Nfld. & Labrador

As this Newfoundland artist waits for a transplant in Ottawa, his heart remains at home

Peter Lewis, known for his plein air impressions of Newfoundland landscapes, is patiently awaiting an organ transplant — 2,000 km from home.

Peter Lewis moved to Ottawa for a heart transplant. The uncertainty, he says, is the hardest part

Lewis receives therapy and treatment at the Heart Institute while he awaits the call offering a suitable donation. (Submitted by Tracey Shave)

Like so many other Newfoundlanders with a failing organ, Peter Lewis, facing declining health and handed few options, found himself in the air one winter night, on his way to the mainland in order to qualify for life-saving surgery.

Lewis, an impressionist and owner of downtown St. John's fixture Peter Lewis Gallery, hasn't stopped painting since he moved to Ottawa in January. But now, he paints in order to miss home a little less.

It's an unpredictable wait.- Peter Lewis

"I had to stay within range, so within a few hours at the hospital," Lewis said from his new neighbourhood, just kilometres from the Ottawa Heart Institute, where he receives treatment — and one day, he hopes, his surgery. 

"So there's no living in Newfoundland," he sighs.

Lewis left St. John's to qualify for a heart transplant. Diagnosed with cardiomyopathy nine years earlier, Lewis travelled globally for marathons up until 2017, when fluid retention and fatigue signaled advanced heart failure.

Lewis, a retired teacher, paints impressionist landscapes in open air. This particular scene, donated by Lewis and his wife, now hangs in the Ottawa Heart Institute. (Submitted by Tracey Shave)

Now, he's permanently attached to an intravenous drip, which delivers a medication that affords him a measure of movement and enough energy to sketch the fourth-storey view from the hospital, where he'll eventually have the procedure that allows him to fly back to the Avalon for good.

As he waits, Lewis passes the time with oils, canvas and charcoal: one outport landscape even hangs in the Heart Institute hallway, the same corridor transplant patients travel through as they're wheeled into the operating room. A reminder for all the Newfoundlanders, his wife says, of home.

A crop from Lewis' painting of the view from the hospital window. (Supplied by Tracey Shave)

Determined to use his months away wisely, Lewis hired an Italian tutor: the goal, his wife Tracey Shave laughs, is fluency by the time he's released. She calls it preparation for a post-surgery trip to Europe.

"I'm just trying to make things as normal as possible, trying to be as occupied as possible," Lewis says. "I've been able to exercise and get out and move around."

Lewis is trying to make the most of an unpredictable move. He often sketches from the hospital window. (Supplied by Tracey Shave)

Lewis is laying the groundwork for a different goal than the long-distance marathons he's used to running. In May, he'll walk 10 km for the Ottawa Marathon, raising money for the Heart Institute.

"We're very fortunate," said his wife, Tracey Shave, describing the high level of care offered to Lewis. The Heart Institute, not only medically celebrated, also holds an entire network of Newfoundlanders who've left home for placement on the transplant list, she says.

"There's a whole support group of people," she explains."It's great to see people that have gone through the process, that have come out on the other side," stronger and healthier than when they arrived.

That nexus of Newfoundlanders living away is a beacon for Lewis and Shave, who remain in Ottawa indefinitely. 

"It is hard psychologically," Shave says.

"The offer for a heart could come next week. Or it could be next year. So it's really hard to say," Lewis says. 

"It's an unpredictable wait."

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