The Sunday Magazine

'It warms your heart': Newfoundlanders awaiting transplants band together at Ottawa Heart Institute

They were strangers back home, but in Ottawa, Newfoundlanders are finding comfort and support in one another. David Gutnick's documentary is called Newfoundland is Everywhere.
Peter Lewis, left, Mary Sherren, Amanda Saunders and Charles Warren in front of a painting Lewis created of Gaultois, N.L. It hangs in a hallway just outside the surgery ward at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, where the group has found support in one another as they wait for heart transplants. (David Gutnick/CBC)

You'll find the Ottawa Heart Institute far from the ocean waves and rolling fog of Newfoundland.

But even at the facility, Newfoundland is not far from Amanda Saunders. She's a 22-year-old university student from Grand Falls-Windsor, and she recently received a heart transplant.

One evening around the holidays, a doctor from Newfoundland who works at the Heart Institute paid Saunders a visit.

"He's like, 'I'm going home to St. John's for New Year's.… Do you want any Newfoundland treats?' And I swear, I started to cry and everything, I was so excited," Saunders said.

Amanda Saunders, 22, recently received a heart transplant. (Submitted by Amanda Saunders)

"But I said to him, you know what, just to know that you're going home to Newfoundland and [I'm] able to tell him what Newfoundland looks like, is more than a treat for me."

Finding treatment far from home

Heart transplants aren't available in Newfoundland.

At any given time, a steady stream of patients and family members from the province arrives at the Ottawa Heart Institute. They live in the hospital residence or in apartments nearby, waiting for news that their time has finally come. The wait can be months — or even years.

And in the face of their related health emergencies, they find each other — as Newfoundlanders do.

"It's like the Newfoundland Mafia," jokes Tracey Shave, whose husband, Peter Lewis, has been on the waiting list for a new heart since December.

The couple has watched Saunders go through the same hurdles and is learning from her experience.

They've banded together with other Newfoundlanders who are also waiting for hearts, like Mary Sherren from Mount Pearl, and Charles Warren from Chapel Arm.

Sherren has been waiting for a transplant for more than two years. Charles has been waiting since last May.

'You got to help people out'

Thrust into this new, stressful world, they are trying to help each other through an experience that only others similarly afflicted can understand.

"You got to help people out any way, shape or form," Warren said. "When we came here, people took us around, showed us how to get around."

Since Lewis discovered he needed a transplant, he's reconnected with people he hasn't seen in years.

It warms your heart to realize that you have so many people in your corner.- Peter Lewis

People come up to him to wish him well, he said, while others have sponsored him for an Ottawa run he hopes to complete — by walking.

"It's kind of ironic," Lewis said. "You have a bad heart, but it warms your heart to realize that you have so many people in your corner — people that you would never, ever [have] expected."

Click 'listen' above to hear David Gutnick's documentary, Newfoundland is Everywhere.

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