The University of Ottawa Heart Institute recently helped join two hearts on one of its surgical wards.
It wasn’t a medical procedure, but a matrimonial one.
Melissa Oitzl and Brock Thom exchanged their wedding vows while Thom awaited a second high-risk, life-saving surgery at the world-renowned heart centre.
"I couldn’t have asked for a better, more perfect wedding"
"It was amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better, more perfect wedding," 36-year-old Oitzl said.
The wedding took place in Thom’s hospital room in October, which was adorned with lights, balloons and decorations, lovingly fashioned by Heart Institute nurses and staff.
Surgeon Fraser Rubens, also a gifted operatic performer, sang the processional, as the bride walked down the makeshift aisle to Thom’s hospital bed, where he remained for the duration of the ceremony.
The couple also used the occasion to reveal the gender of their soon-to-be-born baby. Oitzl was more than eight months' pregnant at the time.
"Mel arranged an ultrasound so we could find out the gender of the baby. Until then, we had hoped to keep it a surprise," said 37-year-old Thom.
"But again, not knowing what was going to happen, I just wanted to find out as much information about the baby as I could, you know. If I wasn’t going to be around..."
"It’s a boy," Brock announced, pulling a paper from a sealed envelope. Family, friends, and Heart Institute staff cheered and applauded when they heard the news.
The Manotick, Ont. couple began dating just two years ago. They met online and shared a love for fitness, exercise and sport.
"I was just really attracted to him. He has such a beautiful heart," said Oitzl. "It was apparent this was the person I wanted to have a family with."
"I really started to get concerned"
Thom had lived, without issue, with a life-long irregular heartbeat. Recently, however, he began feeling atypically fatigued and out of breath, even when sleeping.
"I really started to get concerned when I would wake up from a dead sleep in the middle of the night and I would be out of breath," said Thom. "You know, there’s no reason you should be winded when you’re sleeping."
After seeing his family doctor, Thom was told to go immediately to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute for further tests. Doctors there told him he was in heart failure and needed emergency surgery.
"The technical term is tachycardia induced cardiomyopathy. Basically, the irregularity and the pace at which my heart was working, well, it became exhausted and couldn’t do it anymore," said Thom.
"So, they rushed him into the ICU and this swarm of doctors and nurses went in and booted me out of the waiting room and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is happening now!" said Oitzl.
During the six-hour surgery, a special device was to be implanted in Thom’s chest to help pump blood throughout his body – something his heart was no longer capable of doing. Oitzl waited anxiously for news.
"I proceeded to wait until about 4:30 in the morning when the head nurse said to me, 'You need to go home. You need to take care of yourself.' So I drove home and I remember walking through the door and it hit me like a wave that he (Thom) might never be coming home," said a tearful Oitzl.
The surgery was a success, but the pump would only offer a temporary solution. At one point, doctors believed Thom would require a heart transplant to survive.
"There was a lot of talk about heart transplant and just hearing that was difficult, really difficult. That was a good indication of how severe the situation was," Thom said.
In the end, though, Thom’s surgeons scheduled an ablation surgery, a procedure in which the doctor uses a catheter to deliver electrical signals to the heart to restore a regular heartbeat.
A healthy dose of perspective
While doctors planned his surgery, Thom was making a few plans of his own. He told nurses he wished to propose to Oitzl and to get married before the operation. He also wanted to know the gender of his baby.
A nurse fashioned an engagement ring using a pacemaker wire. Oitzl said yes, and the wedding plans began.
"The second word got out to other nurses that we were having a wedding in my room, they all started helping out. They made all kinds of decorations, some of the porters were involved in decorating my room and preparing for the ceremony," said Thom.
Oitzl and her mother bought the wedding rings and dress 45 minutes before the local mall closed for the night.
"Everyone at the store was like, 'If it doesn’t fit, you can bring it back.' My mom was like, 'No, she’s getting married tomorrow.' And, of course, you have to tell everyone the story. And then everyone in the mall is crying," said Oitzl.
Thom’s health crisis also offered his then fiancée a healthy dose of perspective.
"Prior to what happened to Brock, I was stressed out about what change table to get and what breast pump to get, and getting a change table that matched the crib. And then when he was in the hospital, I was like, 'I don’t need a change table, I’ll change the baby on the floor. I don’t need a breast pump, I just need you to come home,'" said Oitzl.
Thom’s second surgery was also a success, and four weeks after his release from hospital, the couple received their best gift of all when their son Sawyer was born.
"He’s amazing," said Oitzl. "Perfect."
And thanks to the Ottawa Heart Institute, Thom will be here for his son.
"To be able to participate in his life and see him grow and witness all of this, it’s unbelievable."