Ottawa — The man who performed Ottawa’s first heart transplant and Canada’s first artificial heart transplant has died and the legacy of Dr. Wilbert Keon will live on for generations through the thousands of lives he and the dedicated staff of the Ottawa Heart Institute have helped for more than 40 years.
Dr. Keon, who passed at away Sunday in Ottawa at the age of 83, was surrounded by family, including his wife of 59 years, Ann.
Born in Sheenboro, Que., just across the Ottawa River from Pembroke in 1935, Dr. Keon completed his undergraduate studies at Carleton University and went on to earn his MD from the University of Ottawa in 1961. He studied experimental surgery at McGill University and trained at Harvard University.
In 1976, Dr. Keon established the Ottawa Heart Institute and over the course of his 30-year career, he performed more that 10,000 open-heart surgeries. Perhaps his greatest legacy was his ground-breaking heart transplant procedure. He served as the CEO of the institute from 1976 to 2004.
On May 29, 1984, Dr. Keon and his team successfully completed the Institute’s first heart transplant which led to his appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada.
In 1986, he became the first Canadian to implant an artificial heart into a human as a bridge to transplant. The recipient, Noella Leclair, received a human heart within a week, and lived for another 20 years.
Along with his medical accomplishments, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed him to the Senate and he sat as a member of the Conservative caucus until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 in 2010, the same year he also retired from practicing medicine.
In a media release issued by the Institute he founded, Dr. Thierry Mesana, the Institute’s current president and CEO, reflected on his legacy.
“He touched so many of our lives,” Dr. Mesana stated. “Together with the Heart Institute staff, including those who worked alongside him for decades, I pledge that we will live up to his legacy, and his dream to continue building and growing his beloved Institute.
“This is a colossal task as he has touched so many of our lives as a surgeon, as a mentor, as a community leader, and as a friend.”
The release said Dr. Keon dreamed of an institute that would provide the highest standard of cardiac care to the Ottawa community and beyond.
“His vision resulted in the world class Ottawa Heart Institute, which is recognized internationally as a centre of excellence combining cutting edge cardiac care, research, and education. We have continued to honour this vision as we opened our new tower at the Heart Institute last year.”
It is impossible to calculate the enormous impact Dr. Keon had, not only on the thousands of patients who went through the doors of the Institute he founded, but the life-saving procedures performed by the staff over 43 years also affected the family and friends of those in the Ottawa Valley who found themselves travelling to Ottawa.
In every community up and down the Valley, there are many people who have been impacted by the quality care of the Heart Institute.
In 2016 the Stone Fence Theatre Company performed a play entitled “High Times at the Heart Institute.” The profits of that play, in excess of $20,000, were donated to the area’s local hospital foundations and the Heart Institute.
Ish Theilheimer, founder and member of the troupe, explained the production was not so much about Ottawa Valley history as it is about something important to the Valley which he became quite aware of five years ago when he suddenly became a heart patient despite what he thought was a healthy lifestyle.
“I wrote the play based on my personal experience and what I saw at the Heart Institute,” he told the Leader. “We invited Dr. Keon and his wife to our show and they agreed right away. It was so kind and sweet of them to come to Eganville from Ottawa and he even took the time to say a few words that night and that says a lot about the man.
“When I went to the Heart Institute, it was a totally life-changing experience and also inspiring for me. Even more, it was inspiring what local people like Dr. Keon have accomplished in the Ottawa Valley. I had never met him before that evening, but I am honoured to have had the opportunity.”
During that performance, Leader editor/owner Gerald Tracey, who himself underwent procedures at the Heart Institute, had a chance to interview Dr. Keon.
“It was fabulous, fabulous, fabulous,” was how Dr. Keon described the play. “I just thought it was so bang on.”
He addressed the patrons during the intermission and after a standing ovation and long applause for this highly respected man, he went on to thank Stone Fence Theatre and everyone associated with the production.
During his address, he spoke of the great pride he and so many others shared as the 40th anniversary of the Institute was being celebrated that year.
“And thank you for supporting the heart institute,” he continued. “It’s been a fantastic 40 years. I can tell you that.
“It has just been a wonderful life because of the wonderful people there and we have done tremendous things there. I don’t want to be boastful, but now I’m an old man and the young people there are absolutely fabulous. There’s no question about it.”
Although recognized internationally for his achievements, like many successful people who come from the Ottawa Valley, he was humble by nature with a dry sense of humour and that was evident when he concluded his remarks that evening when he thanked everyone for their support.
“God bless you, God bless all of you for coming out and God bless the cast, especially that nurse (Shirley Hill of Cobden),” admitting he had been partial to nurses his entire medical career.
“I don’t know what I would have done without them,” he said. “They just looked after everything.”
Dr. Keon leaves behind his wife of 59 years, Anne, as well as their daughter, Claudia and her husband, Mark Field, who live in England with their four children; their son Neil and his wife, Debbie Loeb, who live in Dallas with their two children, and their son, Ryan and his wife, Cindy Tomlinson, who live in Ottawa with their two children.