. He told Claire that her doctor called, and wanted her to call him back right away.

“I knew right then that something awful had happened.”

Claire had had a routine mammogram which she had all but forgotten. When her doctor said that the scan had found something that looked cancerous, her first thought was about the story she had heard so many patients tell: “So this is how it happens.”

Breast cancer was very familiar to her, but now it was personal. Claire was referred to Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre, and after another mammogram, an ultrasound, and a biopsy, the rapid diagnostic clinic confirmed her diagnosis: breast cancer.

Mastectomy and reconstruction

She met her surgeon the next day. “She was wonderful. She met me as a professional, as a patient, and as a woman. She even hugged me.”

Claire’s doctor suggested immediate breast reconstruction in addition to the mastectomy. Breast reconstruction hadn’t been on Claire’s radar; she just wanted the tumor out and didn’t care about the aesthetics. However, her doctor explained that psychological recovery is easier for women who have had a reconstruction, and if it wasn’t done with the mastectomy, it would be a two-year wait. “I went along with it. I truly trusted my doctor.”

The surgery took 11 hours, and her doctors removed the tumor and took tissue and skin from her abdomen to reconstruct her breast. “I had about three feet of scars. I looked like a painting by Picasso – ‘Woman with One Nipple’. I felt pieced together.”

A new perspective on chemo

After her surgery it was time to think about chemo. Claire knew all her options, and she requested oncotype testing. The test profiles tumors to determine how beneficial chemotherapy treatment would be. Claire’s test results came back: she had a moderate risk of recurrence, and chemo was recommended.

Claire didn’t react well to chemotherapy. “If there was a potential side effect, I had it.”

The treatment was punishing, but Claire’s team at Sunnybrook supported her through every step of it. Her pharmacist called her after every treatment and worked with her oncologist to adjust her support drugs. “They made it possible to hang in there.”

Cancer free

Claire’s last treatment was on New Year’s Eve. She began 2016 “kind of a wreck”, but cancer free. Her hair slowly grew back, and she went back to work. She describes her experience as “advanced training” in her field. Now, she has done the research and lived through it. When a patient tells their story, Claire has a deep understanding of it, because she’s been there too.

Outside of work, Claire is healthy. “I run 35 km a week. I sleep a little more, and there are a few side effects, but I am cancer free. I am so grateful for Sunnybrook; they saved my life.”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Running 5K five months after losing his leg

Five months after a below-the-knee amputation and intensive rehabilitation at Sunnybrook, Aristotle ran his first 5k race and has never looked back.

Aristotle survived blood poisoning in 2001, but spent the next 15 years of his life in constant pain. He was diagnosed with Peroneal Nerve Injury, a condition which prevented Aristotle from being able to lift his foot, and suffered through recurring bone infections in his left foot – each one treated with antibiotics and weeks spent on the couch waiting for the infection to clear.

“All I wanted was to walk my dog more than two blocks without crying in pain,” he remembers.

His quality of life was reduced and he knew it was time to have a conversation with his doctor about something they had both been doing everything they could to avoid: amputation. There were risks and a lengthy recovery ahead, but it was time to get his life back.

After numerous tests and consultations with his orthopedic surgeon, Aristotle’s left leg was amputated below the knee on January 10th, 2017.

Walking wasn’t enough

The surgery was a success, and Aristotle was soon transferred to Sunnybrook’s St. John’s Rehab for five weeks of rehab as an inpatient. There, he worked with a dedicated team of physiotherapists and occupational therapists to “learn the ropes” of life as a below-the-knee amputee. They began preparing him for a prosthesis right away with intensive strength training and stretching. In his second week of recovery, Aristotle was fitted for a prosthetic foot, and as soon as he took his first step he knew walking wasn’t enough – he wanted to run.

From hospital bed to 5k

Aristotle registered himself in a 5k race and told his team his new goal. Together, they addressed every issue Aristotle had with his body and ensured he had proper limb care and a properly fitted prosthesis that matched his activity level so he could cross the finish line. With his team’s commitment and support, Aristotle was discharged. He walked out using only his prosthesis to support him.

“My team's support in not only educating me in my new life as an active amputee, but also continuously problem solving to help me reach my goals has been the best, bar none! As I become even more active, they have both shown that they will be there to support me further – and that is very important for a patient to feel.”

The finish line

For 15 years, all Aristotle wanted was to walk his dog, pain-free. Then, five months after his amputation, Aristotle ran his first 5k race, and then ran another race a month later, and then another. He now plays basketball, is learning acrobat skills, and is always searching for the next finish line.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

From debilitating depression to a brighter future

Depression left Iranna feeling isolated and suicidal, but after finding the right doctor at Sunnybrook she is planning for the future.

Iranna’s battle with depression began in childhood, but it wasn’t until two years ago that it hit her full force. “It was almost like an epiphany – that this feeling I was trying to push away or pretend didn’t exist was in fact how I felt from head to toe. From then on, it was mood disorders, anxiety, and depression.”

Iranna spent all day in bed, barely ate, wasn’t social, and was unhappy all the time. “During that time, I felt the worst I ever have: lonely, confused, irritated, and suicidal.

A brighter future

And then Sunnybrook came into her life. “I could tell right from the moment I met her, that my doctor genuinely cared and wanted to help.”

Iranna began new medications and saw her doctor regularly. Things began to get better. Iranna began looking forward to the future.

Right now, she is working hard to persevere and take back her life. “I’m in my 20s and I don’t want my mental health to stand in my way anymore. I have a steady job, am getting back into modeling, and am going back to school to pursue journalism. Sunnybrook has changed my life in a lot of ways. I don’t know how I got this lucky. To express my gratitude to them, I’m taking everything they’ve given me and building the future I’ve always wanted for myself.”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Battling OCD with specialized care

Charlotte’s OCD was debilitating but Sunnybrook’s new residential program, through the Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre, has helped her manage the compulsions and obsessions that trapped her in her home for years.

Charlotte lived with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) so severe that she couldn’t leave her home. Her symptoms began when she was just 8 years old – if things in her room were moved, she would be anxious until they were back in the right place. When her parents left for work, she would worry that something bad would happen to them. Charlotte thought this level of stress was normal, and her family thought she was just a particularly anxious child, but things got worse.

Charlotte began to perform lengthy routines, fearing that if she didn’t, awful things would happen to the people she loved. In her last year of high school, she would brush her teeth multiple times, fold laundry repeatedly, and turn lights on and off, fearing that if she didn’t, her ailing grandmother would die.

Struggling to cope

Her symptoms became aggressive when Charlotte left home for university. With a full course load and living with people she didn’t know, Charlotte struggled to take on school and maintain her independence. Her fears about her family getting hurt led to compulsions and obsessions that began to take control of her life.

“I knew I had OCD, but I was afraid to tell anyone.”

She sought help from her family doctor. However, it was difficult for her to be open about how much it had affected her. “I was ashamed, and I wasn’t truthful, so I was misdiagnosed.”

Charlotte was given medication, and she went back to school. Her routines became long, onerous ordeals. She would spend hours doing laundry, turning lights on and off, putting things away and taking them out again, tapping objects, and pacing back and forth. She began missing classes because the five-minute walk to campus would take her over four hours.

Out of options

Things got worse, and Charlotte was finally ready to be honest about her condition. Her doctor referred her to a specialist who started her on new medication and cognitive- behavioural therapy. But the medication didn’t help, and Charlotte often missed her appointments with her therapist because she was trapped in her house in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions she needed to act out so her sister and parents wouldn’t get into an accident.

“Every day I’d wake up and think, ‘It can’t get worse than this,’ and then I’d wake up a week later, and it would be worse.”

After graduating, Charlotte lost hope for her future. She was hospitalized with suicidal thoughts. While in the hospital, she met with psychiatrists who recommended a day program at another hospital. Charlotte agreed to go, but it wasn’t enough.

Charlotte’s team of doctors and therapists, her family, and Charlotte herself knew that she needed a residential program, but the only programs available at the time were in the United States, and OHIP denied her request for funding. Out of options, Charlotte attempted suicide.

“I was so tired, and so drained. I had no fight left.”

A life saved

Charlotte was airlifted to an ICU in Toronto, where she spent three days; one of which was in a coma. Just when things were at their worst with no sign of hope, her family was contacted by Sunnybrook. The hospital was opening Canada’s first residential program for severe OCD, and wanted Charlotte to be one of the first patients.

In her first week in the Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre’s Intensive Treatment Program for OCD, Charlotte knew it would work. “Having the 24-hour care that I needed made a difference. If I couldn’t make it down to a session, someone would come up and check on me. ”

Charlotte was an inpatient for 14 weeks. Her parents and sister came to meet her for family sessions with the team, and she was able to go home on the weekends. These home visits were crucial for identifying things she needed to work on so she wouldn’t relapse when she was released. “My doctors made me feel welcome, normal, and understood. Sunnybrook saved my life.”

A new chapter

When Charlotte entered the program, she had “massive” routines around everything she did during a day. A task that would take her family ten minutes would take her two hours. Now, she can take her dog outside and play. She can go to the grocery store and cook for her family, and she enjoys it. She still struggles with obsessions and compulsions, but with the tools she learned at Sunnybrook, they are manageable, and become more so every day.

“Sunnybrook gave me my life back. I didn’t have any satisfaction in living. Being able to get up and not dread the day is a joy.”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

A failing heart averted without open-heart surgery

After being diagnosed with a serious heart condition, Carolyn dreaded the thought of open heart surgery. A new non-invasive procedure at Sunnybrook repaired her heart and gave her her life back.

In 2012, Carolyn was enjoying time at the cottage when she had a bad fall. The former nurse realized she had fainted and went to her doctor. An echocardiogram revealed a narrowing of one of the valves in her heart. Carolyn was referred to a cardiologist who diagnosed her condition: aortic stenosis, a common but very serious condition that restricts blood flow in the heart and can lead to heart failure.

At first, Carolyn’s symptoms weren’t severe, and her cardiologist made the decision to monitor her. Carolyn began to exercise and eat a healthy diet, but she knew she may eventually need surgery. Dreading the thought of open heart surgery and the long recovery, she persisted with her healthy lifestyle for six years.

Time to consider another option

In 2018, things took a turn. While attending a concert with her daughter, Carolyn suffered shortness of breath on the short walk from her car to the venue. She began to feel weak and tired all the time, and she knew it was time to consider surgery.

Carolyn went back to her cardiologist, who offered her a possible alternative. Sunnybrook was conducting a clinical trial for a minimally invasive surgical procedure called a transcatheter aortic valve implementation, or TAVI. Without the need to open a patient’s chest, the procedure takes less time and recovery is much easier – patients are often discharged the following day.

Carolyn’s procedure was on March 6, 2018. She was admitted at 7:00 am, on the operating table at 8:00 am, recovering in the ICU at 9:30 am, and went home the next day. She spent only 32 hours in the hospital.

A new lease on life

After the procedure, Carolyn has more energy. She looks and feels better and can walk up the stairs in her three-storey townhome without becoming short of breath. Her first post-op appointment was on April 3, and her cardiologist was happy to tell her that her heart is “in tip-top condition.” Now, Carolyn is enjoying her health and teaching her piano students.

Endovascular treatment is stopping stroke in its tracks

Yana Matveyeva was terrified. The 20-year-old college student was lying on a gurney surrounded by nurses and doctors. She didn’t understand what was happening. One thing was clear to her: she was in trouble.

A few hours earlier, Yana had returned from grocery shopping and was unloading her bags when she collapsed. Her friend found her on the floor, unable to move or speak, and called 911 immediately.

The ambulance took Yana to Sunnybrook where she was diagnosed with an ischemic stroke caused by a blood clot in the brain. In a time-sensitive health crisis such as Yana's, quick diagnosis and treatment are essential to saving as much brain function as possible. Doctors immediately gave Yana tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), also known as a clot buster. It didn't work because her clot was too large.

If this had happened six months earlier, Yana might not have survived the stroke or may have ended up with severe brain damage and paralysis. But there was a new innovative treatment available at Sunnybrook: endovascular treatment, which, in clinical trials, has been shown to reduce the overall mortality rate of stroke patients by 50 per cent.

Sunnybrook was one of 22 sites worldwide that participated in the study.

Endovascular treatment is performed by inserting a thin tube into an artery in the groin and feeding it through the body's blood vessels to the clot in the brain. This is done using advanced imaging guidance. The clot is then secured and pulled out, restoring blood flow to the brain before permanent damage occurs.

It was two in the morning when neurosurgeon Dr. Victor Yang, neuroradiologist Dr. Peter Howard and a team of specialists set to work, knowing that they were up against the clock. Yana faced multiple hurdles.

She couldn't understand what was happening because both her speech and language comprehension were affected by the stroke.

She couldn't be sedated because the doctors couldn't risk the time to insert a breathing tube and this procedure would have increased her blood pressure.

She was petrified and kept moving around, making it difficult for the doctors to thread the tube through her.

The clot had broken in two so the medical team had to find and retrieve not one, but two clots.

At 4:13 a.m., the second clot was removed. The endovascular treatment had been successful.

Yana has almost fully recovered. She is mobile and talking in both English and Russian again. She is grateful that Sunnybrook offered this cutting-edge treatment.

"About a month after I left the hospital, I saw some friends, and they couldn't believe I'd had a stroke. This endovascular treatment is a miracle. To everyone who helped me at Sunnybrook, 'Ya vas lublu', or as we say in English, 'I love you'!"

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Precision radiation is destroying tumours without harming quality of life

Bradley Chapman wasn’t about to let prostate cancer get in the way of his volunteer work. When it came time to schedule his brachytherapy treatment at the Odette Cancer Centre, Bradley requested it take place on a Thursday so he could make his weekly delivery of bread to homeless shelters the following Wednesday.

“It took probably an hour to line everything up, minutes for the treatment, and then they cleaned me up and sent me home. Six days later I was doing my bun run,” says the 75-year-old.

The fact that Bradley was able to return to the activities of his daily life so quickly is a testament to the minimally invasive, highly targeted nature of his treatment. High-dose-rate brachytherapy involves the temporary placement of tiny radioactive seeds directly into tumours, enabling doctors to strike cancer with high doses of radiation.

Compared to conventional external-beam radiation therapies, brachytherapy more effectively spares healthy tissue and limits side-effects, such as skin irritation, nausea, fatigue and more. Equally, brachytherapy poses less risk than surgery of causing complications like urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction.

Bradley and his Sunnybrook oncologist discussed conventional radiation and surgery as possible ways to treat his cancer, but Bradley was reluctant. “I thought, I’m not a young guy anymore, so surgery’s probably not a great thing.” He was also reticent to undergo external-beam radiation therapy, which would have required daily treatment sessions for as many as eight weeks.

Bradley is one of the approximately 300 brachytherapy patients the Odette Cancer Centre treats annually, making it the largest such single-institution program in North America. The centre, a long-time brachytherapy pioneer, will soon be home to a one-of-a-kind suite where the treatment will be guided in real-time by magnetic resonance imaging. As a result, doctors will be able to target tumours with unprecedented precision. For patients, this will mean more effective treatment with even fewer side-effects. Real-time MRI offers another critical benefit: It will allow doctors to adjust radiation dosage and seed placement while brachytherapy is being delivered, because they’ll be able to immediately see the effect it’s having on the tumour.

For his part, Bradley praises the fast and precise brachytherapy he received. “The prognosis is pretty good, if not excellent. I’m delighted,” he says.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

With your help, we’ve opened the blood-brain barrier to treat the untreatable

A week before 57-year-old Bonny Hall and her Sunnybrook doctors were set to make medical history, she was – understandably so – a bit on edge. “Nervous. Anxious. Excited, because someone has to go first,” reported Bonny, who was about to become the first person to have her blood-brain barrier (BBB) breached in a non-invasive way, so that chemotherapy drugs could reach her brain tumour.

In November 2015, Bonny was the first participant in a groundbreaking clinical research trial at Sunnybrook that is testing the ability of focused ultrasound to temporarily open the BBB and allow medication to reach targeted areas. Everyone has a barrier that lines their brain’s blood vessels and restricts the passage of substances from the bloodstream into the brain. It does this to protect the brain from disease and toxins.

“Some of the most exciting therapeutics for the treatment of malignant brain tumours cannot reach the tumour cells because of the barrier,” says Dr. Todd Mainprize, lead neurosurgeon in Sunnybrook’s Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program and principal investigator of the trial that will enrol as many as 10 patients. “This technique will open up new opportunities to deliver potentially much more effective treatments.”

Dr. Mainprize’s team successfully bypassed Bonny’s BBB by using a helmet-like focused ultrasound device, guided by real-time magnetic resonance imaging, to direct waves of ultrasound energy toward the blood vessels near her tumour. The focused ultrasound waves caused microscopic bubbles, previously injected into Bonny’s bloodstream, to vibrate and loosen the tight junctions of the cells that comprise the BBB. This allowed a chemotherapy drug – also infused intravenously – to flow through the barrier and reach Bonny’s tumour.

Wide-ranging applications

“This isn’t just about a brain tumour,” Bonny says, noting the procedure also has the potential to revolutionize treatment of dementias like Alzheimer’s disease and some mental illnesses.

Bonny’s participation in the trial was a truly selfless act, as she won’t derive any direct benefit from it. The trial’s primary aims are to test the therapy’s safety and preliminary efficacy – a critical step before conducting larger studies with more patients. Following the procedure, Dr. Mainprize removed portions of Bonny’s tumour through traditional neurosurgery, just as he will do for other trial participants.

What Bonny wants most now is a sense of normalcy. “I just want to be a normal mom, a normal grandma…just a normal wife.”

However, her contribution to medical science guarantees she will always be regarded as extraordinary.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Image-guided vascular surgery saves limbs and lives

When a physician told Christopher Kent “prostheses are actually really good these days,” he was unimpressed.

He didn’t want a prosthetic leg, he wanted to keep his own.

The four ulcers on his left foot had become so painful that the 67-year-old could no longer stand at his woodworking bench. He couldn’t safely operate machinery, his wife Linda points out, given the medication he was taking to ease the pain.

Finally, a diabetic specialist recognized Christopher’s non-healing ulcers as a symptom of peripheral arterial disease, a narrowing of the arteries in his leg caused by his diabetes. He sent Christopher to Sunnybrook, where vascular surgeons Dr. Andrew Dueck and Dr. Giuseppe Papia are gaining nationwide attention for saving patients’ legs – and lives – with image-guided angioplasties. This method of enlarging a narrowed artery using a balloon is typically used for heart patients, but our vascular surgeons are using it to save legs.

“So many diabetic patients have painful sores on their feet that won’t heal – and it’s not being recognized as a vascular problem that we can fix,” Dr. Papia says. “Without treatment, half these patients won’t survive two years.”

In Christopher’s case, his disease had progressed so far that when Dr. Papia attempted angioplasty, the blockage was too solid to break through. Christopher had developed gangrene and the threat of amputation loomed.

But, Dr. Papia refused to give up. He scheduled an urgent surgical appointment to try a different tactic to save Christopher’s leg. It might not work, Christopher was told, but there was hope. With the pain in his foot close to unbearable, he signed the form authorizing amputation in the event surgery was unsuccessful.

“Dr. Papia started at midnight,” Christopher recalls. “At 5 o’clock in the morning, I woke up and saw I had two feet,” he says with a big smile.

Dr. Papia had performed bypass surgery, using a vein from the same leg to bypass the artery down to Christopher’s foot. “But bypass surgery is a temporary fix,” Dr. Papia explains. “The arteries continue to harden, the disease process continues. To maintain his bypass and prevent an amputation, I later performed angioplasty on the very tiny arteries in Christopher’s leg.

“For most patients, angioplasty works the first time. With Christopher, we had to try something different. At Sunnybrook, we do everything we can to save people’s lives and limbs.”

Eighteen months later, Christopher is almost as good as new. He visits Dr. Papia every three months and gets a Doppler ultrasound to test his blood flow.

Now, Christopher is building a guitar in his workshop, chasing after his toddler grandson – and, Linda says with a laugh, “he’s back to taking the garbage out. Thank you, Dr. Papia!”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Newborn Gage’s struggle to survive

On January 16, 2015, not much more than halfway through her pregnancy (at 22 weeks and five days), Heather Radford’s water broke. Two days later and still pregnant, she was transferred from her local hospital to Sunnybrook, where she gave birth to her son Gage.

Heather knew that for babies born 17 weeks early, survival is not a foregone conclusion. “Many times we had to prepare for the worst – that he might not get through this,” says Heather. “We knew we might have to let him go.”

Fortunately, Gage, who weighed only 1 lb 6 oz. at birth, did pull through, thanks to hands-on family support and state-of-the-art care in Sunnybrook’s Newton Glassman Charitable Foundation Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Four months later, the day before his due date, he went home to his mother, father and two four-year-old half siblings in Clarington, Ont.

An element of care that is foundational to treatment in Sunnybrook’s NICU – and which Heather credits for Gage’s survival and growth – is feeding with breast milk. “Breast milk is critical for infants, particularly at-risk preemies, because it contains antibodies that help fight disease, prevent infection and promote brain development,” says Jo Watson, PhD, a nurse practitioner and operations director for the Women & Babies Program.

In 2015, Sunnybrook formalized its commitment to breastfeeding by establishing Canada’s first Breastfeeding Centre of Excellence. “Already, Sunnybrook’s rate of exclusive breastfeeding upon discharge from the NICU is twice the national average, and we are dedicated to establishing, improving and sharing best practices,” says Dr. Watson, leader of the new Centre.

For Heather, it took a great deal of commitment to breastfeed Gage. “From the moment he was born, I pumped about 10 times a day, which is very time-consuming. The breastfeeding staff at Sunnybrook were very encouraging. They checked up on me and gave me strategies to make it easier.”

“He has done so well health-wise and I attribute a lot of that to breast milk and the breastfeeding support I received at Sunnybrook,” says Heather.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Saving lives - two heart valves at a time

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.

In 2015, 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.

Previously entirely donor funded, both Sunnybrook's TAVI program and MitraClip device are now government funded.

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, he was delighted to shovel the lighter dustings himself.

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Preventing stroke with donor support

Physically, Bernard Davis didn’t feel any different after having a Watchman device implanted in his heart at Sunnybrook – but psychologically, he felt a whole lot better, knowing his risk of stroke due to blood clots had been cut by two-thirds.

“I’m a 70-year-old man,” he says. “It’s marvellous that I can look forward to healthy years ahead.”

Retired from careers in export sales, international shipping and finally teaching, the trilingual Bernard enjoys amateur handyman work and travelling through Europe and South America with his wife, Hilary. “Now I can travel more confidently,” he says.

Bernard has atrial fibrillation, a condition involving an irregular heart rhythm. People with this type of arrhythmia have a risk of stroke three to five times higher than those without it. Clots commonly form in their left atrial appendage, a small pouch on the left side of the heart. These clots can move to the brain and cause a stroke.

Blood thinners are typically recommended to reduce the risk of clots forming but not everyone is a suitable candidate, especially those at risk of bleeding. In Bernard’s case, he had fallen on ice several years earlier and had bleeding in his brain.

For these patients, Sunnybrook is offering a new, non-drug treatment that is funded entirely by donors. The procedure involves feeding a small device, the Watchman, by catheter from the groin to the heart to close off the left atrial appendage and prevent clots escaping.

“For patients with atrial fibrillation, this procedure reduces their risk of stroke to the same as if they were on blood thinners,” explains Dr. Sheldon Singh, a cardiologist and cardiac electro-physiologist in Sunnybrook’s Schulich Heart Centre.

In November 2015, Bernard became the first Toronto-area patient to have a Watchman device implanted. The procedure is not yet government funded in Canada and is available only through Health Canada’s special access program. Sunnybrook donors cover the entire cost of each procedure.

Dr. Singh wants to spread the word to both physicians and patients with atrial fibrillation that, thanks to donor generosity, this life-saving option is now available for patients like Bernard who can’t take blood thinners.

Meanwhile, Bernard and Hilary can begin planning their next trip. “We’re very appreciative that Dr. Singh was proactive,” says Hilary. “He’s greatly helped Bernie’s quality of life.”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Recovering from injury - step by step

The stairs were the beginning of Kerry’s journey.

Kerry Delaney, an active, independent woman in her 60s, was housesitting. She got up in the middle of the night to use the washroom but missed a step, tumbling down 21 stairs.

For over 12 hours, Kerry lay at the bottom of those stairs, unable to move. Both her wrist and femur were shattered. She knew she had a friend coming over at the end of the day, so Kerry waited in pain for her to arrive.

The ambulance took Kerry to a community hospital and once X-rays were completed, she was sent to Sunnybrook where she underwent two operations. In the first, Dr. Veronica Wadey cleaned the open femur fracture, removing the small pieces of bone that could later lead to infection. She then stabilized Kerry’s leg with an external frame and fixed her badly broken wrist with a plate and screws. Later, Dr. Richard Jenkinson operated on Kerry’s leg to clean the bone, and repair the torn tendons, broken knee joint and femur bone.

Kerry spent three weeks in acute care at Sunnybrook. “They took such good care of me. I cried when I left.”

Then the hard work began. Kerry spent six weeks as an inpatient and 13 weeks as an outpatient at Sunnybrook’s St. John’s Rehab. Her physio and occupational therapy teams challenged and encouraged her with exercises which Kerry accomplished with dogged determination.

She worked to strengthen her wrist so she could brush her teeth and feed herself. She practised walking using an underwater treadmill. Eventually, she could raise her leg three inches so she could step into the shower.

But her biggest hurdle was both physical and emotional: climbing and descending stairs. Stacie, one of her physiotherapists, took her to a practice staircase at St. John’s Rehab: three stairs up, a landing, and three stairs down. Kerry shook with fear as she held the railing tightly with one hand and her crutch with the other. Stacie stood beside her throughout, coaching her through the process.

“Going up wasn’t as bad as going down. It was so scary, but when I came down that last stair, I felt liberated. Exhausted, but liberated!”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Getting back to normal after traumatic injury

Joanne Papps was taking a back-road detour to her mother’s Muskoka cottage when a car slammed into hers. “I knew immediately I was very seriously injured,” recalls the 63-year-old speech pathologist.

“I was in a very awkward position, slouched, and I couldn’t move.”

Seven months later, the mother of three and grandmother of one speaks of celebrating “small miracles” that never occurred to her she might mark as an adult: to be able to feed herself again, walk with support, turn pages of a magazine and use an iPad.

Joanne credits these milestones to her faith, intensive physiotherapy to rehabilitate her muscles, strong family support – and a team in Sunnybrook’s Tory Regional Trauma Centre that, from the moment she arrived by air ambulance, worked quickly to save her life and ensure she would regain as much function as possible.

Joanne suffered a dislocation and fracture of her upper spine, explains her neurosurgeon, Dr. Leo Da Costa. The injury was classified as partial. She could still feel sensation but couldn’t move anything. “She had a very severe motor deficit,” he says. “The strength was almost completely gone in most of her muscles.”

With spinal cord injuries, it’s critical to look for “evidence that some function is preserved because that means there is tissue that is potentially salvageable,” he says. “Then you have to work quickly to pull the bones and discs away from the spinal cord to get the pressure off and give the nerves the best chance.” The longer it takes to relieve that pressure, the more extensive the injury may become.

After the trauma team determined there was no internal bleeding, Joanne was put in traction to correct her spinal alignment and relieve nerve pressure. Next, Dr. Da Costa performed surgery, using screws, rods and her bone, to fuse the bones and ensure they wouldn’t move again.

“Sunnybrook has an elite trauma system in place at all hours to deal with catastrophic injuries,” Dr. Da Costa says. “Timing is critical. We have the people and resources to achieve the best possible outcomes.”

In the challenging weeks after surgery, Joanne says her recovery was linked to the sense of hope she sustained, fed by the encouraging words of Sunnybrook’s nurses, physiotherapists and chaplain. She continues to work hard and anticipates a very different summer this year. “I’m looking forward to visiting my mother’s cottage again,” Joanne says with a smile.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Changing outcomes for trauma survivors

Joseph Macchione feels Sunnybrook’s elite trauma team gave him a second chance at life. He’s determined to make the most of it.

Days after finishing Grade 12, Joseph and his buddies headed to a park west of Toronto to fish. “All I can remember is getting out of the car and walking down the path,” Joseph says. His next memory is of awakening in hospital days later. Friends tell him that as they walked along a trail, he turned to them and slipped, falling to an embankment. The ground gave way and Joseph plunged 100 feet into a shallow river.

A friend performed emergency CPR and Joseph was airlifted to Sunnybrook. Paramedics resuscitated him on the way. When he reached the hospital, massive internal bleeding meant Joseph’s heart had stopped and he was effectively dead.

But Sunnybrook’s trauma team, led by surgeon-in-chief Dr. Avery Nathens, was standing by, ready to act the moment Joseph arrived. They opened his chest, restarted his heart and sent him to the operating room to stop his severe internal bleeding.

Joseph’s mother, Carmen Tavares, had never been to Sunnybrook before what she says was “the worst day of my life”. But she had always been aware of its reputation for caring for the most severely injured people in Ontario. “When I heard Joseph was at Sunnybrook, I knew it was serious. But I also knew he was in good hands. I knew that if Sunnybrook couldn’t help him, nobody could.”

Sunnybrook is an international leader in trauma system design. Dr. Nathens is globally renowned for his work in this area, says trauma centre medical director, Dr. Homer Tien, also chief medical officer for Ornge, the province’s air and land ambulance system.

After three weeks in hospital, Joseph is home, continuing to gain strength on his way to a full recovery. He is investigating various post-secondary school options and planning for a future he almost didn’t have. “I felt like Joseph was in the right place,” Carmen says. “These are the best doctors in Canada. I owe that hospital my life.”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Innovative cancer care - when it matters most

Duane Smith and his parents Ed and Barbara are either lucky or unlucky, depending on one’s perspective. They believe the former.

All three have been successfully treated for cancer at Sunnybrook – Duane and Ed for prostate cancer, and Barbara for breast cancer.

“The care has been brilliant,” says Duane, 46, who received radiation and hormone therapy in 2011 under the direction of radiation oncologist Dr. Andrew Loblaw. It was Duane’s second bout with prostate cancer. His prostate gland was surgically removed at another hospital in 2009.

Barbara, 73, and Ed, 77, are also impressed by the treatment they received through the Odette Cancer Program. “I knew I was going to get excellent care. I felt safe, in lots of ways,” says Barbara, who also had to contend with a recurrent cancer.

Fortunately for Duane, a husband and father of two, his cancer remained confined to his prostate region. Dr. Loblaw treated it with 37 radiation sessions over eight weeks, followed by six months of hormone therapy to temporarily eliminate Duane’s production of testosterone, a hormone essential to the growth of prostate cancer cells.

Treatment was difficult, but Duane was ultimately able to return to his active lifestyle, including competitive hockey, triathlon training, golfing and coaching his kids’ hockey teams. The Smiths, however, weren’t out of the woods. Ed was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014, prompting Duane to contact Dr. Loblaw to see if he would review his dad’s file. Rather than receive standard radiation therapy in Kingston (closer to their Trenton home), Ed chose to come to Sunnybrook to be treated by Dr. Loblaw with a novel radiation therapy called stereotactic body radiotherapy. Thanks to the therapy’s power and precision, Ed required only five sessions. “I would recommend it to anybody. I had no side-effects,” Ed says.

Just when the family thought they were done with cancer, Barbara learned in the fall of 2014 that her breast cancer had returned, 11 years after undergoing a lumpectomy and radiation for a small tumour in her left breast.

Dr. Loblaw again played an important role in the family’s care, connecting Barbara to experts within Sunnybrook’s Louise Temerty Breast Cancer Centre. They were able to conserve her breast by performing a lumpectomy and using radiation therapy. Barbara is also undergoing genetic testing at Sunnybrook that may provide some clues as to the prevalence of cancer in her family.

Through the delivery of advanced, personalized care, Sunnybrook saved a family and made their journey a little easier. For their part, the Smiths are enjoying life and feeling that, just maybe, luck is on their side.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Preserving quality of life with leading-edge treatment

Nelson Pau, hasn’t allowed two battles with cancer to slow him down too much. “I’m now busy being happy,” says Nelson, who, as a husband and father of two, a grandfather of four and a man with no shortage of hobbies, has plenty to keep him busy.

The retired architect is thankful that a leading-edge radiation treatment he received at the Odette Cancer Centre both vanquished his metastatic kidney cancer and had a relatively small impact on his ability to do the things he loves, such as badminton, golf, tai chi and photography.

“It was perfect,” Nelson says of the treatment, known as stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT). He underwent five SBRT sessions in July 2012, each time receiving a powerful and highly targeted dose of radiation to destroy a tumour that had virtually swallowed his bottom-right rib. The treatment took place five years after Nelson’s cancerous right kidney had been removed through minimally invasive surgery at another hospital.

Only a handful of Ontario hospitals offer SBRT, and Sunnybrook’s use of the treatment on Nelson’s metastatic kidney cancer is even more unique. Typically, patients would have chemotherapy drugs pumped through their veins, which can cause nausea, hair loss, fatigue and other side-effects.

For Nelson, SBRT produced just a few complications, such as temporary pain at the tumour site and the development of a fibrosis, or lump, where the tumour used to be. However, he’s thrilled the treatment was so effective that he didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy. “I’ve had friends who have gone through chemo, and you feel half-alive during the process,” Nelson says.

Stereotactic body radiotherapy is part of the Odette Cancer Centre’s Cancer Ablation Therapy Program, which harnesses a range of precision therapies to treat tumours without invasive surgery. Through the program, Sunnybrook is building a suite that will house Canada’s only magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-guided radiation machine.

Known as an MR-Linac, the machine combines simultaneous delivery of radiation with MRI, so that doctors can target tumours with unprecedented accuracy and immediately see how the tumour is responding to radiation. The technology promises to make SBRT even more precise and effective, which is good news for patients like Nelson.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.