Imagine your phone rings and you hear that your child has collapsed and you need to come to the school right away. Panic hits you immediately because a simple fall wouldn’t be an emergency for your healthy child, that just doesn’t make sense. That is what happened to our family in October 2021 when our 15-year-old son Zach had a heart attack.

Zach is an energetic, fun-loving, active teenager. He has always been an athlete. When he decided to trade hockey for basketball we looked at his lanky six-foot frame and thought that would be a great fit. He was trying out for his high school team when he collapsed.

You hear the word “collapse” and, like us, you picture a dizzy spell or a turned ankle, not a heart attack. You certainly don’t imagine a strong young man unconscious on the ground with paramedics reporting, “he has no vitals.Seeing your son lying motionless on the floor is a sight you would never forget. As time stopped for our family, we are so thankful for the quick thinking of Zach’s coach and the school defibrillator he was trained to use. Because of this safety measure and CPR delivered within minutes of Zach’s heart stopping, paramedics were able to keep our son alive while they rushed him to CHEO.

We’re an Ottawa family, we know CHEO but we had never been at the hospital for a serious injury until that day. We kept thinking, this can’t be happening. Zach’s fragile heartbeat was maintained in the ambulance, but he was not regaining consciousness. We didn’t know what to do and the feeling of powerlessness was terrifying, but from the minute Zach was rushed into CHEO’s Emergency Department there was no doubt that the team at CHEO knew exactly what to do.

What astounded us was the number of staff involved. There were at least twenty people around Zach, and more equipment than you can imagine, equipment that you helped purchased with your past support. To us it seemed like a whirlwind raging around our motionless son, but to the medical team it was the hands-on full team approach that was going to keep Zach alive. We realize now, you were also a part of this team.

What looked like chaos to us was the process to stabilize Zach while testing began to find the reason why his heart suddenly stopped and why he was still unconscious. There was blood work, x-rays, CT scans, and an MRI – test after test after test using resources that donors like you have purchased over the years.

Tests eventually showed that Zach’s coronary artery hadn’t properly formed in the womb. This hadn’t been detected until his growing body meant the artery was being pinched, cutting off the flow of blood. That was what led to Zach literally dying on that day.

As test results began answering more of our questions we got the news that Dr. Maharajh, Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery, would be performing open heart surgery to correct the problem, right here at CHEO, just as soon as Zach woke up. And that was what we waited for every minute of the three days that our son was unresponsive.

If Zach regained consciousness, no one could tell us what to expect. Neurologists were monitoring Zach’s brain function but all we could do was try to stay calm and not think too far ahead. At this point, our world had stopped.

We were at CHEO holding Zach’s hand as the drugs and machines and specialists managed and monitored every breath and beat of his heart.

Parents spend a lot of time watching their kids sleep, but when Zach woke up it was an experience we will never forget. He was groggy to say the least, couldn’t speak and was still hooked up to what seemed like a hundred machines, but he started to come back to us. By early November he was beginning to understand what had happened to him.

He was losing weight and muscle and needed physiotherapy and nutritionists to focus on improving his physical strength. There were speech language pathologists, neurologists, social workers and others who continued to focus on Zach’s overall health. The equipment surrounding Zach’s bed was being reduced, but the team of healthcare specialists that you support through your generosity was as strong as ever. We are truly grateful for that.

For a kid who was used to being active, it was a frustrating time. Zach channeled his energy, asking us and his medical team, “what will get me to the next point?” Surgery was the next hurdle and Dr. Maharajh prepared us for a six-hour procedure where Zach’s heart would be stopped and he would be put on a heart-lung bypass machine.

You may have heard of this piece of equipment, it allows the youngest cardiac surgery patients to be treated in Ottawa, close to home. If you’ve made a donation to CHEO in the past you are part of the reason we had this option. The surgery went more smoothly than expected. Zach was back in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and on his way to the next point, home.

After 37 days Zach left CHEO under his own power. It is impossible for us to say thank you to every person who touched Zach’s life and continues to shepherd him through his recovery. But we can thank you. So much of what urgent cardiac patients have access to comes from donor dollars.

When you make a donation to CHEO you may not know who it will help. Well, here we are. We hope you will consider donating today and help CHEO update aging equipment. Canadian Pacific has come on board and will match all donations up to a total of $350,000. Our gratitude for what you’ve helped put in place to save our son is hard to express, please accept this as our attempt. We mean it from the bottom of our hearts.

Steph and Marcel

P.S. Your donation can help save another child like Zach. Please give today and Canadian Pacific will match your one-time or monthly donation up to a total of $350,000!

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