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‘A flicker at the end of a long, dark tunnel’

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“My heart transplant changed my life.” Watch Helen’s story now. (Video: UHN YouTube)
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On September 14, 2014, Dr. Heather Ross embarks on the Snowman Trek in the Kingdom of Bhutan, climbing the spine of the Himalayas. Dr. Ross is the Director of the Ted Rogers Centre of Excellence in Heart Function at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and Medical Director of the Cardiac Transplant Program at Toronto General Hospital. She climbs to raise money and awareness for heart failure and heart transplant patients through the Test Your Limits Campaign.

"I'm quite lucky to be challenged and inspired by my patients and the incredible things that they do every day," she says.

For Dr. Ross, testing one's limits can come in many forms.

"Test Your Limits doesn't have to be about climbing a mountain. What you do in any given day – things happen, things are thrown at you, challenges come up that test you in different ways. They test your patience, they test your mental capacity, they test your work or your ethic – they test some aspect of your life."

Helen's story is the first in a four-part series about how Dr. Ross' patients test their limits – every day.

Helen's Story

"My policy is: I got a new heart, I got a new lease at life – a second chance. So I've got to put my heart into everything I do."

This policy prompted 62-year-old Helen Farinha to enter and compete in the 2014 Transplant Games in Moncton, NB – just three years after receiving a heart transplant at Toronto General Hospital.

Farinha competed in five events and won medals in four – a feat she never would have been able to accomplish before her heart transplant​.

'I thought I had asthma'

One night in 2003, Farinha couldn't breathe.

"I couldn't find a comfortable position in which to breathe unless I got down on all fours," she recalls.

Farinha originally thought asthma was the culprit behind her shortness of breath, but when she called TeleHealth Ontario on that night in 2003 and reported her symptoms, they immediately called an ambulance.

Farinha had had a heart attack.

"Imagine my surprise – I didn't even know I had a heart problem at the time."

That night led to a series of hospital visits and follow-ups over the next few years.

"It was a duct-tape solution. I would go into heart failure, get into the hospital, be treated with diuretics and oxygen, then when I was stable I would go home -- until the next time. This kept going on over and over, the same thing."

Eventually, her trips became more and more frequent and Farinha was referred to Toronto General Hospital, where she was listed for a heart transplant in November 2010.

"It was a little flicker at the end of that long, dark tunnel."

Helen Farinha, a former PMCC patient
Helen Farinha, a former PMCC patient and heart transplant recipient at TGH, crosses the finish line at the 2014 Canadian Transplant Games in Moncton, N.B (Photo: Helen Farinha).

A new life

Four and a half months after being listed, Farinha received her transplant in April 2011.

"My life is so different now – I can do so many things that I couldn't do before," she explained. "I used to sleep four out of seven nights a week in a recliner in my living room because I didn't have the energy to the climb the stairs to go up to my room. I cut off all my hair because I didn't have t​​he energy to lift my arms to comb my hair."

"Now, my family tells me it's hard to keep up with me!"

Farinha spends her time talking to people about the power and need for organ donation. Through the Trillium Gift of Life Network and the Scarborough Gift of Life Association, Farinha gives talks and information to people about organ donation.

"The most rewarding part is when someone tells me I've convinced them to register and be an organ donor," she says.

Testing her limits

"Dr. Heather Ross climbs mountains, so I decided to go to the Transplant Games."

Every two years, the Canadian Transplant Association organizes the Ontario Transplant Games, where transplant recipients compete in sports events. Farinha decided to test her limits by signing up for the 2014 Games in Moncton, N.B.

"My goal was to get at least one medal," she said.

Farinha surpassed her goal – she received four medals. She arrived in Toronto with a gold medal in the women's five-kilometre cycling, a gold in the 100-metre race, a silver in the three-kilometre race-walk and a bronze in the shot-put event.​

"I surprised myself," she says. "All I can say is my donor and I did this together. I tell everyone -- my donor is a partner in everything that I do and accomplish."

Farinha plans to send her newly won medals to her donor family through the Trillium Gift of Life Network, which allows organ recipients to correspond with their donor families anonymously. She doesn't need the medals to remind her that she's a winner.

"I don't hide my scar. I've seen recipients who wear turtlenecks in the summer - I don't. This is my medal. This heart is my own personal medal," she explained.

"Every new day is a blessing and I've had over 1200 new days since my heart transplant. There are no words to adequately convey my gratitude​ and thanks to my donor."

To sign up to be an organ donor, click here: beadonor.ca

Want to know more about the Canadian Transplant Games? Click here: canadiantransplant.com

To learn more about Dr. Heather Ross’ 2014 trek to Bhutan, visit: inaheartbeat.ca


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