Andy Aitken enjoying the outdoors
With the help of KHSC's Cardiac program, Andy Aitken is now back to doing what he loves, spending time outdoors, hiking, canoeing, and bird watching.
Matthew Manor

From his sprawling property on Wolfe Island, Andy Aitken speaks about his love for the outdoors. He and a friend have turned his old farm into a personal conservation area and bird watchers’ paradise. Together they have started both a successful Purple Martin colony and created nesting for threatened species of birds. He also loves canoeing and camping, but as recently as a couple of years ago, all these activities felt completely out of reach.

After his retirement from a 25-year career as a house painter, Aitken wasn’t able climb the stairs in his own home any longer without becoming out of breath and experiencing chest pain. It was starting to become clear that he was experiencing issues with his heart. Initially though, he ignored his body’s warning signs, at least until they couldn’t be ignored any longer.  

In 2021, Aitken underwent a life-altering cardiac surgery at Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) and now he’s back to enjoying his passion for the outdoors.

“I used to procrastinate before all of this. I always wanted to travel and thought there would always be time later to do that. After this type of experience you realize, life is short, take care of your health and don’t waste time waiting to do what you love.”

The journey to the operating room

In need of a both a heart valve replacement and single bypass surgery, Aitken's care was put into the hands of KHSC’s cardiac program, the only team in southeastern Ontario able to meet his complex needs.

Aitken required full open-heart surgery which left behind a large scar as a lasting reminder of his life changing experience. "Initially, I wasn't ready for that," Aitken admits, recalling the initial shock after finding out he needed surgery. However, his confidence soon grew as he realized he was in the best possible place for his recovery.

“The surgeon was very direct and mapped out everything that was going to happen. I could tell he was experienced, and he personally assured me that he had done this surgery many times before. So, as the surgery date approached, I was quite confident and didn’t have a lot of fear going into it. He reassured me everything would go well, so I went in feeling very confident.”

The road to recovery

The days following surgery proved to be an experience that Aitken will never forget. He underwent his surgery during the height of the COVID pandemic.

“COVID turned everything upside down and I know the hospital was doing fewer surgeries at that time, so I feel really lucky to have gotten the surgery when I did. Of course, they weren’t allowing visitors into the hospital at that time, but I do remember a chaplain from spiritual health would come and visit me every day.  It was nice to just say hello and chat.”

He also recalls the post-surgery pain in the initial few days after his procedure.

“The staff were wonderful and were so helpful, they made it so much easier. Making sure I had the proper pain medication, and then slowly weaning me off it again. They also taught me how to care for the surgical wound. They really started preparing me right away to go home and it was such a good experience.”

Engaging in cardio rehab post-surgery, Aitken also found solace in learning proper exercise techniques, and how to navigate the healing process with caution.

Innovative support beyond the hospital walls

As Aitken prepared to leave the hospital and go back home, a new chapter in his recovery unfolded.

“I was nervous about going home, but the hospital discharged me with remote monitoring equipment so they could keep an eye on me.”

Aitken found solace in KHSC’s home monitoring program and was provided a kit which included a tablet, blood pressure monitor, weigh scale, and blood oxygen monitor among other items. This allowed him to connect with healthcare professionals daily, getting real-time support and advice.

"It felt like having a doctor in your own home," Aitken remarks, highlighting the program's user-friendly nature and the ability to address concerns promptly. “I’m not at all computer savvy, but the tablet would prompt me to enter my information, and someone was on the other end monitoring me. I would arrange to speak with someone from the hospital every evening and the great thing is you were talking with them face-to-face. They could even look at my incision during the call to see how I was healing.”

Expressing gratitude for the support received, Aitken believes the remote monitoring program instilled confidence, making the transition home less daunting. He underscores the importance of such systems, especially for others who may also feel technologically challenged.

“I can’t imagine going home without that kind of support. My friends were great and helped me, but this whole system with the tablet, and doing it yourself, really made me feel more confident about being home.”

A legacy of gratitude

At any opportunity, Aitken now expresses deep appreciation for the medical teams at KHSC, acknowledging his original connection to the hospital, through his mother who also worked as a nurse at KGH in the 1970’s. As he stands ready to start a new chapter in life, he speaks with a sense gratitude for the transformative power of cutting-edge healthcare.

"It's life-changing."