15-year-old Sydnee Doiron and her mom, Michelle, sit at a table in the Ronald McDonald House kitchen drinking tea and having an after-school snack. Not typically where you would expect a teenager to be eating her after-school snack, but Sydnee’s story is far from typical.
Her story begins January 2018, when she tried on her grandfather’s blood pressure cuff ‘just for fun.’ Her initial reading of 165 over 100 wasn’t normal. “Oh the cuff must be broken,” she said. “Or the cuff didn’t fit.” But after checking it on everyone else in the room, and multiple times on Sydnee, the Doirons decided to take it home with them. They logged Sydnee’s blood pressure every day for two weeks.
They were first told it was White Coat Syndrome; Sydnee was a competitive dancer, otherwise healthy, and had no other symptoms. Several months later, after several tests and several specialists turned up few answers, the Doiron family took Sydnee to a cardiologist.
The Echocardiogram was telling: Sydnee had a bicuspid valve. Where there are supposed to be three cusps, there are only two. This often causes a narrowing of the aortic valve (stenosis). Where doctors wanted Sydnee’s aorta to be open 18 millimetres, it was only open two.
Sydnee would need surgery. “Instantly I thought I was going to die because I watch Grey’s Anatomy,” she laughed. But after weighing various options – including putting in a stent – and hearing different opinions, they decided on the surgery.
During their meeting with the surgeon, they were informed of the risks. “The doctor said, ‘I have to say this, it’s not going to happen, but there’s a one to two per cent chance of her having a stroke’,” explained Mom Michelle. “’But it’s the lowest of the lowest of the lowest risk. I have to say that to you, but now let’s take it off the table,’ he said.’”
“Truthfully,” said Michelle, “I wasn’t even worried about it.”
As it turns out, doctors were surprised Sydnee had been able to survive at all with her heart functioning as it was. She had been producing collateral arteries, which compensate to keep the heart working properly, and her heart was extremely stressed. And as it turns out, putting a stent in her heart might have been deadly.
The surgery went ahead and, after suffering a post-operative seizure, an MRI showed complete paralysis on Sydnee’s right side.
But Sydnee’s story is one of a girl who’s come up against many odds – and has come out fighting.
Sydnee has come a long way – to sit up on her own, eat on her own, walk on her own, and even talk on her own. For two weeks after the surgery, Sydnee was non-verbal. She spoke her first word (“Mom”) on her parents’ wedding anniversary. That sentence was quickly followed with “…I want dog.” Sydnee laughs because they don’t have one; she just wants one.
The Doiron family was transferred to the Children’s Hospital in Calgary near the end of August 2018, and stayed at the House until February 2019. Sydnee’s progress has amazed her doctors. She was discharged at the end of October, soon began to walk independently (sometimes with the help of a walker or chair for stability), spent hours every day at school (in the hospital), undergoing intense occupational, physical, and speech therapy, and now is back at high school in her home town of Didsbury, Alberta.
When you ask Sydnee what she likes about the House, her answers – in order of favourites – are what you might expect from a teenage girl: the Calgary Flames players (who sometimes drop by), the baking, and the food.
Mom Michelle has a few different reasons for liking the House: “I’m just amazed at this place,” she said. “I can say ‘did I know about the Ronald McDonald House?’ Yeah, I knew about the Ronald McDonald House, but I didn’t really know about the Ronald McDonald House.”
“I thought it was maybe a place to lay your head, maybe grab a meal here and there,” said Michelle. “I did not know there were meals every day, activities planned for kids and families…it just blows my mind,” she said. “And the people are so kind. If you need an ear, you know that there is someone here that you can talk to.”
“RMHC is a true gift – it sounds so cliché, but RMHC truly is a home-away-from-home. We not only needed this place – many families do.”
“It’s a very positive experience,” she said. “Very. I can’t say enough about it.”
Michelle credits Sydnee’s progress to her competitive and determined spirit. “I always worried about that before, but I’m wondering maybe now if that’s not a good thing,” she said. “We are very lucky that she is who she is…we are very grateful for that.”
For Sydnee’s part, she is looking forward to eventually heading home in February, and even going home for a few days at Christmas. Secretly, though, she thinks she’d rather be at the House for the holidays – because you never know when a Calgary Flames player might just drop by.