It takes heart

Community joins the University Hospital Foundation’s fight against heart disease.


Albertans William and Mary Rachwalski met 69 years ago and quickly fell in love through their passion for dancing. “No one could dance like us,” says William. “We had our own unique steps, whether it was the foxtrot, polka or old-time waltz.”

“Other dancers would stop and watch, to try and figure out what we were doing,” laughed Mary. They were the perfect pair.

The couple married two years later and began a beautiful life together. Over the years they had two children, James and Donna, and built a family business, Rachwalski Excavating Ltd., growing it into a reputable and successful operation for directional drilling and fiber optic cable plowing throughout western Canada.

But 2017 was a year of unexpected circumstances. Following a routine appointment, William’s doctor told him that his heart was on the brink of giving out. “I was planning on going back to work after the appointment,” says William. “My doctor said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’” A lifetime of hard work and multiple surgeries was taking its toll. He needed triple bypass surgery and, at 83 years old, there was no guarantee he would make it through surgery.

Thanks to cardiac surgeon Dr. Michael Moon and healthcare teams at the University of Alberta Hospital’s Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute (Maz), William received the care he needed to ensure it was not his last dance.

To show their gratitude for the care they received at the Maz, William and Mary made a generous gift to the University Hospital Foundation (UHF) for the purchase of a replacement echo machine with probes — a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that helped save William’s life. “Thanks to the generosity of William and Mary, surgical teams at the Maz have access to the most advanced ultrasound equipment available, giving them the clearest images possible to work with,” says Dr. Moon.

A critical machine for cardiovascular imaging before, during and after open heart surgery, the echo machine is used in over 1,600 open-heart surgeries each year. With this advanced imaging, operative teams can see a patient’s heart structure and they can assist in the assessment of the heart’s function, while post-operative teams can evaluate the effectiveness of the surgical repair.

Community support helps keep the Maz at the forefront of cardiac excellence as a world-leading heart institute. One of every four dollars it took to open the Maz came from donors to the UHF, supporting the cutting edge research and innovation that leads to thousands of potentially life-saving surgeries each year. Grateful donors like the Rachwalskis give back to the heart institute all year long, but there is one month a year that brings Albertans across the province together to give back to cardiovascular care.

Every February, Albertans join the UHF for Heart Month — a fundraising initiative with a mission to beat heart disease. Presented by Freson Bros., Heart Month brings the community together for various events, including Heart Pledge Day on up! 99.3 FM radio, presented by Durabuilt Windows & Doors — all in support of raising funds for cardiovascular care.

The 2022 Heart Month campaign set new records by exceeding fundraising goals, and thanks to donors, the UHF is breaking new ground on awareness of cardiovascular disease. The disease has no bounds, affecting people of all ages and lifestyles. It’s a leading cause of death in Alberta, and more community members are joining the fight to beat heart disease than ever before.

The generosity of donors plays a critical role in allowing healthcare teams at the Maz to perform open heart surgeries for approximately 400 pediatric and 1,300 adult patients each year. Jenna Donovan, the face of the UHF’s 2023 Heart Month campaign, is one of those grateful patients.

Jenna lived a busy and active life with no health concerns, until she was hospitalized at 20 years old with a case of pneumonia. While receiving treatment, her medical team discovered that she had a heart murmur. She lived her first 20 years not knowing that she was born with a congenital heart defect — a coarctation of the aorta, a birth defect in which part of the aorta is narrower than usual. In many cases, these heart defects are discovered in infants. In Jenna’s case, if left untreated, the defect could cause serious stress on the heart and lead to critical health complications.

After discovering her heart defect, Jenna was connected with cardiologists at the Maz and began what would be a long and challenging health journey. She went through several surgeries, but they did not ultimately solve the issue. In 2012, Jenna underwent open-heart surgery at the Maz, where her surgical team replaced the narrow section of her aorta with plastic. It was a successful surgery that opened several doors for her to get back to an active life.

Ten years after that final surgery, Jenna is now a personal trainer, kickboxer, muay thai enthusiast and psychology master’s student. Each day she
continues to beat heart disease, both in and out of the ring. “A lot of people are surprised when they learn I have a heart defect,” says Donovan. “My
age and lifestyle don’t fit the common assumption of a typical cardiac patient. That’s why being part of the University Hospital Foundation’s Heart
Month campaign is important to me. Our community needs to know how common heart disease is, for people of all ages.” Funds raised
throughout Heart Month support cardiovascular research, cutting edge technology and patient care at the Maz, equipping its health care teams with advanced resources that help to save hearts day in, and day out.

Share this article