The Save

The Save

By Nancy Cunliffe

A Not-So-Brief Interruption

My ‘interruption in life,’ as I call it, started as any other normal workday.

However, things took a turn when I began experiencing horrific chest pain. Despite trying to continue working, one of the family doctors in the medical office I worked in saw the pain on my face and called EMS. I knew things had become serious when the paramedics bypassed my local emergency room in the Niagara Region and went directly to the Hamilton General Hospital.

After an urgent coronary angiogram was performed, I was rushed down the hall to meet with my husband. I uttered what I thought could be my last words: “It does not look good – it is bad. I love you and please tell the kids I love them.” That was my last conscious memory of the Hamilton General Hospital.

Following a coronary artery dissection and double coronary artery bypass, my chest was left open in the hopes that a heart transplant would come quickly. It did not. My husband was told that every possible thing had been done for me, and to come say his final words.

Somehow, I survived the night. The next day, I was transported to Toronto General Hospital where a portable ECMO machine (a type of life support machine) was available, which I needed to stay alive. My next recollection was hearing my friend’s and family’s voices while I lay in the ICU, semi-conscious and hooked up to a ventilator.  After four days in that state, a decision was made to insert an LVAD. 

The Long Road to Recovery

The long road to recovery involved six weeks at the Toronto General Hospital. I was under the care of the whole Heart Failure Team, who closely monitored every moment of my recovery. My surgeon, Dr. Cusimano, was to check on me every day. He was one of my saviors.

It was during that time that I was told I was in heart failure, and that this period was just a bridge to an eventual heart transplant. However, 10 days later I developed cardiac tamponade and required another open-heart surgery to drain the blood from around my heart. The culprit – a leaking suture from my bypass surgery – was discovered and fixed. I then received an ICD and was able to go home.

The recovery in hospital was very slow and very long, but I was still alive. The surgeons nicknamed me “The Save” given all the odds stacked against me. 

After three months of continuous LVAD clinic appointments, very close monitoring, and more medications than I had ever been on, I began to be worked up for consideration as a transplant recipient. It was a grueling time, but eventually my name was officially placed on the list.  It was a surreal moment knowing this was my future.

The call came five months later at 3AM – a heart was available to me, and I had two hours to get to Toronto General. This was during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, so my husband and I stood outside the hospital saying our goodbyes, not knowing if this was the last time we would be able to speak to each other.

I had been wheeled into the operating room for the final procedure when it was discovered that the heart was not suitable for me. The operation was aborted.  

Three weeks later the whole process began again, but this time it was a success! At least until the sixth day post-op: I went to sleep with a severe headache and woke up in the ICU after having had a seizure, multiple brain hemorrhages, brain swelling, and temporary paralysis of the left side of my body. I had come through another potentially fatal problem once again.

After a few more weeks in hospital and no further setbacks, I am here today to tell this story. 

Miracles Happen

This is the journey I have been on for three-plus years. 

I have had guardian angels looking after me. My father passed away just 11 days before my heart attack; he and my mom, I felt, were watching over me. 

I also received fantastic medical care from the Heart Failure and Heart Transplant teams, without which I would not be here today. I am living proof that miracles can happen.

Nancy’s Reflections  

  • Regardless of your health situation, always try to remain positive. The most important thing is NEVER GIVE UP HOPE.
  • If I could change anything about my experience, it would be more support for caregivers, who are in need of daily supprt. My husband has been my rock throughout all of this, outside of my medical care, and I know he was looking for some kind of caregiver support which was not available to him.    
  • It is important to have a great support system with you at all of your appointments and while recovering at home.  
  • Ask your questions if you are not certain about your treatment plan. Trust in your medical team. 
  • Hug your loved ones every day and cherish each moment with them. 

Thank you to all,
Nancy Cunliffe