Riding toward a future, thanks to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. 

By Joel Haslam 

On a pale, grey morning in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood, Cody McKay climbs the steps of The Movement Co. Here, the day will get brighter as Cody gets lost during an indoor bike ride.  

His bike is actually stationary, attached to a trainer. But in a matter of minutes, Cody is blissfully spinning his wheels on route to a favourite destination inside his head.


“For me, it’s just the meditative state that comes from being on the bike,” Cody says.


“That motion of turning your legs over every minute and feeling every part of your body work in unison together. I love that.”


Cody bought his first road bike nine years ago.


“Didn’t even know how to use my shifters on the ride home from the shop,” he laughs.


He was a quick study, though. And today, as an avid cycling competitor, Cody has since clocked thousands of kilometres. 


Today on the trainer at The Movement Co., Cody’s following a virtual course, sprinting and climbing hills.  


Sweat drips from his brow. His breath is heavy. A wide smile reflects his joy.


It’s hard to believe this is the same young man who feared serious injury or death from lifting a simple bag of groceries back in 2021. But it is.


“Your mind just goes to the worst place. You naturally assume that every worst-case scenario that you ever learned about is going to be your own fate.”


Cody still remembers his feeling of breathlessness two years ago. Thinking it was possibly allergies or a potential viral infection, doctors advised him to get a chest X-ray. 


“What it did find is that my heart cast a bit of a funny shadow on the X-ray,” recalls Cody.


That discovery prompted an echocardiogram and CT scan at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. The results would rock Cody’s world.


“After my CT scan, it confirmed that I had an ascending aortic aneurysm, which obviously completely changed the course of my life,” he says.


“An aortic aneurysm is a ballooning or enlarging of the aorta, and as the aorta enlarges, the wall of the aorta becomes thinner and it’s more prone to tears, or to potentially rupturing,” says Dr. Munir Boodhwani, a cardiac surgeon at the UOHI.


 “And if those things happen, they can be life-threatening or fatal for a lot of people.”


At first, Cody clung to optimism about his situation, believing his aneurysm may be less serious than everything he was reading about the condition online.


“Just thinking that ok, I have this aneurysm, but mine can’t be as bad as what these other people have. So, I’ll just work through it and it will resolve itself.”


Soon, however, the gravity of Cody’s diagnosis sunk in.


“So, then I went from thinking I’m going to make no life changes whatsoever to if I sneeze the wrong way, this thing might rupture, and I might die right on the spot.” Cody says grimly.


“I went from having no concerns, to an abundance of concerns.”


The emotional burden of his uncertain health weighed heavily on Cody. 

He felt vulnerable and at risk doing everyday things.


“And so again, taking groceries out of the car. Probably didn’t need to be worried about lifting a bag of oranges but naturally your mind goes to that worst place. I don’t know, maybe these oranges are going to be too heavy, and everything is going to lose control. I really struggled with dealing with that situation,” says Cody.


“So, over the course of 2021, I went from riding my bike in a frustrated state, to not riding my bike at all and being afraid to do any physical activity or lifting anything heavy. And I kind of just came into myself, sheltering myself from everything and anything.”


Surgery was not an immediate concern, but dealing with Cody’s mental health challenge was.


Recognizing that Cody was struggling, his University of Ottawa Heart Institute cardiologist offered critical support.


“Really, it was the Heart Institute that helped me. She actually opted to put me through cardiac rehab, pre-surgery, because she wanted me to learn about how to reconnect those different parts of my life— that athletic part of my life that loves being on the bike and the part that knows day-to-day, that relatively, things will be ok.”


Cardiac pre-hab allayed Cody’s fears. His University of Ottawa Heart Institute team instilled hope.


“They said how can we make sure that the treatment plan we develop will not only help him live a safe life, but a full life,” says Cody.


The program even got him riding again.


“And ultimately, by the time Spring 2022 happened, I was back on the bike full-time.”


Cody went on adventure rides with friends in the cycling community.


“So, I had more or less my freedom back,” he says.


Cody could see promise ahead. But he faced one more hurdle to get there.


“Ultimately, the decision was made to move forward with the surgery because of the high likelihood that I would be able to return to sport and competition on the other side,” Cody recalls.


Cody was in top shape for his operation.


“My last ride was the day before my surgery,” he smiles.


Dr. Boodhwani successfully removed Cody’s aneurysm and replaced it with a synthetic graft.


“I was really blown away,” said Cody. 


And best of all, he was on the road to recovery.


“Every day got a little bit better. Certainly, being told to get out of bed on day one or day two and being told you need to walk to the end of the hall, you need to go a little further and every single time. I was thinking, absolutely not. That is not going to happen. I’m not going to walk to the end of the hall. And then I did,” he smiles.


“And then the next thing you know, I’m being told it’s time to go home. It was a whirlwind experience, that’s for sure.”


“Cody, to me, is an example of someone who has not only done really well after heart surgery but surpassed what he was doing before,” says Dr. Boodhwani.


He really is a poster child for what someone can look like after this. He’s come back to some of our support groups and talked to patients. He’s really an inspiration to a lot of people.


Cody has started an initiative called Project Heart. He is committed to sharing his story on social media and beyond, helping athletes and others who are struggling, as he did, with their identities and heart diagnoses—encouraging them to learn more about their heart health and histories.


“What I never realized was going to happen is just how many individuals were going to reach out along the way,” says Cody.


“I’ve had maybe fifty or sixty unique conversations with different heart patients around the world. And being able to share my own candid experience of my own journey is helping them with their own journeys, looking for that point of hope.”


Sales from Cody’s bright red Project Heart fundraiser Jerseys will go to support the life-saving work of the UOHI.


Back at The Movement Co., Cody shifts gears and stands up on his bike, pedaling furiously for a final sprint.  


The once fragile and weary patient is invisible now. The scar on his sternum is not the mark of a victim, but a warrior; a robust and determined athlete. His eyes are fixed on the future; a 

destination that once seemed elusive. 


Thanks to the UOHI, he’ll get there.


“The fact that I just happen to have the Heart Institute as my partner for this journey is one, I’m incredibly thankful for.”


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