'I owe you everything': How a gift shaped the life of Ottawa's oldest heart transplant patient

'I owe you everything': How a gift shaped the life of Ottawa's oldest heart transplant patient

Jeffrey Gleeson received a heart transplant 34 years ago, at just six weeks old. He has spent his life trying to honor that gift.

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Published June 11, 2024Last update 4 hours ago5 minute reading

Jeffrey Gleeson
Thirty-four years ago, as a small baby, Jeffrey Gleeson received a new heart and, with it, a new chance at life. Photo by Jean Levac /POSTMEDIA

In many ways, Jeffrey Gleeson’s life is not extraordinary. The 34-year-old Ottawa man, who works for a non-profit organization, mows lawns, shovels snow and does “pretty much anything anyone can do.”

But it is in a crucial sense.

Thirty-four years ago, as a small baby, Gleeson received a new heart and with it a new chance at life. That gift, and the tragic death that enabled it, have shaped the way he lives his life.

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Gleeson consciously strives “to be a person who lives by certain values ​​to better honor the life that was lost. “I may not achieve any amazing feats in my life, but I try to be a decent person, someone who respects others and understands their needs and points of view.”

His future was far from assured when he was born in 1989. He had a serious congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, in which the left side of his heart was severely underdeveloped. Additionally, that struggling heart was located on the right side of her chest, instead of its normal location on the left side, a condition called dextrocardia.

I needed a new heart.

The death of an Ottawa baby and his family’s decision to donate his heart gave Gleeson a second chance at life just six weeks after his birth.

Thirty-four years after undergoing a heart transplant at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, Gleeson is now the program’s oldest heart transplant recipient at 40 years old.

It’s a gift you don’t take for granted.

Once a year, Gleeson tries to put her gratitude into words in a memorial note to the baby whose heart was transplanted into her chest. He spends months thinking about what he will say. And, on September 29, the date he received a new heart in 1989, his words appear in the commemorative section of this newspaper: a few lines of type to say thank you for a life.

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“It’s been seventeen years since you gave me the gift of life and I want you to know that I am healthy and happy. I owe you all of this,” she wrote in 2006 in a memorial notice under the baby’s name.

In 2008 he wrote: “The only certainty in life is the uncertainty of life. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to experience life.”

Gleeson thinks about what he will say throughout the year. “Some years I can think of better ways to express my feelings, but they always come from a place of deep appreciation.”

It’s an annual ritual that his parents started when he was a baby. She took over the role when he turned 18 and has held it ever since, in close consultation with his mother.

“It is important for us to continue posting them on memorials to express our gratitude,” he said. “Organ donation cannot be taken for granted. In a way, (the donor) is part of me. It is also important to let her mother know that I am still here and that her daughter’s heart is still beating.”

The transplant surgery that saved Gleeson’s life was performed by Dr. Wilbert Keon, who founded the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. In the early days of heart transplants in the city, the Heart Institute performed them on both adults and children.

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Dr. Wilbert Keon
Dr. Wilbert Keon is a legendary cardiac surgeon and was the driving force behind the world-class facilities at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. Photo by Julie Oliver /POSTMEDIA

Gleeson’s life-saving surgery came five years after the program’s first heart transplant in 1984. Since then, 738 hearts have been transplanted into patients and the Heart Institute is one of the leading centers performing heart transplants in Canada.

Technological advances mean that transplant patients live longer and with a better quality of life. Today, Gleeson is among the program’s 272 surviving transplant patients.

This complex surgery is still performed at the hospital about 20 times a year, said transplant surgeon Dr. Hadi Toeg. The Ottawa native trained at both the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago before being recruited by the Heart Institute.

Advances in medical technology now mean that heart transplant patients are, on average, older than they were 20 years ago, he said. The average age is now around 60, compared to 50 two decades ago.

Increasingly, patients with end-stage heart failure can be “joined” with left ventricular assist devices, implanted devices that temporarily replace the pumping action of the heart. Such devices can keep them alive and improve the overall health of patients who may not have initially been healthy enough to survive a transplant, Toeg said.

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Heart transplant surgeries remain complex and carry risks, including complications during or after the transplant, or death. Patients referred for transplant are carefully evaluated by a team of doctors and health professionals to determine if they would benefit. Those who are approved are placed on a nationwide transplant list.

Each transplant surgery involves a medical team of eight to nine health professionals, including the transplant surgeon, a recovery surgeon, a surgical assistant, an anesthetist, an anesthetist technician, a perfusionist, who operates the heart-lung machine. during surgery, and two or three nurses.

There are still “butterfly” moments during Toeg’s surgery, even just before the new heart starts beating. “I still have nerves.”

For Toeg, transplant surgery is never routine.

“There’s a lot of adrenaline rushing when I’m in the middle of this,” Toeg said. “Once the heart is in and it starts, you feel like you’ve accomplished and put together an apartment complex or a huge building… this huge thing. When I talk to the family, it becomes very emotional.”

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After surgery, transplant patients are followed for life. Transplant Coordinator Kyla Brown is at the end of a phone line to help answer any questions you may have.

“It is a rewarding job. You can really see the benefits of what we can do to help people live a good life,” she stated. “The patients are very grateful.”

Every year, Gleeson puts that gratitude into words.

“My gratitude will never diminish,” he wrote in a memorial note to his donor in 2007.

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