This is part of a series that looks at extraordinary experiences in personal health.
A month ago, I stared through a fish tank in Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton for 4 1/2 hours while my baby girl, Tate, had open-heart surgery. She was only four months old and her tiny, soft little chest was flayed open to repair her peach-pit-sized heart. I sat with my heart breaking into pieces while hers was put back together again.
Tate Meredith Hunt was born on Nov. 24, 2014 and diagnosed with a heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot. It's a congenital heart defect that affects about one in every 3,600 children and is the usual culprit for what's known as "blue babies." With Tate, it means the top half of her heart and the bottom half of her heart don't quite fit together.
But on the day I went into labour with my first child, I didn't know any of this. Her birth would, surprisingly, take me a on journey through my family history.
My maternal grandfather was a world-class cardiac surgeon. Dr. John Carter Callaghan invented the pacemaker, completed the first successful open-heart surgery in Canada and pioneered the use of cold therapy during surgeries. He also, of all things, performed the first successful repair of a Tetralogy heart in Canada.
Now, 59 years after "JC" repaired Suzanne Beattie's heart, his great-granddaughter lay on the operating table getting the same surgery that he perfected.
Things have changed in medicine since his landmark Tet repair. Surgeons no longer wait until children are showing symptoms, chest scars are now reduced to a thin white line, and the repair Tate was receiving could save one of her heart valves. That's something my grandfather would have only dreamed of.
Dr. Callaghan was not a man you forget easily. 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.
Even though I was raised with tales of heart surgeries, no story could have prepared me for this. When the nurse whisked my baby into the O.R., I was numb. After hours of waiting, the surgeon, Dr. Al Aklabi, emerged and walked slowly down the long hallway toward me. I saw the surgeon's stoic face and bolted; I mumbled something unintelligible and ran to get our stuff. I was sure that his demeanour meant the worst possible news. When I eventually returned, we were escorted into a private family area but I couldn't see through the tears. We sat down and, finally, he smiled. I sobbed and hiccuped from relief.
It is because of my grandfather's vision that my daughter received world-class care. 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."
I look forward to watching Tate's heart guide her anywhere she pleases.