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Heart Month: Double heart surgery survivor 84-years-young

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UHN is celebrating Heart Month with courageous stories of the heart. Thanks to patients from The Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and Toronto Rehab's Cardiac Rehab program for sharing them with us.

Huw Pritchard.jpgHuw Pritchard was athletic in his youth – playing cricket, soccer and even dabbling in tennis. Few would have thought that years later, he would need triple bypass surgery – twice.

Today, Huw is 84-years-young. While he's given up cricket and soccer, the retired York University chemistry professor is active in every sense of the word. His days are spent with his wife Maggie at their Mississauga home, building clocks and computers and continuing to publish research in computational chemistry– a sub-discipline Huw helped found in the early 1950s.

It's hard to believe that 20 years ago this vibrant octogenarian was facing his second heart surgery– and doctors feared he might die.

Reflecting on his gratitude for Dr. R.J. Baird, the surgeon who saved him twice, Huw said, "There is nothing good enough to say."

Heart surgery needed
In 1977, at the age of 49, blockages in his heart meant that Huw needed heart surgery.

Given that coronary bypass surgery was still relatively new in 1977, when Huw came through the doors of Toronto Western Hospital, he had a lot of questions.

But with Dr. Baird, former head of cardiovascular surgery at both Toronto Western and Toronto General hospitals, as his surgeon, Huw was in the right hands.

Still in its infancy, there wasn't enough long-term data in 1977 to definitely predict how long the impact of a bypass would last. Huw was told his heart would be in good condition for at least two years.

Worrying
But a year later, a fellow bypass patient said his own bypass lasted only one year before needing another one.

"It wasn't very comforting," Huw said.

"In that era, the procedure was usually routine and dramatically effective," said Dr. Baird. "But it wasn't until the mid-80s we knew most only lasted between five and 10 years."

Huw's case was an exception. Over the next 15 years, despite needing two angioplasties, one in 1987 and another in 1990 – the bypass held up until 1992.

Huw Pritchard2.jpgAt the age of 64 and after suffering two cardiac arrests, Huw was flown by helicopter from Orangeville to Toronto General Hospital for an emergency triple bypass and a ventricular aneurysm repair. As fate would have it, returning to his side to perform the surgery was Dr Baird.

"I am tempted to say 'Better the devil you know...'," joked Huw. "But, seriously, I went into the theatre with my usual optimism. I knew that Dr Baird was a superb surgeon."

What he didn't know was that his family had been warned that it was very difficult surgery, and he might not make it.

"Scar tissue from the earlier procedures complicates things and they take a lot longer," said Dr. Baird.

After six hours, Dr. Baird emerged from the operating room and told Maggie that her husband would be okay.

"Surgeons do the cutting and God does the healing," said Dr. Baird. "But I was confident that the healing would go well."

"We were told the bypass could last 15 years, perhaps even 17 or 20, when I'd be 83," Huw recalled. "Well, I just turned 84."

Huw celebrated his 20-year bypass anniversary quietly, enjoying dinner with his children and grandchildren.

"And a nice bottle– or two— or of wine," Huw added, smiling.

Thirty-five years since his first bypass, Huw is still not sure what to say to Dr. Baird.

"If I met Dr. Baird, or the fabulous ICU nurse on duty the night of my helicopter ride, I would be lost for words," said Huw.


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