From operating room to a dance at son’s wedding

For Gillian Burley, the last three-and-a-half years have been a monumental test of her physical and mental well-being.

On Halloween day of 2012, Gillian had major surgery at Toronto General Hospital to correct a double aortic arch, a congenital heart defect she didn’t know she had. The condition meant that her aorta had two arches rather than one. This formed what is known as a “vascular ring,” which was pinching her esophagus and trachea, making it difficult to breathe and swallow.

Things were complicated when the apex of Gillian’s left lung “disintegrated” during surgery. The deterioration of the lung was a likely result of radiation treatment a decade earlier for breast cancer. She was then diagnosed with a non-tuberculous mycobacterium, which can severely affect lung capacity and in Gillian’s case was life-threatening. If left untreated, the mycobacterium could have spread to her new vascular grafts – and resulted in death.

“When I woke up, I was in the isolation unit,” says Gillian. “I was in hospital for a month, I was on antibiotic therapy for a year and I lost 20 per cent of my body weight.”

Slowly but surely, however, Gillian fought back and built her strength, with a big assist from respirologist Dr. Ted Marras.

“I wouldn’t have made it without Dr. Marras and team,” says Gillian. “They’re astounding. If I emailed them with questions, they would get back to me in 20 minutes whether it was day, evening or weekend.”

The highlight of Gillian’s recovery was her son’s wedding, which was in 2013, less than a year after her surgery and long road to recovery.

“I was able to dance at my son’s wedding,” says Gillian. “I sent the doctors a photo. I couldn’t have asked for a better team.”

Gillian took early retirement in 2015 and she and her husband are seizing the day.

“I’ve never felt better in my life,” she says. “We’re living every day like it’s our last. We just got back from a Caribbean cruise. I’ve never had so much energy.”

“‘Thank you’ will never be enough.”


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