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The $217-million Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute, part of the University of Alberta Hospital, officially opened May 1, 2008. ((CBC) )

The first heart patients have been moved into the $217-million Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute, more than a year after the facility was officially opened by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The institute, at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, was built by the provincial government to bring together heart specialists and researchers in complex cardiac care, including heart transplants.

At the official opening last year, it was lauded as one of only a few heart institutes in North America to handle both adult and pediatric heart patients, servicing people across Western Canada and the far North.

But difficulties with construction delayed patients, staff and physicians from moving in to the new facility, Arvind Koshal, chief of cardiac surgery, said Thursday.

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Arvind Koshal, chief of cardiac surgery, tells reporters the facility is now admitting patients. ((CBC))

"For us in the institute, it's been a mixed emotion about the delays because the delays were primarily based on safety issues and we don't want to move in when there's a safety issue at hand," Koshal said.

The move into the building will be phased, he said.

Some outpatient clinics and procedures were already in place on Wednesday. Thursday night will be the first time in-patients will sleep in the new facility. Over the next few weeks, existing cardiac services will relocate from the University of Alberta Hospital, and the operating rooms should be up and running in two weeks, Koshal said.

"It's been 18 years for the institute to come to fruition to this date.... The delays were disturbing,... but I think it's important to understand there are safety issues that have to be dealt with," he said.

Safety concerns caused delays

The safety issues had to do with the air circulation system and issues around a new backup generator, Koshal said.

Air balancing in the operating rooms is what's keeping them from being opened right away, he said. "The air in the operating room is very crucial.... You want to make sure it's clean and circulated well and there's no threat of infection."

Thursday's opening was very low-key compared with last year's grand opening featuring many dignitaries, Koshal acknowledged, but he said in some ways it's a bigger event because it's for the patients.

"Finally, now the patients have their foot inside the heart institute, we as doctors have our foot inside the heart institute. I didn't sleep last night," he said. "This is a big occasion for us."

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Judy Korschow of Wetaskiwin, 70 kilometres south of Edmonton, has been moved into the new institute while she awaits a heart transplant. ((CBC))

Patient Judy Korschow of Wetaskiwin, 70 kilometres south of Edmonton, was thrilled to move in to the new heart institute on Thursday.

"I'm really excited about being in this new unit.... It's stunning," she said. Korschow has been in hospital since May, waiting for a heart transplant.

"Because this hospital does the most heart surgeries, transplants, across the country and has the highest rate of success,... this is the right place to be," she said.

"Then you've got a great team spirit that works on this unit and they work very well together, so the two combined, you know, it's a win-win I think," Korschow said.