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Marina operator Maria Willing pays careful attention to her heart health with the help of congenital heart disease specialists
There is little doubt that Maria Willing has lived up to her name throughout her life.
Born with "blue baby syndrome" in June 1961, Maria was given six months to live.
The syndrome is also known as the transposition of the great arteries – a form of cyanotic heart disease where the pulmonary and systemic circulation run parallel instead of in a series, resulting in a low blood-oxygen level. She had two holes made into her heart at only three weeks of age to allow mixing of the blue (non-oxygenated) and pink (oxygenated) blood.
Blue babies had a less than 20 per cent survival rate back then, but Maria defied all odds, growing stronger each day. On May 16, 1963, Maria made medical history and became the poster girl for the groundbreaking surgical procedure performed by Dr. William Mustard at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. A heroic repair to the transposition of the great arteries that allows oxygenation of the blood in the lungs, it became known worldwide as the Mustard Procedure.
By 1987, the procedure had saved more than 500 babies at the Hospital for Sick Children and thousands worldwide. Survival to adulthood increased to 80 per cent for these "Mustard babies.
The hospital lost touch with Maria over the years – her family lived in Whitby, Ont., then Renfrew, Ont. It wasn’t until she was 30 years old, facing another complication, that she was drawn back to Toronto.
She had developed atrial fibrillation and was experiencing irregular heart rhythms. She knew something was terribly wrong.
Maria vividly recalls sitting in her Renfrew kitchen: "I just sat there thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’"
Not one to give up, but feeling she had nowhere to turn, she called the Hospital for Sick Children. "I told them I had had the Mustard Procedure. They immediately said, ‘Can you get here tomorrow?’" Maria drove to Toronto, only to realize they were referring to the nearest children’s hospital – the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.