In conversation with Dr. Heather Ross

Dr. Ross is recognized for her extraordinary leadership in research and patient care for those suffering from heart failure. She is an award winning teacher and mentor, first-ever recipient of the Women in Cardiovascular Medicine/Science mentorship award, by the Canadian Cardiovascular Society and an extremely proud daughter of Barbara and John Ross. (Photo: Courtesy Heather Ross)

On Dec. 30, three UHN physicians – Dr. Heather Ross, Dr. Susan George and Dr. Michael Jewett – were named to the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest civilian honours. Over the coming days, UHN News will sit down for a conversation with each of them. Today, it’s Dr. Ross. Dr. Heather Ross is Division Head of Cardiology at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, UHN and Sinai Health System, and Site Lead of the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre. 

Q: How did you hear the news?

A: I received an email from Cara, out of the blue, who said she had good news for me and I needed to call her. As we all know, that could mean anything! I Googled her name and she was legit but I still could not imagine why anyone from the Office of the Governor General would be reaching out to me. And yet…I started thinking ‘could it be? No, there is no way, stop being crazy…’ 

I called her and she told me I was being awarded the Order of Canada. I just put my hands way up in the air and screamed pacing around my COVID empty office. I screamed and laughed and cried and didn’t stop for I don’t know how long. And then I finally stopped screaming and got back on the phone but I was bawling at that point so I am sure I missed all kinds of information. I asked her to confirm it again because I just couldn’t believe it. She truly talked me off the ledge of hysteria. And then she swore me to secrecy, but I could tell my mom, so I did. She was my first phone call. 

Q: How did your parents influence you?

A: (Teary) Well my dad is not with us anymore, but I can tell you, I grew up in a family that never put limits on my hopes and dreams. There was no earthly reason I couldn’t be anything I wanted to be. My dad wanted me to run for Prime Minister, because he thought that was the job for me. To me, both my parents are extraordinary. My dad finished high school and went straight away to work as a salesman, but he went to night school for years and got his college degree from Loyola University (now Concordia) when he was in his 30s. My dad believed in the power of higher education. My mom went to university on a music scholarship, though she could have gone as a science student but her dad didn’t believe women should be in the sciences.

My parents weren’t just supporters of my dreams, they were enablers and motivators. When I was just 11, we took our dog to the vet and when I came out of there I announced I was going to be a doctor. We had no doctors in our family. I had no experience within the world of healthcare, and yet for my parents, there was just no reason to doubt, no reason to say ‘no.’ That’s who they were.

Q: When you made up your mind as an 11-year-old to be a doctor, did you imagine this far down the road, did you know who you would become?

A: (She laughs) I can remember Mr. Spence, my science teacher in Grade 8, writing across the top of a failed test, “you need help.” (more laughter). I was just a kid who grew up in Montreal West. Not in a million years would I have predicted where it would take me, there were no huge intentions…I’m still gobsmacked. I’ve been so insanely fortunate to be allowed to do this with my life. People opened doors and I ran through every last one of them. I tried to make the most of every opportunity afforded to me.

The very first heart transplant I witnessed, I was looking into an empty chest cavity, and they were sewing the new heart in, and everyone was of course nervous and wondering ‘is it gonna start?’ Well, it did start, and I remember thinking, my God it couldn’t be better than this, to see something so miraculous and be able to do this every day…that was the moment I realized what a powerful opportunity was in front of me. 

Q: What’s next?

A: I still believe I could be an astronaut (big laugh), maybe the third time is the charm. Do you mean am I satisfied? No, I’m not satisfied because I measure myself by my failures not my successes. There are still more patients to be helped, and more discoveries to be made.

We live in a great country, and I have travelled it from coast to coast and from top to bottom, and I can tell you there are issues with how we deliver care, especially as it relates to our Indigenous communities. There are tragic inequities in both the quality of care and the accessibility to it. I want to move the needle on being able to provide the high quality care every Canadian deserves, that need is a huge motivation for me right now.

And I have to say, this is a team sport what we do. The incredible colleagues, mentors and mentees, donors who believe and invest, and of course the patients. Nothing is possible without all of them pulling in the same direction. My favourite quote, African in origin, speaks to my journey here: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Dr. Heather Ross is also the Loretta A. Rogers Heart Function Chair and Pfizer Chair in Cardiovascular Research.

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