Brad Smoliak was the official chef of the Canadian Olympic team. He’s even cooked for the Queen. But to medical professionals, the coolest thing about him is his heart.
The Edmonton chef and restaurant owner is one of Canada’s longest-living recipients of a now-uncommon surgery, the Mustard Procedure. And he recently received a high-tech artificial heart.
“My heart works absolutely backwards to how yours does, which is very interesting and very confusing for the medical profession,” Brad said with a smile.
Brad was born with a heart defect -—transposition of the great vessels. His first open-heart surgery took place when he was just 11 days old.
Then at age five, his family took him to Toronto in 1972 for the Mustard Procedure — a groundbreaking surgery to essentially flip his heart. He was one of the first Mustard patients in Canada.
“There were… quite a few kids that didn’t make it,” Brad said. “So I’m one of the lucky ones… very lucky.”
That repair held up for decades, until a major cardiac episode at age 34. At one point his heartbeat was recorded at 240 beats per minute. The average heart does 100.
Last fall, a doctor told the 52-year-old and his wife, Leanne, that Brad was in late-stage heart failure. He would need a transplant.
“I think Brad and I had come to terms with living every minute of every day, not knowing when the end date might be,” said Leanne.
“And then to hear (he needed a transplant)… it was devastating… but hopeful.”
Then came more bad news. Testing showed Brad’s body wouldn’t be able to support a new heart.
“Because my body was so used to working with the heart that it had, all the organs weren’t prepared to take a new heart,” said Brad.
“The healthy (donated) heart is not used to pumping against this high pressure in the lungs… it would just fail,” explained Dr. Holger Buchholz.
To reduce that pressure, and to keep him alive until he’s ready to go on the transplant wait list, the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute team offered Brad a VAD.
The Ventricular Assist Device reaches inside a patient’s body to pump blood in a continuous flow, doing the work of their failing heart. Edmonton’s VAD program is the largest in Canada, with about 60 patients.
On Jan. 18, 2019, Mazankowski specialists implanted Brad’s VAD. Because his heart is “backwards,” the surgery took 12 hours. He woke up five days later.
“It was like, ‘Okay I made it,'” said Brad. “(The surgeons) did their job… now the rest is up to me.”
Brad has endured intense rehabilitation. He’s also spent more than 100 days in the hospital, battling complications.
“There were dark days,” said Leanne. “There were days when we knew he was fighting for his life.”
Since October of 2018, he’s lost over 80 pounds — but his sense of humour is intact.
On hospital food: “As a chef, I’ve paid for worse… (but) the coffee was horrible.”
On his equipment: “The VAD is called Sid, and I have a little bag… I call him Gary. The plug-in charger is called Gladys.”
On not getting the VAD’s external controller wet: “I can’t do dishes, so I’m pretty excited about that!”
Brad recently returned to work, but says his days of working 14-hour shifts are over. Now he takes time for himself. He and his wife of 27 years no longer save the good wine just for special occasions.
“Maybe we are a little bit softer, gentler and just so darn grateful,” Leanne said with a smile, through tears.
“One of my favorite things now is watching people in traffic,” said Brad. “It’s just hilarious because you see people… they get so worked up.”
“And I’m smiling, and I crank up my Ukrainian music, and away we go.”
Watch below (March 5, 2017): Chef Brad Smoliak previews the dishes he’ll be featuring when he hosts a Pop-up Dinner at the Southside Spinelli Bar Italia on April 4.