Popular Alberta Chef, cardiac patient and community fundraiser extraordinaire are a few ways you could describe Brad Smoliak.
Brad, a renowned local chef and owner of restaurant KITCHEN by Brad, is also the proud owner of a VAD – a mechanical heart. And he’s made it his goal to give back to the care teams that are saving his life.
Brad was born with a heart defect – transposition of the great vessels. As a child, he had to go through several surgeries, including the Mustard Procedure, a now-uncommon surgery that essentially flipped his heart.
Nevertheless, Brad was able to live his life pretty normally. He developed a love of cooking and pursued excellence in the field. A proud Edmontonian, he was the executive chef at well-known local restaurants. He co-founded the Hardware Grill and served as chairman of the Edmonton Downtown Farmers Market Association. He was once the official chef for Alberta House at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics, and has even cooked for the Queen of England.
But at 34, his life changed. He had a major cardiac episode – at one point his heartbeat was 240 beats per minute (bpm) – more than double the average of 100 bpm. His heart health was declining.
By the age of 52, Brad was in late-stage heart failure. He wouldn’t be able to live without getting a new heart. He was told he’d need a transplant.
Brad, his wife, Leanne, and the rest of their family were shocked. With his congenital heart condition, they always knew that his heart health could decline, but hearing that he needed a transplant was frightening.
But then, testing showed that Brad’s body wouldn’t be able to support a new, fully-functioning heart. His body was used to working with his declining heart. A new, healthy heart wouldn’t be used to pumping against the high pressure in his lungs, and a transplant would fail. The Smoliaks were told that Brad might only have 3-6 months to live.
This is when Dr. Holger Buchholz entered the picture. He and his team at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute (Maz) offered Brad a new lifeline.
Brad could have a Ventricular Assist Device (VAD) implanted; it would pump his blood in a continuous flow, doing the work for his heart. The VAD would reduce the pressure in his lungs and keep him alive until his body was ready for a transplant.
Brad and Leanne had never even heard of a VAD before, so they definitely didn’t know that the VAD program at the Maz is the largest by volume in Canada. Initially they were both nervous. But the VAD team at the Maz answered every question they had with honesty. The program coordinator and social worker took the time to sit down with them and show them how the VAD worked. They even showed Brad’s mom to help her feel comfortable too. After meeting with Dr. Buchholz, Brad was convinced. He had all the confidence that this team would make sure he survived.
On January 18, 2019, Brad underwent surgery to have his VAD inserted. Because his heart is “backwards” the surgery was especially demanding and took 12 hours.
There were many bumps in the road for Brad during his recovery. He had trouble coming out of sedation, and it was five days after the surgery that he woke up and began his intense rehabilitation. He spent more than 100 days in the hospital, battling complications.
Those days were difficult for Leanne and the Smoliak family. “There were days when we knew he was fighting for his life,” says Leanne. But the staff at the Maz made all the difference to them. “The team was amazing. We got to know so many people, from his medical teams, to food services and cleaners. Everyone was so kind. The nurses always had updates to give me when I came back to the hospital. They always reassured me that they’d make sure he would make it through the night.”
Brad never gave up and remained his usual happy, gracious self. “I am so in awe of Brad with everything he’s gone through. He never ceases to amaze me,” says Leanne.
Brad is now back to doing what he loves, spending time with his family, and of course cooking. While he is enjoying his life and takes the time to appreciate it – he’s not exactly taking it easy. Just the other day he worked for 12 hours, and when he’s done at the restaurant he often goes home and spends time in the garden or woodworking in his shop.
“I wish I had done it earlier,” says Brad. “I’ve never felt this good in my life. I have more stamina.”
Paying It Forward
Brad and Leanne also have a new mission that keeps them pretty busy. To raise $1 million for the Mazankowski in their lifetime. And they’re already well on their way. This year they’ve already raised over $70,000.
Last fall, the Smoliaks gathered over 50 people to participate in the Edmonton Heartbeat Run in support of the Maz. Just over 8 months after his surgery, Brad walked the 3km race. Dr. Buchholz and his wife joined at the starting line to cheer him on.
The couple were busy throughout Heart Month last February, raising funds through “Warm your heart. Feed your soul” Soup Fridays at KITCHEN. Guests enjoyed a tantalizing bowl of soup (Dill Pickle Soup was our personal fav) by donation with all the funds going to the VAD program. They have also raised money by auctioning off two exclusive dinner experiences through 630 CHED and two receptions at the Festival of Trees Silver Bell Soiree last November.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to postpone a large fundraiser they had planned, the Smoliaks quickly pivoted, offering “To Go” meals every Wednesday from KITCHEN by Brad with $5 from each meal going towards the University Hospital Foundation. Patrons quickly snapped up the locally inspired meals and keep coming back for more with a fresh menu every week.
They also have a room full of auction items ready to go for when they can finally host their big event. (Stay tuned for an announcement!)
They’re not just focused on raising money either. The awareness the couple is raising about the impact the Maz has on people in our community is worth even more.
Brad is happy to show people his VAD, how it works and how it has changed his life.
“It is so important for us to give back. Edmonton is so supportive,” says Brad.
Leanne adds, “It’s our way of showing our gratitude. They gave us his life. We want to make sure other people have the same chance.”