Breath-taking complications, breath-saving comeback

From left: Ruben Enns, Jennifer Enns, and Kolby Enns; Wayne and Shirley Billeck; Scott Billeck and Krista Johnson Billeck, with dog Phoebe.

Sports fans relish the comeback, the overtime thriller. Sometimes real life delivers similar drama.

Cardiac patient Shirley Billeck and her family, including son Scott, a sports reporter with the Winnipeg Sun, were thankful St. Boniface Hospital was on their team.

Shirley, 64, began experiencing a leaky heart valve around age 30. Shirley has also lived her life with scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine.

Last September, as many more Manitobans do each year, Shirley came to St. Boniface Hospital to undergo open heart surgery.

While the procedure to replace her heart valve was successful, recovery was more like a series reaching Game 7.

“The first week, everything was fine,” Scott explains. “But she was having trouble breathing on her own. “Her medical team came to realize both of her lungs had always been partially not working. The bottom portions were, for lack of a better term, dead.”

When supplemental oxygen through nasal tubing and then by mask proved inadequate, Shirley needed to go on a ventilator.

I remember asking her not to die.

“That was the hardest time,” says Scott, who had become the Sun’s Winnipeg Jets beat writer earlier in the year. “I’d been traveling while my mom was in the hospital, but that morning I was here, in Winnipeg and was heading to the Jets practice. She wasn’t awake at that time when she was ventilated.”

It was a very real possibility she could die. And that was a very tough morning. I remember sitting in the room alone with her crying and asking her not to die.”

Breathing on her own

Only after a tracheotomy to create an opening through her neck into her windpipe, allowing direct access to the breathing tube, did Shirley grow stronger and begin breathing on her own.

For Shirley, details of her nearly eight-week stay at St. Boniface Hospital are understandably hazy. Family, including husband Wayne, daughter Jennifer Enns, and Scott, got her through the hard times.

“They’re wonderful,” said Shirley, speaking over the phone from home nearly eight months later. “I didn’t know I’d put them through so much. The lack of family would have killed me.”

Today Shirley’s thinking about a return to work as lunch hour supervisor at Beaumont School in Winnipeg’s Charleswood district. It’s a job she’s held for 30 years. She misses the kids.

She’s grateful for the care she received, noting that she’s made a donation in support of cardiac care and research at St. Boniface Hospital.

With professional sports on hold in the wake of COVID-19, Scott is now reporting on developments around the virus. It’s a role that brings reminders of what his mom went through.

“There’s nothing enjoyable about seeing a loved one on a ventilator. It’s life support, essentially. At the same time, thank goodness hospitals have these machines. A ventilator helped keep our mom alive until they could figure out how the tracheotomy would work.”

The patience, compassion, and expertise of staff have stuck with Scott.

“It’s such good care that you don’t realize it until you’re part of it. Then you see just how much they do to help not only the patient, but also the family.”

“Insert superlative.”

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