Elva and Bill Holland: Local Couple Honoured for their Years of Service to Heart Institute Patients and their Families

I sit across from Bill and Elva Holland, their home filled with naval memorabilia from Bill’s career as a sailor. I’ve been here before. Bill and Elva have been friends to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute for years, since Bill’s first heart surgery in 2000. For more than 20 years they’ve been dedicated to supporting other patients and the “important work” of the Heart Institute. I’ve had many chats with the two of them and I’ve heard their stories before, but this time is different, it’s their love story, the story of how their friendship began. They speak over each other as they share their memories, not really interrupting the other but rather finishing each other’s sentences, naturally filling in the gaps, the spaces, as though dancing.

It was July 1976 and Bill was posted to the HMCS Skeena, assigned to provide security for the Summer Olympics in Montreal. “The Navy had five ships on harbour duty. Divers went down every day and searched the hulls for bombs, while 100 sailors patrolled the Olympic events. I was an engineer, an officer of blue watch”, remembers Bill. “We’d get shore leave and I would stay on ship and tend bar in the Mess so I could make money to play golf”. Bill is a passionate golfer.
Elva was in Montreal working for Bell Canada at the time. “My girlfriend called asking if I wanted to go down to the ships. I wasn’t sure at first, but I then I thought, ‘why not? and told her I’d pick her up. So off we went. We got ourselves on the Skeena where Bill was bartending that night”.

“I took one look at Elva and said, that’s my girl. She was all done up sitting under a little cove in the Mess, the lights shining down on her… …she looked real good, she caught my eye”, says Bill with a smile.

“He came up to me and asked, ‘would you like a drink? we only serve doubles’. I said, well sure, I’ll try one”, recalls Elva as Bill looks at her and chuckles. And that was the first time Bill’s heart really fluttered.

A week later Bill called inviting Elva on a date. “I thought, I don’t think so” but lucky for Bill, Elva changed her mind. “We went golfing and then for dinner. She could really hit a ball”, Bill adds. Bill called again the next day, and so began Bill and Elva’s love story. They married two months later and Bill was posted to Ottawa.

It would be another 24 years before someone else would touch Bill’s heart.

By spring of 2000, they were settling into retirement. Bill shares what happened next; “I was working on the roof and as I came down the ladder Elva asked me what I’d done to my feet. When I looked down, both my feet were swollen – twice their normal size. I figured it was no big deal, probably just from climbing up and down so much. But Elva wasn’t having it and sent me to see the doctor right away – and it’s a good thing too! My doctor sent me straight to the Heart Institute.” At the Heart Institute Bill was diagnosed with mitral valve stenosis and atrial fibrillation. Bill’s valves were damaged, possibly a result of scarlet fever when he was a child.

“If you’d asked me what I knew about the Heart institute before that day, my answer would’ve been ‘nothing!” But twenty years and two life-saving surgeries later…” Bill’s gaze drifts off. Elva picks up his thought, nodding her head “It’s a good thing we live in Ottawa and have the Heart Institute.”

In 2001, Heart Institute founder, Dr. Wilbert Keon, had recruited Dr. Thierry Mesana (now President & CEO of the Heart Institute,) one of the world’s leading heart valve surgeons. Up until then, Bill’s heart condition had been treated with medication. But the time had come, his degenerative valve needed replacing. Bill may have been the patient, but the consequences of his condition also affected his wife, his best friend, “his girl” – it was a family matter.

“That was the first time that Dr. Mesana and the Heart Institute saved my life” recalls Bill. For Elva, it was the support she also received. “After surgery Dr. Mesana came and told me that Bill was doing good, that he was OK, and that made such a difference. I was so worried”, Elva pauses. “I need him healthy you know, I have a list of things he needs to get done around here”, Elva says with a laugh. While grateful for the outcome, everyone understood that the valve repair was temporary. A second surgery was in Bill’s future. “They told us the repair would only last so long. They kept an eye on me and sure enough, after 7 good years, it was time to replace the valve. And once again, the University of Ottawa Heart Institute saved my life”.

As a patient, participant in the Rehab Program, and involvement with the Ottawa Heart Support Group, Bill and Elva developed a personal relationship with the Heart Institute. “We were always at the Heart Institute, learning about the new procedures the researchers and the docs where working on. Seeing how patients and their families were treated by everyone, the nurses, the administrative staff, everyone! They’re always taking care of us.” And so, in 2013, Bill and Elva decided to take care of the Heart Institute, to give back in the most kind and personal way possible, by including a gift to the Heart Institute in their will.

When I ask what inspired their legacy gift, Bill shares; “Our parents lived through the Depression – they had to save, put something away for the next day. That’s what they taught us – make sure there’s something for tomorrow. Patients need the Heart Institute to keep saving lives tomorrow. Saving someone’s friend, daughter, son, someone’s husband…someone’s girl.”
Today Elva is still making Bill’s heart flutter, but he now relies on the help of a defibrillator to help him stay in rhythm.

Bill Holland, kind donor, dedicate volunteer and faithful friend to the Heart Institute passed away peacefully on the 2nd of November 2021, with his girl by his side.

For more information about the Ottawa Heart Support Group, please visit http://www.ottawaheartsupportgroup.com