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Heart Mender

Written by Deepti Babu

On a frigid Edmonton day with a high of -25°C, Dr. Jennifer Conway confirms that she did not take her new job in the city because of the weather. When Dr. Conway moved from her hometown of Toronto to begin her work at the Stollery Children’s Hospital last September she knew the weather wouldn’t always be the greatest, fortunately she also knew about the Stollery’s great reputation. “All decisions are multifactorial,” she says. “I considered the weather, but I thil nk there are lots of great opportunities for me here at the Stollery.”

Grabbing an opportunity is something Dr. Conway does well. During her work and training in Toronto and Halifax, she collaborated with many Stollery pediatric cardiologists and other physicians, so when the chance came to work with them directly she took it.

Dr. Conway’s particular expertise lies in pediatric heart transplant, heart function and ventricular assist devices (VADs) – mechanical pumps used to support heart function and blood flow in patients with weakened hearts, “I knew the Stollery had an excellent, well-established VAD program,” she explains. “I was eager to work with and learn from my colleagues, the same people I’d already met through the years in the heart function/VAD/transplant world.”

She also knew there were plans to create a new heart function program at the Stollery, something she hopes to help contribute to. “I’d like to focus my research more on heart function, cardiomyopathy [a disease of the heart muscle] and VADs in the future,” she says. “The prospect of offering input into a new heart function program is very exciting.”

Always intrigued by the sciences, Dr. Conway sought a career in medicine to feed her curiosity and desire to work with others. “Interacting with people – patients or fellow colleagues – to make a difference in someone’s life, I think that’s what brought me into this field.” She knew she had an interest in intensive care medicine, but her choice of pediatric cardiology came from an opportunity at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. “I kind of fell into it. There was a chance to pediatric cardiology work while I was in Halifax, so I took it.”

The effects of heart transplants on the children Dr. Conway cared for during her time in Halifax had a meaningful impact on her, which led her to specialize in cardiac transplant and cardiac failure. With no cardiac transplant program in Halifax, children with heart failure had to travel to Toronto to receive transplants. “It amazed me how sick these children were when we sent them away, and how different they were when they came back,” Dr. Conway recalls. This period of caring for young children who faced long periods of cardiac recovery profoundly affected her career. “There was such a wide range of care needed to get a very ill child to be well. Watching them get through their milestones during that transition was inspirational and remarkable.”

Dr. Conway is an active and award-winning researcher, earning distinctions like a 2011 Young Investigator Award from the International Pediatric Transplant Association. “There are lots of unanswered questions,” she explains. “If we could answer them, maybe we could improve patient outcomes long-term.”

She knows that even answering a few of the smaller questions about pediatric cardiology could potentially make a big difference to patient care. “We might understand a little more about the problem so we can counsel families appropriately.” And being able to properly educate families about their child’s heart condition or transplant is clearly important to her; she is part of an ongoing collaborative North American initiative to develop patient-focused materials about pediatric cardiac transplants.

She’s also fuelled by a desire to work with others. An active member of many national and international pediatric cardiology committees and networks, Dr. Conway has also helped develop clinical protocols and guidelines that impact pediatric cardiac care delivery. Along with some of the her Stollery colleagues, she contributed to the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, publishing the new Canadian practice guidelines for pediatric heart failure in children. She has also started mentoring and developing projects with trainees who have an interest in heart function and transplant.

With all this on her plate, what’s on the horizon? For one, Dr. Conway and her colleagues aim to streamline care for young children needing the Stollery’s upcoming heart function program. They hope that some of these children will one day be able to wait for their heart transplants at home, instead of in the hospital. Because, after all, Dr. Conway now knows as well as any Edmontonian, when possible, the cold winter days are better spent at home.

Published Winter 2014, Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation