Janice Thomson has a very public career — she doesn’t go out in Niagara-on-the-Lake without running into people who know her. Perhaps because of that, she places a high value on her privacy.
She has agreed, however, to talk about her recent open-heart surgery, and her unusually speedy recovery, in the hope her story might help others — and because, although health care receives a lot of negative press, she can’t say enough about how grateful she is for the great care she received.
“I feel healthy. I feel motivated. I’m loving my new job. I have more energy. I feel perfect.”
Well, not perfect, she says, but almost. She misses her mother, Jessie, who passed away in 2015. And Thomson had two Westies she loved, who were a huge part of her life, but they are also gone.
“I find now I’m very emotional. I’ve read that’s typical after this surgery, and it can last up to a year. I find I want my mom, and I want my dogs, so I can’t say life is perfect, but it’s close.”
She feels physically strong, and mentally focused. As good as she feels, when she thinks about all that has happened, the last few months, she says, “seem unreal.”
In 2005, Thomson contracted an infection in her blood that affected her heart. Since 2014, she has been seeing a heart specialist for annual check-ups, and when she went for her regular visit earlier this year, she was shocked to be told she required an aortic valve replacement. It was not a genetic defect, as valve replacements often are, or related to lifestyle — her valve had been damaged over time by the infection, and she was told it could close at any time.
She hesitated, and told her doctor she’d think about it — a strange reaction, she realizes now, when the decision was really about choosing life or death. But she’d had no symptoms, and had never expected to hear such news from the doctor.
What helped her accept the diagnosis, she says, was the possibility of a less invasive valve replacement, a relatively new procedure done through a small incision that doesn’t involve breaking the breast bone. Thomson, the former president of the NOTL Chamber of Commerce, had recently accepted a new challenge as the president and CEO of Niagara Falls Tourism, where she began working in May, and she was concerned about taking time off from the new job. When she learned of the new procedure, she agreed to the surgery, and planned to take a week off work.
She told her colleagues she was undergoing a minimally invasive surgery, and would take a week of holidays.
“A week seemed like a long time for me to be off. I’d only been there about eight weeks,” she says, “but they were really understanding.”
On July 25, she ran into a friend in valu-mart and asked him to drive her to the Hamilton hospital at 4 a.m. the next morning, which he agreed to, “without hesitation,” Thomson says.
She had avoided talking about her impending surgery, because her father and his wife Elena had a five-week cruise booked, and were leaving the night before she was to go to the hospital. “I knew they would have cancelled their trip, and I didn’t want them to do that.”
Her father is a member of the NOTL Golf Club, and she feared if word got out, someone might unintentionally mention her surgery in an email to him, and she was determined not to spoil the trip for the two of them.
The operation went well, but not quite according to plan. Her surgeon, Dr. Adel Dyub, discovered she was not a candidate for the less invasive procedure, and Thomson woke up in intensive care with a much larger incision, a broken breast bone, and a predicted recovery of eight to 12 weeks.
“I cried when I heard that,” she says. “It wasn’t part of my plan.” She apologized to the doctor afterward for crying over what turned out to be “a bump in the road,” and continued along a path that would get her back to work Tuesday, Aug. 6 — Monday was the civic holiday —as she had originally said she would.
One week after her surgery, she took an Uber to Virgil to sign a petition for a young girl, Maya Webster, who was at Phil’s valu-mart trying to get signatures to take to Queen’s Park with the help of MPP Wayne Gates. She hopes to have a $4,000 continuous glucose monitor that eliminates the painful routine of finger-pricking for insulin levels and keeps children healthy and out of the hospital, covered by OHIP, and Thomson wanted to help her.
Thomson went out to a concert the next night, which she had sponsored in her mother’s name — she didn’t want to miss it. And she resumed working full days shortly afterward, getting lifts from a friend.
Her photo was taken with Maya and Gates in Virgil by The Local, and Thomson sent it to Dyub, who thought it remarkable his patient was out so soon after her surgery. “That’s something we don’t usually see,” he says, although he wasn’t surprised she was there to help someone else, he says.
Dyub, a cardiac surgeon at the Hamilton General Hospital, was happy to talk about Thomson to The Local, whom he found to be a very unusual patient for several reasons, he says.
Most patients might be up walking around for a short time that soon after the invasive operation, but Thomson “was up and out helping others.”
Her speedy recovery, he says, “has a lot to do with her very positive attitude. And she has such a good heart.”
Hamilton General is one of only three sites in Canada that currently performs the less invasive mini-aortic valve replacement (mini-AVR) for aortic stenosis, through a five-centimetre incision between two ribs, rather than breaking breast bones. It would have meant a shorter hospital stay, less pain following surgery, a smaller scar and a quick return to driving, and was what he initially expected for Thomson.
But patients must meet strict medical criteria for what is considered an innovative surgical procedure, and when it came time for the operation, he discovered she was not a candidate.
He says he knows she was hoping for the less invasive surgery “because she was worrying about spending time in the hospital. She wanted a short recovery so she could get back to work.”
However, “she rallied quickly after surgery, and she rallied through recovery.”
At 61, she is considered young for a valve replacement, which worked in her favour, he says, as did her “positive mindset.”
In the end she recovered faster than some people who have the less invasive operation, he says.
Although it’s important to give the wound from the invasive open-heart surgery time to heal, he says, and in most cases it’s best for a patient to have a friend or relative at home to help, Thomson was careful as she amped up her activity level.
“She was mindful. She knew exactly what she was supposed to do,” says Dyub.
“She is a very special person. I will never forget the way she rallied through this. She is a one-off.”
Thomson says she was careful, but she was anxious to get back to work. She was committed to her new job, and didn’t want to let down her colleagues, who, when they learned about her open-heart surgery on the day she returned, helped her in any way she would let them.
She also had friends who brought her organic, healthy and delicious dinners, including dessert, every day for three weeks.
But other than that, she didn’t ask for help and didn’t want a lot of company — she needed to be alone to heal herself, especially in the early days, when help is recommended for most patients.
She admits to being stubborn, determined and having a strong need for privacy, and although she recovered alone, was very careful about her level of activity.
When it was time to see her surgeon, she went with a suitcase of beautifully packed, perfect peaches from the Lepp family farm — enough for the 100 people she estimated were involved in her care at the hospital.
Her experience, she says, makes her grateful for the health care system, for all who looked after her, for her mobility and good health.
She feels now she must look after herself, and that after being given a new valve, she must look after it as well.
“Because of how well I am now, I feel I have an obligation to all who looked after me to lead my best life,” she says.
“I’m thankful it worked out, but I know it was because of the professional care I received. I can’t say enough about the health care system.”
If Thomson did things a little differently, “it’s my personality, how I’m conditioned, and people who know me would know that. I’m alone, I’m accustomed to looking after myself.”
She was told before surgery she would be in good hands, and get the best care possible from Dyub, and she says she feels strongly that her success is due to him and his team.
And he has nothing but good things to say about a most unusual patient, not just because of the speed with which she returned to work and other activities, but because of the way she handled herself throughout, he says.
He was impressed with the way she spoke so kindly to those around her — the way she expressed such gratitude to the people who were caring for her and apologized often because she didn’t want to be a burden, he says.
“She has the sweetest heart ever. I told her I wish there were lots and lots of Janices. The world we live in would be a world of peace if there were more people with a heart as big as hers. I learned a lot from her.”