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A Change of Heart: BC Children's launches official heart transplant program

Written by Mary Frances Hill

When Shannon Westerlund recalls the events that turned her family’s life upside down, she remembers shock and sadness, but most of all, moments of serendipity. It’s those moments that she is most grateful for, a full year after her son Andrew got a new heart at BC Children’s Hospital.

On the Friday before Christmas in 2012, Andrew, then 12, was clearly exhausted and complained of stomach aches. The pain didn’t let up, so Shannon and her husband Mike took Andrew to a clinic near their North Vancouver home, a move that would set in motion a visit to Lion’s Gate Hospital’s emergency room, a transfer to BC Children’s Hospital, and the discovery of a heart condition so grave it demanded a heart transplant.

When she looks back, Shannon sees how every extra push, every gut instinct, made all the difference in furthering Andrew’s transplant and recovery.

“What if I had ignored Andrew’s tummy muscle pain? What if the walk-in-doctor just gave us antibiotics and sent us home? The ER doctor could have said, ‘I don’t see anything, let’s go home.’ But the doctor thought of checking Andrew’s glands and giving him an X-ray. It was that extra little effort every one of them gave that pushed things further.”

It all lead Andrew to the care of Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, chief of Pediatric Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery at BC Children’s Hospital, and the man who made it possible for Andrew to get his transplant in BC.

Until recently, a patient in Andrew’s state – if stable enough to travel – would have been flown for treatment in one of the only two centres in Canada that had formal pediatric heart transplant programs, in Edmonton and Toronto.

Dr. Gandhi and his cardiac surgery team and support staff worked hard to help Andrew stay in Vancouver for his transplant and his recover. It was a struggle, Dr. Gandhi recalls.

“It was difficult, but we wanted to keep him here. He was very sick.”

That struggle – to keep kids in BC for treatment – will become a distant memory for cardiology professionals at BC Children’s Hospital.

In October of last year, the Provincial Health Services Authority announced that the hospital’s heart centre would be recognized as a fully sanctioned pediatric cardiac transplant program.

For families, that announcement means BC’s children will be able to stay close to home to receive any kind of cardiac surgery.

For the entire Westerlund family, staying close to home for Andrew’s treatment gave some stability and peace at a time when everything else felt so out of control.

“We were able to carry on our home life. His sisters had some consistency and we had a little bit of normalcy,” says Shannon.

Months after Andrew returned home, Shannon would write in her blog that she couldn’t imagine her son recovering without support at home, from his family and community.

“Andrew’s doctors fought hard on our behalf and we are extreamly grateful we were able to stay in BC. We try not to imagine what would have happened if Andrew had been sent out of BC.”

Doctors and support staff are also relieved. “It lets us get back to the care and treatment of these very sick children,” says Dr. Gandhi.

He says he sees the potential for the program as it evolves into one that, in time, might compare with more established programs in Edmonton and Toronto.

BC Children’s Hospital is more than ready. Over the last four years, the hospital has added new personnel, made financial investments and introduced new innovations in its cardiac surgery program.

“The human resources are here, the experience is all here,” says Dr. Gandhi.

Today, Andrew and his family are living what his mother calls “the new normal.” He’s back at school and playing soccer. He’s skied, gone snowshoeing, and attended a 12-night camping trip with his Scout troop all the while managing his medications and paying regular visits to BC Children’s Hospital for blood work and biopsies.

Through the whole ordeal, Shannon says she’s never forgotten the effort of professionals who have helped Andrew get his transplant, treatment, and recovery – all at home.

“We’ve made a point of going back to those people who did that little extra and telling them, ‘You know, because you did this little extra for Andrew, he’s alive today.”

Published Spring 2014, BC Children’s Hospital Foundation