In his own words: Chris Clark, remembers his parents’ heartfelt legacy

The Clark Family

My parents were tremendous people, and I miss them every single day.

Robin and Heather had a historic love story; it spanned almost fifty years, three provinces, and travel to other far-off destinations. They met in Victoria, B.C., back in the 1950s. Friends described the couple, who were very much in love, as “stunning.”

My dad was a charmer and a sailor in active service in the Navy. My mom was full of laughter and a friend to everyone. Together they were very well-matched, with a love that endured, despite their many, many challenges.

Our family relocated to Ottawa just before the world-class Ottawa Heart Institute opened its doors in the spring of 1976. Little did we know what a huge part it would play in all of our lives, for decades to come.

Heart Troubles on a Summer’s Day

I remember that sweltering summer well. I was about fifteen years old and was helping my dad out around our trailer in the woods. His buddies had generously joined us to lend a hand because we needed lots of extra help to lift some cumbersome equipment.

In a flash, he experienced a stabbing and excruciating chest pain. I was so scared; here was my big, strong father doubled over in agony. His friends frantically rushed him to the Renfrew Hospital and, from there, he was transferred to the brand-new Ottawa Heart Institute.

He underwent life-saving coronary artery bypass surgery performed by the legendary Dr. Wilbert Keon. My mother and I were beside ourselves with worry and stress as we waited for any news. When Dr. Keon emerged in his scrubs and shared that my dad had survived, my mom burst into tears of relief and gave him the biggest hug of gratitude. The Heart Institute had given my parents more precious time together.

My Dad’s Return to the Institute

Robin had made positive lifestyle changes under the cheerful watch of my mother, like quitting smoking and eating healthier.

Yet, a decade later, in the mid-1980s, while stationed in Edmonton he experienced serious heart troubles again. He travelled to Ottawa for care at the National Defense Medical Centre. His doctor put his name on the transplant list at the Institute as everyone knew he would be well taken care of. Then, the waiting began. It was a stressful and challenging time.

In 1986, Robin Clark became the first Canadian military personnel to receive a full heart transplant. The University of Ottawa Heart Institute Transplant Program had been established just a couple of years before. Now, it averages 35 heart transplants a year, and approximately 700 patients have received transplants to date.

My dad was treated alongside other patients from all over the country. While he recuperated, he met other historic transplant recipients, like Noella LeClair, who was the first Canadian to receive an artificial heart transplant, the revolutionary Jarvik 7 artificial heart. In fact, it was the first program in Canada to use the artificial heart (Jarvik) as a bridge to transplant a biological heart. Today, the Jarvik is still used, alongside newer technologies.

Robin & Heather’s Love Story of Resilience and Life-saving Care

He eventually retired from the military after 38 years of dedicated service, and my parents made the most of the extra twenty years they were gifted together by travelling widely and enjoying repeat trips to England, their favourite place.

I miss my parents every day but take comfort in the fact that they were able to celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary. I will never forget that particular day, and party. There was so much joy as we celebrated these two wonderful people with the family. We held our glasses high and toasted to Robin and Heather, a moment made possible thanks to the gift of time.

The Next Generation

In 2003, heart disease again touched my family, this time but I was the patient. At a very young age, a rare virus had attacked my pancreas, leading to type 1 diabetes. It made me susceptible to developing heart disease.

At just 37 years old, I underwent coronary bypass surgery. Like my dad before me, I committed to a healthier lifestyle. But in despite my positive lifestyle changes, my mother and I again placed our trust in the Heart Institute as I underwent an angioplasty just seven years later.

Today, I live with heart disease. I am thankful for the loving support of my wife, Marianne. Sometimes, she will say something encouraging about my healthier diet, like a cheery comment, and I am reminded about how my mother always cheered on my father.

When asked about the Institute, I always say it is the greatest place in the world. It gave me thirty more years with my dad. When my friends need to go there, I tell them not to worry. They will receive the best cardiac care in the entire country.

This place of healing not only saved my life but also saved my father’s life. Today we get to live new chapters of our family story and make more memories. I cherish my time with my wife and daughter, all thanks to my working heart.

Remembering My Mother and Her Legacy

My mother’s deep appreciation for the Ottawa Heart Institute, which cared for her husband and son, inspired her to remember this life-saving charity in her Will. I was honoured to help with her bequest to the Heart Institute. Reflecting on my mother’s actions, I think she was a changemaker whose decision to support the Institute’s mission perfectly aligned with her values. She hoped her gift in Will would positively impact the lives of countless other families as it had her own.

Learn more about leaving a gift in your Will.

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