After all this time, Patti Gilchrist still vividly recalls the race down Highway 401.
It was December 2001. Patti, then 41, and her kids, 12 and 8, were visiting her parents north of Cobourg for the holidays when word came that after nearly 20 years of battling a condition which had killed off the right side of her heart, a donor organ was available for transplant at Toronto General Hospital (TGH).
"The Ontario Provincial Police called my dad and he came up to my room and said: 'Toronto General's calling and they have a heart for you,'" Patti says. "They gave him permission to bomb down the 401 and drive me here."
Patti's eyes fill with tears as she recalls the emotional news.
"My daughter started crying, my son started crying," she says. "I tried to console them like it was going to be okay.
"At that point I didn't know what was going to happen to me or if I'd even see my kids or my parents again."
A hazardous history
Patti was first diagnosed with myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart – when she was 26 years old.
"It was a hard pill to swallow when I found out what was wrong with me," she says.
Though her own diagnosis was difficult to deal with, the list of health conditions afflicting her family over the years is extensive. Her mother had a quintuple bypass in 1991; her father had been sick as a child; two aunts died of heart and stroke, and two others succumbed to cancer.
Myocarditis led Patti down a long road of doctor's visits and procedures. She eventually started seeing Dr. Heather Ross, 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 TGH.
"Dr. Ross is amazing – she is one of those no-nonsense straight-up people," Patti says. "I loved her to pieces because she didn't mince words, she just told it as it was.
"It was very scary but it was important that I knew all those things so I could either prepare myself or live with it."
A new life
After living through idiopathic cardiomyopathy, which is also known as an enlarged heart, and two strokes, Patti received news that December day 13 years ago that a donor heart was available for her at TGH.
"I was on a gurney and my whole family was around me, against the wall. I kind of said goodbye to everybody, not knowing if I would be back or not," she says, wiping away tears. "I think of my family and just lose it."
The transplant was a success, and Patti slowly recovered. After years of being limited by her health, Patti had to re-learn to walk without assistance and use the stairs.
"I got a whole new lease on life," she says. "I'm able to do so many things now that I couldn't do before."
Patti is now an avid gardener and she's been helping her boyfriend renovate his house. "I probably couldn't even lift a hammer before," she says.
The many helping hands
Patti's children supported her throughout her illness and recovery. Often, she says, her daughter, Dallas, would cook and clean to lend a helping hand.
"She was just this little mother-figure and it was amazing," Patti smiles.
Thanks to her heart transplant, Patti has been able to witness her children growing up into successful adults. Her son is now a graphic designer and her daughter is a nurse – a career choice that may have been inspired by her mother's experience with health care.
"The care, you know, I can't say one bad thing," Patti says. "The nurses were incredible, doctors — absolutely amazing. Always with a smile. Always like you're the only person they're looking after."
Patti's story – which started long before her race down the 401 – will never have an ending, she says, as she will never meet the donor's family. But she will always be grateful.
"Thank you isn't enough for all the care you get, from the doctors and the nurses and your donor," she says.
"Thank you doesn't cut it -- but I think they know."