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Surgery Pioneered by Edmonton Doctor Saves Great-Granddaughter's Life

EDMONTON – When grandparents pass away, they often leave behind valuable heirlooms, sentimental treasures, or even just great stories. But one Edmonton family has inherited a gift far more valuable: the gift of life.

To the rest of the world Dr. John Callaghan was the famous heart surgeon who invented the pacemaker, pioneered the use of cold therapy during surgeries and performed Canada’s first successful open heart surgery at the University of Alberta in the 1950s. To Edmonton’s Torah Hunt, he was grandpa.

“He did a heart lung machine using a beer pump that he found in his garage – that worked – didn’t cause infection, I might point out,” Hunt reminisced.

Dr. Callaghan passed away ten years ago. Torah never realized the impact he would have on her, until her daughter was born by emergency C-section on November 24, 2014. Baby Tate was born with Tetralogy of Fallot. The heart defect limits the amount of oxygenated blood flowing to the body.

“One of the tubes was in the wrong place and the tube that takes the blood to the lungs was kinda blocked, and that meant the right side of heart was working too hard.” described Hunt.

Her daughter underwent a two hour long open heart surgery at the Stollery Children’s Hospital to fix the defect.

Hunt later found out from a family friend and a former colleague that on top his famous achievements, her grandfather also performed the first successful repair of a Tetralogy heart in Canada. Nearly 60 years after that groundbreaking procedure, Dr. Callaghan’s great-granddaughter received the same surgery.

“He had said to my mom, ‘it was your dad who did all the tetralogy surgeries in Alberta for many many years and he was the only one.’ And he actually did the first one.”

John Callaghan performed a number of Canadian firsts in heart surgery, and literally wrote the book on repairing Tetralogy of Fallot. The procedure still saves lives regularly.

“You hear of blue baby operations,” said Dr. Ivan Rebekyka, A Pediatric Cardiac Surgeon at the Stollery. “This is the typical blue baby operation. So we would do this, I would say between 40 to 50 times a year. Almost once a week.”

“We were lucky. In the weirdest, weirdest ways. We were lucky that of all the things that can go wrong with a baby – and unfortunately the list is long – that it was her heart,” said Hunt, adding she never truly understood what her grandfather did until now. “I wish I’d known. I wish I’d known how much heart it would take to do what he [did] every day.”

In an op-ed published by the Globe and Mail, Hunt said her grandfather was not a man easily forgotten.

“As kids we used to sit in awe as he told stories of his life, quoted Shakespeare or made a toast. He was not the kind of grandpa that let you climb on to his lap and pull faces with a lollipop in hand. I never thought of him as particularly compassionate or kind. Now, I realize that his choice to save the tiniest and most vulnerable patients required him to have a heart that is bigger than the moon.”

Doctors say Tate will grow up a healthy kid and should lead a long life.

“It is because of my grandfather’s vision that my daughter received world-class care,” Hunt wrote.

“I am proud that his hands guided those who held Tate’s heart. I wish he was still alive so I could say, ‘Thank you Grandpa, Tate is going to be all right."

Published August 25, 2015,
Global News, Edmonton