The cardiac surgeon
Dr. Hillit Cohen
Even at the tender age of 5, Dr. Hillit Cohen was thinking of the human heart as “the most interesting and beautiful organ.”
After becoming a staff surgeon at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer Hospital in Tel Aviv and being hailed as the country’s first female cardiac surgeon, Dr. Cohen set her sights across the seas to complete a clinical fellowship at Sunnybrook’s Schulich Heart Centre, under the supervision of Dr. Stephen Fremes.
And, like the heart in all its extraordinary capacity, Dr. Cohen is also a busy single mother raising two toddlers. “My job is to do well and to make a person better,” she says.
Statistically, fewer women choose the surgical profession, which is demanding. Dr. Cohen takes it all in stride.
“I think you have to have a kind of inner resilience,” she says. “You never stop learning, and you work to see and best understand the challenges of each case. Sometimes there are unexpected things and you always have to look for the answer. It’s what drives us to grow and improve.”
She is assisting Dr. Fremes and other cardiac surgeons at Sunnybrook with bypass procedures and valve and aorta surgeries.
A perfect day on the job is a perfect surgery, notes Dr. Cohen, who holds a clinical fellowship at Sunnybrook. “Everything goes well, from the start right through to when the patient goes home.”
By Natalie Chung-Sayers
The medical imaging director
Growing up in Hong Kong, Henry Sinn attended a school that was unlike any other in his country. Rather than focusing solely on academics, the school encouraged extracurricular activities.
“We didn’t just study hard to get results, we’d play hard,” says Henry, who used his extracurricular time to be a Boy Scout. “We learned how to be team players, how to be leaders.”
Those values guided Henry through a 10-year radiography career in Hong Kong and continued to do so when he came to Canada in 1993 and started working at Sunnybrook.
As a radiographer, Henry provided diagnostic imaging support to clinical teams. He recalls fussing with a computed tomography (CT) scanner that, at that time, had very limited range.
“We’d scan the patient’s head, and then we’d need five or six people to help pivot a patient so we could scan the other parts of the body,” he says. “We needed to find a different way.”
And they did. Instead of rotating the patient on the scan table, they slid the patient up and down – a small change that made a big difference in patient and staff safety.
Twenty-three years later, Henry is now the medical imaging department leader who encourages his team to do things differently to improve patient outcomes.
“There’s always a risk with being a trailblazer,” says Henry, “but it comes with the reward of improving care.”
By Katherine Nazimek
The parent advocate
As a teen, when faced with trials or tribulations, Tracey Addison would look to her parents for empathy but was disappointed by her father’s response: “But that’s life.”
A Danish immigrant who had lived through the war, Tracey’s father had faced many hardships in life. “Now I get it. The most important thing my dad taught me was to be resilient,” says Tracey. “Life is full of ups and downs.”
Fast-forward 30 years. Tracey’s contract as director of admissions at a girls’ school was expiring and she questioned what was next. Ironically, a friend sent her a posting for a new role with the Family Navigation Project (FNP) at Sunnybrook. Not only was it perfect timing, but the FNP had just helped her and her family through a difficult time, finding resources for them and their youngest child with mental-health and addiction issues.
“I e-mailed the job posting to my husband with the subject line ‘God’s plan for me,’ ” says Tracey.
The role – Parent Advocate with Lived Experience (PAL) – was a perfect fit for her. Tracey provides knowledge and peer support to families from the perspective of someone who has “been there.”
“I’m amazed how often, after a call, I feel I’ve received as much as I’ve given. It’s like speaking to kindred spirits every day. Situations may be different, but I understand a mom’s broken heart. Today may be dark, but I know there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Seeing signs of recovery is joyful.”
How are things at home now? “Things are good at the moment. We still face our challenges,” says Tracey. “But that’s life.”
By Nadia Radovini
The Veterans Centre manager
They say that people in careers that suit them are happier, healthier and much more satisfied not just with their jobs, but with their life overall. True to form, Nancy Smokler has found her niche.
In 1998 Nancy took a three-month placement in Sunnybrook’s Patient Relations Department. That placement lasted until 2004. Little did she know that her skills in quality improvement and her talent in risk management would eventually lead her back to head a new department – Office of the Resident & Family Experience and Safety, Sunnybrook Veterans Centre.
“After being away from the hospital for a few years, I landed in just the right place,” she says.
At Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre, the country’s largest care facility for war veterans, Nancy works to ensure that the expectations of the 475 residents and their families are met. They are often exceeded.
“I find it rewarding to work with veterans and their families,” says Nancy. “And it is very satisfying to improve the system for those who come to me with an issue.”
Nancy’s extensive qualifications hold her in good stead for her position, which covers a lot of territory. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto and Certified Professional in Healthcare Quality (CPHQ) accreditation. She also has certification in risk management and safety in health services, as well as training in health law, privacy in health care, consent and capacity and other related health-care legislation.
“Much of what I do involves listening and working creatively with residents, their family members, and the interprofessional care teams to find appropriate solutions,” says Nancy.
Finding a creative outlet of another sort is also of great importance to her.
“I perform with fellow staff in the Sunnybrook band, sing jazz and do theatre in my local community. I even sing a couple of times a month for the veterans at Warrior’s Hall.”
By Sally Fur
Jay Davis’s journey to triple bypass surgery in 2014 began with, of all things, a sore Adam’s apple.
Suspecting an underlying heart issue, Jay’s family physician sent him for a stress test, which he promptly failed. After a subsequent angiogram revealed nine blockages in his coronary arteries, he was scheduled for bypass surgery at Sunnybrook.
“I was 52 years old, and I had no idea this was coming,” Jay says.
Two years later after his successful surgery, Jay still comes to Sunnybrook every Friday – this time, as a volunteer with the Heartpals program, where he shares his experiences with patients who are scheduled for heart surgery.
“The health-care team prepares you for what to expect clinically. But just being able to sit and talk to someone who’s walked the same path, and who truly understands how you’re feeling, is incredibly meaningful and reassuring,” Jay says.
He feels a connection with every patient and staff member he meets on the cardiac surgery unit.
“I thought I’d volunteer for a few months and then move on, but I’m just drawn to this place and these people. The staff here saved my life, and I want to give back however I can,” he says.
Every November 6, the date of Jay’s surgery, he reflects on all the things he would have missed over the past two years, including spending time with his wife and three daughters and becoming a grandfather.
“I have a new lease on life, and I no longer take anything for granted.”
By Sybil Millar
The parking attendant
Rain or snow, hot or cold, Tabor Kidane has spent 10 years braving the weather to stand outside the hospital’s main entrance and guide the thousands of people who come through the doors every day. And he does it with a smile.
“This is not a club. This is a hospital,” says Tabor. “Everyone who comes through those doors is dealing with pain, even if you can’t see it.”
For weeks when he started the job, Tabor studied the traffic – the routes of the taxis, buses and pedestrians. “People were yelling at each other because they couldn’t get to where they needed to go. I thought, I can help.”
The idea of helping others was engrained into his mind as a young child in Ethiopia. Every Sunday, on the way home from church, he and his father would pass by an elderly blind woman in need and his father would hand him one dollar to give to her.
“Everyone in our community knew that if they needed help, they could go to my father,” says Tabor. “I wanted to be like him. I wanted to help.”
And so he does. Tabor has helped people with mobility issues cross the busy street; directed visitors to parking and answered their questions; been a friend to the patients who don’t have visitors; and even helped a man who had a seizure on the street.
“I don’t do it for me. If someone sees what I do and is inspired by it or grateful, I tell them to do the same for others,” says Tabor. “A table is heavy for one person to lift by themselves, but with the help of others, the table is light.”
By Katherine Nazimek