Seeing the person behind the procedure

If you see 98-year-old Myer Sankiewicz on his daily speed walks, you would never guess that just less than one year ago he was one of the oldest patients to qualify for and receive an innovative heart procedure at UHN’s Peter Munk Cardiac Centre. Transcatheter Aortic Valve Implantation (TAVI) is a cutting-edge procedure, introduced in 2012 as a minimally invasive option for patients too sick or too high-risk for more invasive heart surgery. Even though TAVI is minimally invasive, any operation on a 98-year-old comes with its risks, especially during COVID-19.

But most 98-year-olds aren’t like Sankiewicz.

A will to live

Sankiewicz and his wife Perla Sankiewicz are Holocaust survivors, having survived the horrors of the concentration camps and Auschwitz. Later in life, Perla got sick with dementia and he spent the next decade by her side taking care of her as her primary caregiver. When Sankiewicz was 70, having been relatively healthy all his life, he was told he needed a heart valve replacement. Dr. Tirone David, cardiovascular surgeon at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and Sprott Department of Surgery at UHN, performed the procedure.

“From that point on my dad never took his health or his doctors for granted – and this started his connection to Toronto General Hospital and his strict adherence to his doctors guidelines,” says his daughter Linda Kirshenblat.

Throughout his life, Sankiewicz prioritizes discipline: keeping physically and mentally healthy, something he still continues after his initial valve replacement by walking and exercising daily, following the recommended diet, and playing Sudoku. However, his true lifeline is having his family over for dinner and spending time with his beloved six grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

The heart valve was expected to last 10 to 12 years. It lasted him 28.

In 2020, Sankiewicz’s health started to decline and unexpected visits to the emergency room were becoming too common. His cardiologist, Dr. John D. Parker, confidently referred him to the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre’s Drs. Eric Horlick and Mark Osten for treatment.

Seeing beyond age

Kirshenblat and her siblings, Ira Sankiewicz and Freda Bolshin, were worried that their father may not be given many treatment options because of his age. But the team at UHN had the compassion, knowledge and technology to see beyond his age and offer a life-saving procedure. “This is someone who has been through unthinkable adversity and has survived. The fact that he has been able to go through all of this and still keep his positive attitude, healthy zest for life, and will to live is something the doctors saw,” says Kirshenblat.

After reviewing his tests and witnessing his attitude, they decided he was a suitable candidate for TAVI. “They took everything under consideration,” she says. “Without their skillful and sensitive intervention he would not be alive today.”

The race against COVID-19

In the summer of 2020, before his TAVI procedure could be arranged, he unexpectedly had to get his gallstones removed. After he was stable, Drs. Horlick and Osten knew the TAVI procedure had to happen soon not only to improve Sankiewicz’s health, but to avoid operating during the pending second wave of COVID-19.

“We were rushing against my dad’s health and then against COVID-19,” says Kirshenblat.

On October 2, 2020, Sankiewicz was set to receive the TAVI procedure.

Before his procedure, Kirshenblat recalls her father being scared that he wouldn’t survive – until Dr. Osten spoke with him about their personal connection: Dr. Osten had a family member who also lived through the Holocaust. “Don’t worry,” he told Sankiewicz, while holding his hand, “I have a Zadie (grandfather) who was a Holocaust survivor. I will take good care of you.”

“That’s all he needed to hear at that time. He was comforted, felt heard, and understood by his doctor. He felt he couldn’t be in better hands,” recalls Kirshenblat, who says her father felt like Dr. Osten was able to see him not just as a procedure, but as a person.

The procedure was successful.

“He has such a will to live. He feels the gifts that the hospital and these doctors were able to give to him are not something to take for granted,” says Kirshenblat. “He is so grateful, because when he closed his eyes, he didn’t think he would be able to open them again. Now he has committed to making it to 120 years old – or biz hundert un tsvantsig, as we say in Yiddish!

Giving thanks for exceptional care

To thank the team who saved her father’s life, Kirshenblat, Sankiewicz, and Bolshin decided to donate to UHN Foundation’s Honour Your Hero program. Through Honour Your Hero, patients and their loved ones can thank the UHN staff who went above and beyond by making a donation.

“He’d always say the doctors are a gift from God. That without them, we couldn’t do what we do for as long as we do,” says Kirshenblat. “And there’s no one else that can do what they do.”

Every donation helps people like Myer Sankiewicz have another chance at life.

“We are so grateful for the care from the doctors, nurses and staff who we felt were a part of his exceptional care. We know he is here today because of them. There are many ways for people to show their support for the care provided, and our donation was our way to show our appreciation,” Kirshenblat says.

Are you grateful for the care that you or a loved one received at Toronto General or Toronto Western hospitals, or Toronto Rehab? Learn more about how you can say thanks through our Honour Your Hero program.

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