(L to R) Dr. Mike McDonald and Dr. Robert Cusimano congratulate Mary Markidis on 30 years post-heart transplant at the 35th anniversary celebration of the HeartLinks support network, which was held last week at the Palais Royale. (Photo: UHN)

For 35 years, "HeartLinks" has been a beacon of support and hope for heart transplant patients at UHN's Peter Munk Cardiac Centre.

The patient support network started in 1988, two decades after Canada's first successful heart transplant. Today, UHN performs about 40 heart transplants per year.

"When you hear the words 'heart transplant,' it can be absolutely terrifying," says Nathalie Lacoste-Hofmann, who received a new heart in 2021. "It's helpful to talk to someone who's been through it. That's where 'HeartLinks' comes in."

"HeartLinks" is a support network that gives patients an opportunity to speak candidly with one another, share their lived experiences, discuss fears, and celebrate milestones.

The network celebrated its 35th anniversary on May 11 with more than 350 patients, caregivers, family members, and heart transplant staff gathering at the Palais Royale in Toronto. It was the community's first in-person event since the pandemic.

"This event was so special," says Natalie Moubayed, heart transplant recipient of 15 years and an event organizer. "Having everyone together in one room and seeing the number of lives that organ donation has impacted, meeting recipients and their families – we got to reconnect as a community."

Dr. Heather Ross, Head, Division of Cardiology, Dr. Michael McDonald, Medical Director, Heart Transplant Program, and Dr. Robert Cusimano, cardiac surgeon, presented pins to heart transplant recipients to commemorate milestones of one to 30 years post-transplant.

"The pin ceremony is a celebration of life," says Michelle Rambarran, double-heart transplant recipient and an event organizer. "It gives us all hope to see other recipients living long, healthy lives with their loved ones."

This year, LVAD (left ventricular assisted device) patients also received milestone pins presented by Marnie Roger and Helen Zhang, nurse practitioners (NPs) in the Mechanical Circulatory Support Program.

UHN nurse practitioner Stella Kozuszko, (L), longtime transplant coordinator, and Natalie Moubayed, a heart transplant recipient of 15 years, at the 'HeartLinks' celebration. (Photo: UHN)

Natalie, along with fellow event organizer and longtime "HeartLinks" member, Eddie Sabat, also paid tribute to Stella Kozuszko NP, Medly Program, and former heart transplant coordinator of 21 years.

"Stella was our transplant mom," says Eddie. "You knew she cared. You heard it in her voice and felt it.

"Doctors, fellows had to tell you the facts. Stella, helped us to understand them. She made each one of us feel as if our health and our success was her number one priority.

"To us, she was the heart and soul of the transplant program."

When she was invited on stage by Eddie and Nathalie, Stella received a standing ovation.

"I was overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation," says Stella. "To see all of the recipients, their families, caregivers, and friends in one room was incredible.

"I feel deeply honoured."

The event raised $5,000 for UHN Foundation. All proceeds will support heart transplant research.

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