A Grateful Heart: A strep infection leads to life-saving heart surgery.

By Joel Haslam 

Cheryl Burford dispenses colourful markers and crumpled pieces of paper to more than a dozen wide-eyed, budding young artists in her Ottawa classroom.

Today they’re fashioning snowflakes; each as unique as the creators.

Cheryl marvels at their imaginations and fervour for life. The early childhood educator says the students teach her something new every day.

“I love watching them learn and grow,” says Cheryl.

“And I’ve learned so much from them.”

But Cheryl’s learning isn’t limited to the classroom.

“When somebody asks me what I’ve gone through and I list everything, it’s like, wow,” she exclaims.

For Cheryl, life’s lessons have been the most profound. She’s found gifts in the heartaches.

“You do not take life for granted anymore. I feel like I’ve come out the other side.”

And Cheryl feels gratitude for the special place that eased her pain.

“The Ottawa Heart Institute is incredible. My experience is nothing but a miracle,” says Cheryl, her voice breaking with emotion.

Cheryl’s struggles began in the Spring of 2022. Fit and active, she had always loved to walk.

One day, though, it became a chore.

“I had to stop and catch my breath and I was out of breath a lot. It was a bit of a shock.”

Doing the simplest things began feeling impossible.

“I would normally be able to walk to the store, or walk around the grocery store, but everything seemed to take so much energy,” Cheryl says.

It took energy Cheryl didn’t have.

And when she started having heart palpitations during the day and night, Cheryl reached out to her doctor, who referred her to a cardiologist.

“And the ball started rolling, figuring out what was wrong.”

As Cheryl’s shortness of breath worsened, she was admitted to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

Tests revealed she did have atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heartbeat. Over time, however, the main reason for her ongoing and extraordinary health challenges would become clear.

“In September 2022, I heard back from the Heart Institute with an actual diagnosis of rheumatic heart disease which is caused by untreated strep throat.”

“You know the tricky thing with rheumatic fever is you get this illness as a child and then decades later it shreds up your mitral valve,” says UOHI Cardiac Surgeon, Dr. Vincent Chan.

“We have a lot of patients who come through a very narrowed-down, scarred mitral valve, and usually our colleagues in interventional cardiology can fix this with balloons. They balloon it open to make it bigger again,” says Dr. Chan.

“But a lot of time the valve is so scarred down that the only way to get patients through and feeling better is to remove it and sew something new in.”

“It just felt really odd that something so random could cause such damage to a part of your heart,” says Cheryl.

In February, Cheryl was admitted to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute for open heart surgery. Dr. Chan would replace her damaged valve with a mechanical valve.

“Dr. Chan is world renowned, and I had no doubt the nurses, the anesthesiologists, and everyone in that room had my back. And that really, really helped,” Cheryl says.

Cheryl had a successful surgery, and a week later, was given a pacemaker implant. She will always be thankful for the kindness and care.

“I can’t say enough about the nurses,” says Cheryl, tears filling her eyes.

“That’s one thing I do remember.”

Cheryl’s nurses extended compassion, not just to her, but to the loved ones at her side.

“I remember the nurses the most, being kind to my parents. And they were always very, very helpful.”

Shortly after being discharged, Cheryl began feeling unwell. She had trouble breathing, walking, eating, and keeping food down.

“So, the issue was I had fluid buildup around my heart. They said it’s a normal complication that can happen after heart surgery,” she says.

“They described it as a boa constrictor tightening up around your heart and literally feeling like life is being sucked right out of you, and that’s how I felt.”

For five days, a tube helped to drain the fluid from Cheryl’s chest.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster. I was scared because it was unexpected.”

Eventually, Cheryl regained her strength and was able to attend the Cardiac Rehabilitation program at the UOHI.

“When they told me about rehab in the ICU, I said I don’t need it. But a nurse approached me and said it’s really important. The motivation and confidence I got from it, from the nurse and the physio, it was, bar none, the best thing I could have ever done.”

“I just so appreciate the follow-through from the Heart Institute. They don’t let anything slide,” says Cheryl with a smile.

Today, Cheryl is back in the classroom, happy to be reunited with her students.

“They might not know the whole story, but they know I’m back to the way they saw me before I left.”

She’s back to feeling like Cheryl Burford again.

“I have recovered in a way that I feel I can do those things that I used to do.”

And she does them with a healed and grateful heart.

“Gratefulness is one of my words that I use all the time to describe my time at the Heart Institute,” says a teary Cheryl.

“I’m very grateful for them.”

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