When Bill Brown first met with a surgeon to discuss the option of gastric bypass surgery for the treatment of obesity, little did he know he was embarking on a journey not just to feel better but also to save his heart and his very life. 

“Before the surgeon could agree to proceeding with the gastric bypass operation, he said my heart needed to be assessed,” says Bill, 64, a resident of the greater Moncton area. “But when I went to see the cardiologist, he found major blockages in my coronary arteries… in fact, one of the arteries was 100 per cent blocked.”

This startling discovery resulted in Bill being referred to a completely different kind of surgeon—a cardiac surgeon—for further assessment. He met with Dr. Ansar Hassan at the New Brunswick Heart Centre, who told Bill he needed coronary artery bypass surgery. This would cut down his risk of heart attack and restore his day-to-day energy levels.

“I had no energy,” recalls Bill, who had previously attributed his lack of energy to excess body weight rather than to his heart, but now had a better understanding of what was really going on. “I could barely do anything, it was terrible.”

The blocked arteries posed such a severe risk to Bill’s heart and life that his surgery was triaged as “urgent” and he was called back to Saint John within days. Dr. Hassan successfully performed a triple-bypass operation to restore the blood flow to Bill’s heart. 

Despite the initial success of the operation, Dr. Hassan was only cautiously optimistic. He knew full well that Bill was not out of the woods just yet and that his increased weight placed him at higher risk for post-operative complications.  As it turned out, this his fears were not misplaced.
“The next day, when they got me up to walk, my heart started racing at 186 beats per minute,” Bill recalls. “I had to go back to bed.” 

The trauma of the surgery had tipped Bill’s heart into atrial fibrillation, a kind of cardiac arrhythmia that occurs in the upper chambers of the heart (the atria). Most often, a rapid heart rate comes and goes in atrial fibrillation. In Bill’s case, his heart was racing constantly. He stayed two and a half weeks at the New Brunswick Heart Centre, where the team adjusted, tweaked and fine-tuned his medications to get the heart rate under control, with enough success to eventually send him home. The reprieve, however, was short lived.

“I was home one week, when I stood up and came so close to passing out, my wife called 911,” Bill says. “They rushed me to the Moncton Hospital, where the doctor diagnosed kidney failure and sent me back to Saint John.”

After two more weeks in Saint John to adjust his medications yet again, Bill returned to Moncton. But when he went to the Dumont Hospital for an echocardiogram, he was in atrial fibrillation and the cardiologist wouldn’t let him leave. 

“They admitted me, put me under and paddled me to reset my heart,” Bill says, noting that it took one shock with the defibrillator to get his heart out of atrial fibrillation. Next, staff addressed his severe leg swelling. “They gave me an intravenous diuretic and over the next couple of days, I lost 53 pounds of fluid from my legs and feet!”

Thankfully, Bill’s health stabilized after this and he was able to get back to normal post-retirement life—puttering, tying flies, fishing and rebuilding trucks, tractors and snowmobiles. He’s also lost 100 pounds and aims to lose 100 more. “I’ve been through a lot with surgery and hospitals,” he says. “I’m not too keen on pursuing the gastric bypass surgery anymore.” Instead, Bill is looking forward to getting back to the pool for some of his favourite aquafit and water yoga classes and to being active outside this summer.

Bill is delighted to have his energy and quality of life back, and also to support Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation’s Spring 2019 Molly Appeal. This year’s Molly Appeal is raising funds to support heart research at Dalhousie Medical School—in particular, a biobank at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick that houses data and heart tissues from patients across the region.

“The biobank will provide our heart researchers with ready access to a wealth of information,” says Dr. Ansar Hassan, the cardiac surgeon and researcher who performed Bill’s bypass surgery. “This will dramatically increase our ability to understand how such factors as age, sex, frailty, obesity and diabetes contribute to heart disease and how we can customize treatments to each individual’s unique circumstances to provide better results.”