In his clean, quiet home in Nanaimo, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, you would never know that Marc G. had a close brush with death only a few months earlier.
Marc’s story began in France in 1949. His mother was of French descent from Poland, and his father was born near the border between Poland and the Ukraine. His family had always made a decent living; his paternal and maternal grandfathers as a veterinarian and a house-painter respectively, and his father owned a butcher shop. But the Holocaust brought unspeakable suffering to his family. His mother was hidden by Resistance members in the French Alps, and his father survived the horrors of Auschwitz.
“My Dad was the last to go into the cattle cars going there, and the last coming out. So he had fresh air both ways. That’s what saved him.”
Other family members suffered an even worse fate.
Marc admits to thinking, sometimes, that his story might have ended before it even began.
“When I look at my parents’ stories, and how unlikely it was that I would have even been born, it makes me even more grateful to have survived.”
Marc had a lot of time to think about his life, his family, and his identity as a Jew, in the months he spent in the hospital in early 2018.
Marc had two heart attacks, in September 2017 and January 2018. Both were serious. But it was his third heart attack, in February of 2018, that left him with the heart failure that would put him in the position of needing a transplant.
“After I had my third heart attack, they said I was in heart failure. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t do anything. Some people can recover enough to be treated with drugs, but I never improved. On April 7 I collapsed and was resuscitated, and they said they had no choice but to send me to St. Paul’s. I was airlifted that same day.”
Marc’s son Carson works for a telecommunications company, and his daughter just graduated from nursing school. To them, Marc is a man who gave them everything, to whom family is the only important thing. They fought to be by his side at the hospital on Vancouver Island, but everything happened too fast. Marc’s rabbi – the first in Nanaimo – waited with him by his bedside as he was prepped for emergency air transport to Vancouver.
“[My rabbi] arrived at around midnight, and we prayed together. Then the Air Ambulance came and prepped me for the flight. He stayed with me until the moment I was put onto the helicopter.”
Marc’s rabbi also helped reinforce Marc’s will to live.
“It was like having a good friend there. When I was brought back to life [after flatlining], I remember grabbing the sheets on the bed and saying, ‘I want to live. I want to live until the same age as my Dad.’ My rabbi gave me an extra jolt of determination. I could see it in his eyes, his look, his strength. ‘You’re gonna make it.’”
Marc’s son Carson remembers the shock of seeing his father so ill, and the tremendous stress of juggling young children, travel plans, and all the extra expenses that accompany such traumatic news.
“The darkest hour was between when he flatlined, and the helicopter ride. Because he told us later he didn’t know if he was going to make it.”
At St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, Marc’s life soon settled into a routine of sorts. Once the decision had been made that transplant was the only option, he was subjected to daily tests, medication tweaks, vaccines, and even dentistry! The cardiac team at St. Paul’s knew exactly what was needed for the best outcome, so all resources were dedicated to getting Marc as healthy as possible to receive his new heart.
Carson remembers that time a little differently.
“When I arrived, my sister and her boyfriend were there with my dad in his room. I had never seen him so sick. I just had this pins-and-needles feeling all over my body, doing everything I could not to break down.
“There are all these tests to do. Is he even a viable candidate? And if he fails one test, that’s it, there’s nothing more that can be done.”
Carson explains that in order to survive until a donor heart was available, his dad would have to have a mechanical device – called an LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device) – surgically implanted and attached to his body at all times. This device was a lifesaver, but it made life very complicated for Marc and his family.
“And then he got to the point where he had passed all the tests. So then we had to learn about the LVAD machine. You don’t really understand what ‘transplant’ means. You find a heart, throw it in, and there you go, right? But with the LVAD, there is so much for the family to learn and be aware of, because we’re the ones who will be his caregivers.”
In fact, Marc would need to stay in Vancouver for three months as an outpatient, to stabilise and demonstrate that he could live independently with the life-saving machine attached to his body. Marc worried about the time to come… how would they manage? How would they pay for everything? He was touched by the energy and dedication of his children. He knew they had it in them because he knew his children! But he found new depths in their commitment to caring for him.
“First was learning about the machine. How the batteries work, how to change them, the proper sequence of things. Learning what signs to look for, learning how to do basic things like shower without getting the machine wet. We felt like anything could go wrong at any time, so we were hyper-vigilant. It was exhausting.
“Then there was a written test. My dad, my sister, her boyfriend, and I all took it. Then we had to get Dad settled in his temporary accommodation, and figure out how to pay for it.”
That’s when Jewish Family Services came in. This whole event was a huge hardship on his family, and Marc was so worried about focusing on his health when there were so many other things to worry about. He needed his heart to be number one.
It was Marc’s rabbi who suggested he call us, and Donna, a social worker and Outreach Counselor with JFS, came out to visit him right away.
“After sitting and speaking with Marc for quite some time, I was really inspired by his story and his strength. It’s not often that I shed a tear when I meet people and hear their story, but I was especially moved by Marc and his physical and mental stamina.
“Marc is one of those clients that remind me why I do what I do. I left his apartment uplifted, inspired, and grateful.”
Marc’s request for emergency financial aid is exactly the kind of need Jewish Family Services hopes to always have the capacity to respond to. Marc and his family were already doing everything they could to deal with this unexpected, life-changing event, but their pooled resources just couldn’t stretch that far.
Thanks to the support of donors, JFS was able to help Marc right away, and soon, he was ensconced in his temporary accommodations.
Son Carson noticed his father steadily improving. The LVAD was doing its job.
“Things looked up when we just saw him in a normal bed. Going to the kitchen for a snack and not having to wait for someone to bring him something on a tray. It was the little things that made things normal.”
During the three months Marc was in temporary accommodations in Vancouver, his life was surprisingly tranquil but highly-regimented. He couldn’t be left alone even for a minute, so a family member was with him at all times. He had weekly blood tests whose results were dispatched to his pharmacist, he had a huge list of medications to take, and his VLAD machine need constant monitoring and occasional servicing, performed by his family.
By Marc’s second month in his temporary accommodations, he was able to walk, do the dishes, and was seeing his strength returning. When he went to physiotherapy, he saw how much he was able to do, and it made him feel better.
Marc is now back home in Nanaimo. His situation is stable, and he is comforted by his daughter’s daily presence and frequent visits from son Carson and his grandchildren.
But he still needs a heart transplant. When the call comes, everything will click back into high gear, as he will need to be airlifted to St. Paul’s in time to receive the donor heart.
Then he will be residing for 3 months in Vancouver once again, and turning to JFS for emergency financial aid during his stay. Nothing is certain, but Marc intends to do everything he can to live, and we intend to help.
If Marc were to speak to someone just starting out on a journey like his, he would say that the hardest thing was the imposition on family, the disruption, and all the hectic travel. For him, it was the almost two months he had to spend in the hospital. But he always came back to those words he’d said to himself.
“I want to live.”
Since the heart attack, Marc has eliminated all unnecessary worries from his life.
“Make a list of things to do on a daily basis. Then prioritise. It’s always about people you love, it’s about that one thing you need to do that matters.”
Please donate today so we can be a lifeline for people like Marc.