When you meet Justine Bovenkerk, one of the first things you notice is her quiet, gentle nature. It’s only when you hear her story that you begin to understand that Justine has the courage and determination of a prizefighter.
“We were in a bind,” says Dr. Atul Verma, Southlake electrophysiologist and medical director of the hospital’s heart rhythm program. “There were no MRI-safe defibrillators licensed for use in Canada. Our choices were to forego the MRI and use CT scans, which would have been less effective, or to use an MRI-safe pacemaker, which would not have provided the full protection against cardiac arrest that her heart needs. We didn’t feel good about either option.”
Dr. Verma and members of the heart rhythm program at Southlake went across the Atlantic to solve her case. After learning about an MRI-safe defibrillator widely used in Europe, Southlake received Health Canada’s approval to use the device to treat Justine.
“I asked Dr. Verma about the cost and he smiled, saying I was now as expensive as the bionic woman,” Justine recalls.
This defibrillator’s programming allows the device to go into an MRI-safe mode to alert the device that it is about to detect an abnormal amount of background noise or disturbance due to the magnetic fields used in an MRI so that it can adjust accordingly.
On December 24, 2012, Dr. Verma came to Justine’s hospital room to help prepare her for what would be groundbreaking surgery. Southlake’s team became the first in North America to insert an MRI-friendly ICD into a patient’s heart. The next day, Christmas Day, Justine was home with her family, the only gift her then six-year-old son requested from Santa Claus. What they did not know then was the next year was about to get so much more intense and exciting.
The cardiac condition Justine has means her blood flow, and the precious oxygen that it carries, are severely reduced. As a result, over the years she had suffered a number of miscarriages. With her heart properly regulated and blood flow restored, it was not long until Justine was pregnant.
At just 25-weeks gestation, Justine gave birth to a very tiny 1lb, 7oz baby girl, Eeva. With her labour so premature, she was transferred to a Toronto hospital so the baby could be treated in a highly advanced neonatal care unit. Her ICD soon became the talk of the hospital.
“They had never had a patient with an MRI-friendly ICD and they were not sure what to do with me during testing,” she says. She knew, though, there were no problems, at least not with her ICD.
It was a rough road for Eeva and her family during those first few months as she fought for her life. “She was so tiny she looked like a little bird,” Justine says. Eeva turned out to be a fighter, though, just like her mom. After three months in hospital, she finally came home.
These days, Justine feels so much healthier, even with the very up and down year she has experienced. She feels safe. She has felt her ICD kick in to slow her heart beat down when it gets going too fast so she is confident it will save her life if need be. Perhaps it already has.
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