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Op-ed: How getting the flu shot saved my life
Kevin MacLean made it to London in time for the 2012 Olympics, three months after his open heart surgery. MAY CHANG

COVID, flu and other bugs are making a resurgence now. Medical experts are warning people to get vaccinated. And when Lake Report columnist Dr. William Brown wrote Nov. 30 about the value of vaccines and urged everyone to get a flu shot, it brought to mind this story, which has been updated since its original publication in the Toronto Star in 2014. 


If it wasn’t for the flu shot, I almost certainly would be dead now.

The flu vaccine itself didn’t save my life, but getting the shot certainly did.

It was 2009, long before COVID, but the H1N1 virus was threatening the world with a pandemic. By early November, I still hadn’t found time to get myself “shot up.”

Despite repeated entreaties from my wife, a hospital administrator, and my own admonitions to our three grown children, I just hadn’t got around to it.

Fate intervened. While driving through Woodbridge on a sunny day off, a flu clinic sign beckoned me into one of those ubiquitous GTA suburban plazas. I was the only patient at that moment and was whisked inside, where a doctor administered the H1N1 vaccine.

The young physician did the usual check of my vitals — blood pressure, lungs, heart etc. — then turned to me and said, “You know, you have a heart murmur?”

Or something like that. It’s all a bit of a blur, since, no, I had no idea I had a murmur. And what the heck does that even mean?

The doctor assured me it was probably nothing to be alarmed about, but suggested I get it checked out. “It was very faint. Probably no big deal,” he said. Or something like that.

A few minutes later, sitting in my car in the parking lot, I was on the phone to my family doctor, arranging to see him that same day.

This all occurred at a rather inconvenient time in my life. I had been an editor at the Toronto Star for nearly 25 years and, at age 52, was seriously considering taking an early retirement buyout the company was dangling.

The deadline to file my retirement papers was just over two weeks away. So, all this health crisis stuff was really an unwanted complication.

In a matter of days, a battery of tests showed a genetic anomaly — a bicuspid aortic valve — meaning that the main heart valve has only two prongs instead of the three usually installed at the “factory.”

This sloshy, noisy valve accounted for the murmur. Not a big deal, I was assured again.

But there was something else: a weakness in the wall of the aorta – known as an aortic aneurysm.

Now THAT was serious, like having a time bomb ticking away in your chest. You just never know when it might explode. So, my heart was broken, but otherwise healthy.

Biking, walking, working out, just everyday living — it could rupture at any time. Had it not been discovered, I have no doubt that I would be dead by now.

As a cardiac surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital told me: “If your aorta ruptures while you’re here at the hospital, you have about a two per cent chance of survival. If it happens out on the street or at home, well … ”

What to do? Should I follow through with my early retirement plans? Stay on so my family would have insurance and benefits in the event of my demise? Or just live my life and take each day as it comes?

I opted for the latter. The doctors told me they would monitor the size of my aneurysm (it was about 4.7 centimetres at that time, shy of the 5-centimetre threshold for surgery, but much expanded from the 2.5-centimetre diameter of a “normal” person’s aorta).

Eventually I would need open heart surgery to graft a Dacron (plastic) insert to my aorta.

For more than two years, life went on: I left the Star in August 2010 and began a new career teaching journalism part-time at what was then Ryerson University.

The aneurysm grew slowly, I stayed healthy, and on April 30, 2012, a new chapter in my life opened when I received my Dacron aorta at Trillium Health in Mississauga.

The bicuspid valve that started it all was deemed healthy, if a bit noisy, and it didn’t need replacing.

My recovery went smoothly, we made it to London that summer for a long-planned holiday to cheer on Canada at the Olympics and our daughter’s fall wedding in NOTL was spectacular.

But I owe my life to the sharp ears of the young doctor at the Woodbridge clinic where I got my flu shot.

All these years later, I remain healthy, happy, fully recovered and I do things — bucket list and otherwise — that I might not have made time for previously.

And I get my flu shot every year. You should, too.

Kevin MacLean is managing editor of The Lake Report.

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