A Family’s Gratitude: Multiple Lives Saved by the UOHI
By Joel Haslam
It wasn’t exactly a lucky penny.
But in the end, that tiny piece of copper turned out to be pure gold—bringing two people together for a lifetime.
In the early 1970s, Colette Cloutier, a registered practical nurse at Cornwall General Hospital escorted her niece to radiology to get help with an emergency.
“She had swallowed a penny and needed an X-ray,” said Colette. On shift in radiology that evening, technician Gilles Viau.
“I happened to be working that night, and that’s how we met,” says Gilles.
They did the X-ray, Gilles oﬀering assurances to Colette that her niece would be fine.
“And I said to myself, ‘Oh my. He has a nice smile and is very easy to speak with’,” Colette recalls.
“I thought, maybe that’s the guy for me.”
A short time later, Colette and Gilles went on a date. “And that was the start of our romance,” says Colette.
“We kept it a secret while working at the hospital. We went out for three years and got married in 1974.”
“We ended up having two wonderful boys, Luc and Eric, and we’re still celebrating,” says Gilles.
“This year will be our fiftieth year of marriage.”
Colette Viau says she’s more in love with Gilles than the day they met. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” she says.
Well, perhaps one thing.
Namely, her family’s struggle with heart disease.
Gilles, Colette, their son Luc and Gilles’ sister Jeannine have all needed life-saving cardiac surgeries.
All say they owe their lives to doctors, nurses and healthcare teams at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
“They saved my life and the life of my loved ones,” says an emotional Colette. The Viau’s heartaches and heartbreaks began with Gilles in 2003.
The fit and active sports lover had been a life-long athlete.
“I’ve played just about every sport they’ve invented,” Gilles laughs. During a curling match, Gilles began feeling unwell.
“I don’t normally sweat but things were soaking wet when I finished playing the game. I drove myself to the hospital,” Gilles recalls.
“Once I got there, I realized that things were bad. When I was in emergency, I thought I was going to die.”
Gilles had suﬀered a heart attack.
“They told me they needed to send me to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute as soon as possible.”
Under the expert care of UOHI Interventional Cardiologist Dr. Michel Le May, Gilles received seven stents over a two-year period to open multiple blocked arteries in his heart.
Shaken and uncertain about his future after his procedures, Gilles, then 54, retired from his career in insurance and financial services.
“I wondered how this was going to aﬀect the rest of my life, or whether I was going to even have the rest of my life?”
“I phoned my boss and told him I was done.”
Fortunately, Gilles enjoyed many wonderful years of good health, but over time sensed his condition was again deteriorating.
In 2017, he had another heart attack at home.
“They sent me back to the Heart Institute and the next day I had another massive one, right in the Institute.”
“I was scared, thinking now I’m going to die. And the nurse, I wish I could remember her name, she came to me and said ‘listen, this is what we do here.’”
“It calmed me and I said where else can I get this kind of care?,” says Gilles, his voice breaking with emotion.
Gilles was rushed to the operating room the next day for quintuple bypass surgery.
“They always made me feel like things were going to work out. If I had to have heart surgery, I knew I was in the best place,” Gilles says.
Gilles lives with lasting symptoms. Physical exertion causes some shortness of breath.
But with medications, the 75-year-old continues to be an active curler, cyclist and golfer.
“I golfed 100 rounds last summer,” says Gilles with a smile.
The heart attacks, though traumatic for Gilles and his family, would prove to be a vital wake-up call for sons Luc and Eric.
While visiting their dad in hospital, a doctor advised the young men to get “checked out”.
“I remember the doctor saying you can’t beat your genetics, but you can always help your cause,” says Eric.
“It really opened our eyes. We have this condition in our family, and we need to take it seriously because one day we could be in their shoes.”
Tests revealed Eric was healthy, and with his dad’s encouragement, he continues a daily rigorous program of exercise and fitness.
Luc, who had been experiencing “dizzy spells” had diﬀerent test results.
An angiogram revealed the then 40-year-old had three severe blockages in the arteries of his heart.
He too, required open heart surgery—a triple bypass—at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
Doctors urge people to pay close attention to their families’ heart histories.
“The age of 40 is kind of young. The average person we see with a heart attack is a bit over the age of 60. And in some families, like the Viau’s, when they present very early like that, we know that this is an important risk factor,” says Dr. Le May.
“The major problem with this disease is deposition of cholesterol plaques in the coronary arteries which feed the heart, so over time they are at risk of developing heart attack, damage to the heart muscle and having symptoms of angina.”
“If we can prevent that through tests and screening, it’s great,” explains Dr. Le May. “I’m just so happy we were able to help the Viau family over the years.”
“They were able to catch my blockages before something bad happened. Some people aren’t that lucky,” says a gratitude-filled Luc Viau.
“We are very blessed to live in Ottawa and have a place like the Heart Institute.”
Colette remembers how frightened she was about her son’s diagnosis and surgery—all happening just six months after Gilles’ third heart attack and surgery.
“You think it can’t be possible. I didn’t know which way to turn. First Gilles, now Luc. You realize that life can change in a moment,” says Colette.
And on September 16, 2023, Colette experienced one of those life-changing moments herself.
She had a heart attack.
Colette was giving first Communion at a senior’s home in Cornwall when she started perspiring profusely.
“I didn’t have chest pain, I didn’t have any weakness, I didn’t pass out. Nothing.”
Colette was rushed by ambulance to Cornwall General Hospital where she was given “cluster-buster” medication before being transferred to the UOHI.
An angiogram revealed she had four blockages.
“I said it can’t be. I watch what I eat. I exercise. It didn’t make sense to me.”
“When Colette had a heart attack, no one could believe it,” says an emotional Gilles.
“Line up one hundred people and I’ll tell you, she was the healthiest one there. But she wasn’t. You can be leading a healthy life and it still gets its hands on you,” says Gilles.
Colette would have a successful quadruple bypass heart surgery.
University of Ottawa Heart Institute Cardiac Surgeon, Dr. Fraser Rubens would conduct the life-saving operation.
Dr. Rubens had also performed Luc’s surgery—giving two members of the same family, a mother and a son, back to each other.
“Sometimes in the middle of an operation I’ve just got to stop and I look at my resident or first assistant and say, you know, we really are blessed to be able to do this and be able to help people,” says Dr. Rubens.
“Bypass surgery is a superb example of an operation that’s stood the test of time. In the vast majority of people, it gives them the chance to live longer and improves their quality of life.”
“You give them a chance to go home without angina or shortness of breath and to start exercising. You give them a chance to be with their family. That’s quite a blessing,” says Dr. Rubens.
Colette attended UOHI’s cardiac rehab program in Cornwall twice a week for eight weeks and is celebrating a full recovery.
“I am almost back to where I was and I’m so grateful to the Heart Institute. I can resume my activities and enjoy life. I will not waste a day of this gift I’ve been given,” says Colette.
Gilles, who lost his brother, Marcel, to heart disease, is profoundly grateful for that gift, and will be forever thankful to the world class medical centre that gave the Viau family a future together.
“We are a perfect example of a family that everybody who looked at us said ‘you guys are healthy’,” says Gilles.
“People said not Viau, he couldn’t have had a heart attack. Well, Viau did have a heart attack, my wife Colette had a heart attack, my son Luc could have had a heart attack, my sister Jeannine, now 80, had two heart attacks and my brother Marcel died from a heart attack.”
“Know your family history. Make sure your family physician is aware, so that he or she can take proper steps to prevent some of the things we’ve had to go through,” says an emotional Viau.
“As I’ve said before, sometimes you don’t get a second chance.”