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Image of Irma and David Oliver
Irma and David Oliver.

Carpe Diem: How St. Paul’s gave one couple the gift of a lifetime

by Kris Wallace


Irma Oliver loved the wilderness and had long wanted to visit Canada’s far north. When the new, year-round highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk finally opened, Irma and David seized the day! They packed up their trailer and began a six-week, 8,000-kilometer odyssey that took them from their home in Abbotsford deep into the Northwest Territories. On July 2, 2018, they stood on the edge of the continent with their feet in the Arctic Ocean, their arms around each other, and their dream in their hands.

It would never have happened without St. Paul’s.

Image of Irma and David Oliver at an Arctic Ocean sign

I’m going to live until I die

If you were to put a face to the expression, “I’m going to live until I die,” that face could be Irma’s.

In 1983, Irma received an emergency blood transfusion in the aftermath of an ectopic pregnancy. Ten years later, her sister noticed a butterfly rash on her face and suggested she get tested for Lupus. It wasn’t Lupus. It was hepatitis C: Irma was one of an estimated 30,000 Canadians infected during Canada’s tainted blood disaster.

Hep C is often a lifelong infection that attacks the liver and worsens over time. Despite ongoing treatment, it was taking an increasing toll on Irma’s health and her quality of life. By 2012, weakness and fatigue meant regular blood transfusions. A panicky trip to an ER far from home during their last trip scared the wanderlust out of them.

It was too much: Irma was placed on the waiting list for a liver transplant. As part of her work-up, they discovered she had a heart murmur caused by a deformed aortic valve. The defective valve was responsible for much of Irma’s exhaustion (and the need for such frequent transfusions).

It was a good news, bad news situation. The bad news: Irma’s condition meant she could not have open heart valve replacement. The good news: she was an excellent candidate for TAVI.

A miracle no bigger than your little finger

TAVI is the incredible made-at-St-Paul’s alternative to open heart surgery. With TAVI (transcatheter aortic valve implantation), the new heart valve is bundled into a narrow catheter and threaded into position through a single, tiny incision usually in the groin. It can be done without general anesthetic and is so low-impact many patients go home the next day.

David remembers the experience like it was yesterday. “The TAVI staff were superb. Irma was treated like a queen! Not only that, she was the star of a medical conference in Chicago.”

It’s true. Thanks to generous donors, St. Paul’s has a Virtual Teaching Lab to broadcast TAVI to doctors around the world. To date, St. Paul’s has helped train doctors in 40 countries to replace more than 400,000 valves!

Dr. David Wood live-streamed Irma’s surgery to the conference. As he was talking through the procedure, he mentioned that Irma had a bicuspid valve (a valve with only two leaflets instead of the usual three). Irma, who was awake the whole time, piped up: “Bicuspid valve? What’s that?” The remark sparked laughter from both sides of the continent.

More time = more memories

Irma was discharged less than 24 hours later. “I couldn’t believe they released her so quickly,” recalls David. “She had to call me for a ride because I hadn’t left the house yet!” Two days later, she marched up her favourite hilly path without stopping to rest.

Thanks to TAVI and the pioneering doctors at St. Paul’s, Irma and David enjoyed four active years together. It gave them the time to do what they loved: be with loved ones; hike with the dogs; travel to the Arctic Circle.

As it turned out, that trip up north would be their last big adventure together. A year later, Irma died of complications from liver cancer a few months shy of her 70th birthday.

“TAVI gave us both a better life,” says David.

Donations to Lights of Hope helped give Irma and David the precious gift of time. Give today to bring the gifts of care, and comfort, and time to patients and residents right across Providence Health Care. Thank you!