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The life of Ottawa’s longest-living heart transplant patient

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

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

But in one crucial way it is.

Thirty-four years ago, as a tiny 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 living by certain values to best honour the life that was lost. I may not accomplish any amazing feats in my lifetime, but I try to be a decent person, someone who is respectful of others and understanding of their needs and points of view.”

His future was far from assured when he was born in 1989. He had a severe congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, in which the left side of his heart was severely underdeveloped. In addition, that struggling heart was located on the right side of his chest, rather than in its normal place, on the left side, a condition called dextrocardia.

He needed a new heart.

The death of an Ottawa infant and her family’s decision to donate her heart gave Gleeson a second chance at life just six weeks after he was born.

Thirty-four years after he underwent a heart transplant at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, Gleeson is now the longest-living heart transplant recipient from the 40-year-old program.

It is a gift he doesn’t take for granted.

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

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“Seventeen years have passed since you gave me the gift of life and I want you to know that I am healthy and happy. I owe this all to you,” he wrote in 2006 in a memorial notice under the infant’s name.

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

Gleeson thinks about what he will say throughout the year. “Some years I come up with better ways to express my sentiments, but it always comes from a place of deep appreciation.”

It is an annual ritual his parents started when he was a baby. He took over when he turned 18 and he has kept it up ever since, in close consultation with his mother.

“It’s important for us to continue publishing these in memorials to express our gratitude,” he said. “An organ donation can’t be taken for granted. In a way, (the donor) is a part of me. It’s also important to let her mother know that I’m still around and 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 heart surgeon and was the driving force behind the University of Ottawa Heart Institute’s world-class facility. 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 top centres performing heart transplants in Canada.

Advances in technology mean transplant patients are living longer and with a better quality of life. Today, Gleeson is among 272 surviving transplant patients from the program.

The complex surgery continues to be performed at the hospital approximately 20 times a year, said transplant surgeon Dr. Hadi Toeg. The Ottawa native trained at both the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and at 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 “bridged” with left ventricular assist devices, implanted devices that temporarily replace the heart’s pumping action. Those devices can keep them alive and improve the overall health of patients who might not have been healthy enough initially 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 assessed by a team of doctors and health-care professionals to determine whether they would benefit. Those who are approved are placed on a nation-wide transplant list.

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

There are still “butterfly” moments during the surgery for Toeg, including just before the new heart starts beating. “I still get jitters.”

For Toeg, transplant surgery is never routine.

“There is a lot of adrenalin that runs when I am in the middle of it,” Toeg said. “Once the heart is in and starts, you feel like you have accomplished and put together an apartment complex or massive building … this huge thing. When I speak with the family, it gets quite emotional.”

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After surgery, transplant patients are followed for life. Transplant co-ordinator Kyla Brown is on the end of a phone line to help answer any questions they have.

“It is a rewarding job. You really can see the benefit of what we are able to do to help people live good lives,” she said. “Patients are very thankful.”

Each year, Gleeson puts that gratitude into words.

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

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