They say it takes a village to raise a child. One could argue that it also takes a village to save a life. Monique is living proof.

At 38-years-old, Monique was a healthy, active and involved mother of two. She worked as an integration aide at the local high school, played sports, and volunteered in the community. All that changed on May 31, 2022.

“I’d gone upstairs to get ready for bed. Suddenly, I had this burning sensation in my chest. It felt like my heart had exploded,” says Monique.

She called her husband, Robert, and he immediately called 911—Monique was drenched in sweat and ghostly pale. On another phone, Robert called Monique’s parents, who live just minutes away. They arrived first and the frightened family waited for the ambulance together.

“It took half an hour for the paramedics to arrive because I was a 38-year-old female having chest pains. The assumption was that I was having an anxiety attack,” says Monique.

When the paramedics arrived, an EKG confirmed how serious Monique’s situation was—she had had a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). This life-threatening medical condition occurs when the lining of a major blood vessel near the heart separates from the outer wall, allowing the blood to push between the layers and force the blood vessel closed.

Monique was rushed to the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), where she was immediately put on an ECMO following multiple cardiac arrests. An ECMO is a lifesaving machine that pumps blood out of the body, reoxygenates it and then pumps it back through the circulatory system. It kept her alive.

“Suddenly, I had this burning sensation in my chest. It felt like my heart had exploded” – Monique Chalifou

“I went from the picture of health to fighting to stay alive. My family and friends were always there visiting me so I wouldn’t be alone. There was always someone there holding my hand,” says Monique.

At the end of June, Monique returned home to Pointe-Claire and began her recovery. Though she improved at first thanks to a cocktail of heart failure medication, just a few months later she was feeling unwell. Tests revealed that she had had another heart attack and that her heart was struggling.

“All of a sudden, I had heart failure. I was super healthy, I followed all the rules, but my heart never recovered from the original SCAD,” says Monique.

Again, Monique found herself requiring major medical intervention: she underwent double by-pass surgery, which creates a new pathway for blood flow in the heart.

“Recovery from open heart surgery is not easy, but Dr. de Varennes did an amazing job,” says Monique.

Despite the bypass surgery, Monique still felt off. Her appetite was gone, she struggled to breathe and had no energy. A check-up in December revealed that Monique had a condition called mitral valve regurgitation, which causes blood to travel backwards through the heart. As the holidays approached, Monique was implanted with a Mitraclip, a special device that helps the heart valve function correctly.

“After the surgery, my appetite was back. I was so hungry that the hospital food tasted great. January came and I felt amazing. Until I didn’t,” says Monique.

By the end of January, Monique was surprised to be feeling unwell again. On January 26, 2023, as her father was driving her to one of her many medical appointments, she went into cardiac arrest. Frantic, her father called 911 and performed CPR while on the phone with emergency services. Monique was rushed to the MUHC and resuscitated several times. Her family was left with a life-altering decision.

“My family made the decision to implant an LVAD—a mechanical heart. It was a very risky procedure, but Dr. Cecere was confident that it was the only course of action.  The operation was successful, but when I woke up, I didn’t understand what was happening. The entire staff were incredible, they helped guide me through it. It was a very challenging 57 days,” says Monique.

Monique had a long recovery ahead, but she wasn’t alone. After eight months of life-threatening health scares, surgeries and difficult recoveries, word of Monique’s condition had got out. Parents from her children’s school created a schedule to make lunches for her kids throughout the school year, neighbours created a meal train, and her son’s hockey association made t-shirts, stickers and poster boards to show support.

“I am surrounded by support, from my family and my community. I can’t say enough how much that means to me,” says Monique.

Though Monique still faces health struggles, she is positive about the future. With her family and friends by her side, she is confident that she can overcome any obstacles that come her way.

“My motto is ‘just keep swimming.’ The only way I know how to go is forward. There have been hiccups along the way, but you learn to trust your body and listen to it. From the very first moment I was brought into the MUHC, my health care team has gone above and beyond to support me and help me navigate these difficult waters. They are available to me 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Even while on holidays, my team checks in on me. They are at the root of my confidence and it makes you realize that it takes a village,” says Monique.

Today, Monique is waiting for a heart transplant. Mechanical hearts are a temporary solution, and a new heart will help her regain the life she had before that fateful night in May 2022. In the meantime, living with an LVAD has become her new normal.

“This crazy, abnormal situation is starting to feel like our new normal. Our bodies and minds are incredibly adaptable and resilient. When I play with my kids, they know to be careful of the wires on the LVAD. When I shower, I have to shrink-wrap my abdomen to protect the device. None of it is easy, but you figure out these small hacks and celebrate the successes,” says Monique.

Throughout her health care journey, Monique has received exceptional care from MUHC cardiologists Dr. Nadia Giannetti, Dr. Nicolo Piazza and Dr. Jacqueline Joza, surgeons Dr. Renzo Cecere and Dr. Benoît de Varennes, and many more. From day one in the ICU, she has also been supported by Dr. David Hornstein, whose Critical Illness Recovery Centre (CIRC) helped connect her with other survivors and continues to help her cope. Her care team has done so much for her, Monique struggles to find the right words to thank them.

“How do you thank a team who has saved your life repeatedly? We’re not talking about once or twice—I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been resuscitated. Thanks to them, I have been given the gift of time. Every single day is a blessing,” says Monique.

“How do you thank a team who has saved your life repeatedly? We’re not talking about once or twice—I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been resuscitated.” – Monique Chalifoux

Much of the lifesaving care Monique received at the MUHC was made possible thanks to donations to the MUHC Foundation. Training for ECMO, support for heart valve-correcting Mitraclips and the Critical Illness Recovery Centre (CIRC) have all received funding from the MUHC Foundation. Though Monique’s particular case is exceedingly rare, many patients at the MUHC benefit from these and other lifesaving interventions every day

You can help us support lifesaving care at the MUHC. Join the MUHC Foundation community today to see how we’re making a difference and please give generously:

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