Heather MacMurdo is sitting in her living room next to a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies and draws her long auburn hair behind her ear. She’s 13 – with sparkling blue eyes. Smiling wide, she’s chatting about how much she loves her teachers and her new school. Someday she hopes to be a writer. She’s an avid baker and loves crafts, but also likes hanging out at the mall with her friends. Her favourite drink: Starbucks’ Cotton Candy Frappuccino.
The MacMurdo household is bustling! Jen and Jason have four children: Scott, 14, the household sports authority, then Heather, followed by 10 year old Abby their tiny dancer and seven year old Jack, the family comedian. They are all redheads – including their pets: Buddy, a four-year-old Lab, Kevin the cat and Dory, an orange beta fish!
Jen is seated next to Heather, beaming. She’s proud of her daughter, absolutely, but she’s smiling because she’s grateful that Heather is here, in this moment, a bubbly teenager. This and all other moments big and small made possible by a lifetime of care at CHEO.
At just 10 days old, Heather had her first of six open heart surgeries to date including four valve repairs and two emergency surgeries back-to-back. She has challenged the CHEO cardiology team, especially her surgeon, Dr. Gyaandeo Maharajh. Heather knows her story – but doesn’t recall the pain, or just how sick she was that December when she was four. What she does remember is Dr. Maharajh always making her smile – and Tara, the nurse who was always so kind. She remembers Molly Penny, CHEO’s therapeutic clown and watching Disney movies with her mom in her room while recovering in isolation.
Jen, however, remembers it all – vividly. She recalls anxiously waiting for word of how Heather fared with each surgery, putting her faith in Dr. Maharajh and the heart and lung bypass machine that would keep Heather alive during those surgeries when her heart had to be stopped. “I can’t let my mind go there… late at night,” she says quietly. “He saved her life! How do you thank a man who has literally held your daughter’s heart in his hands?”
Memories also flood back of that fateful December 2009. Heather’s most threatening moment came in the form of a sinister strep infection that undid the cardiology team’s latest miracle. Septic shock caused Heather’s new valve to fail. Jen can still hear the team in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) telling her and Jason their daughter might not make it through the night. Jen was pregnant, taking up residence at her daughter’s bedside while Jason held down the fort at home with help from family. Their greatest gift that year was Heather going home on Christmas Day.
Despite everything she’s been through – Heather still goes to CHEO with a smile. There is a comprehensive annual visit complete with ultrasound, echocardiogram and EKG. “We never take that appointment for granted,” Jen says, exhaling. “Every time we get to walk out the door is a blessing. Heather has managed to avoid many of the challenges cardiac kids have due to medications and anaesthesia. We’re amazed at what she’s capable of!”
Recently, Heather was tasked with creating a timeline of her life – featuring 10 items. She struggled – noting the birth of her brother and the day Buddy joined the family. Her surgeries didn’t make the list. “I told her it might be worth mentioning,” laughs Jen. “But it’s not something that she feels defines her.”
Somewhere in the future, Heather’s timeline will be punctuated with another surgery. No one knows when. But, the one thing she and her family can totally agree on – is that at CHEO, her heart couldn’t be in better hands.