Twenty years ago, Sept. 11 was a life-changing day for Astrid Heye.
Now 84 and cancer free for the past 20 years, Heye had cancer surgery that day at St. Joseph’s Hospital in London – the same day terrorist attacks brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York.
“As they said today (Saturday) we’ve got to go back in history and tell our young people what happened, what evil can do,” said Heyes. “We might have challenges ahead.”
“It was very surreal that day (Sept. 11, 2001),” said Mary-Lynn Heye, Heyes’ daughter. “Having that tragedy occurring at the Twin Towers, and then having on the flipside, a family member who is going through this cancer surgery process. Very surreal. And very bittersweet, too. You’re happy, but you’re also sad for other people, like the 23 Canadians who lost their lives. The last person who walked out of the Twin Towers, I went to school with him at Western. He survived, but…
“The surgery went well, but her healing, that was another story… another challenge in itself. But mom did really well, she had really good care. The surgeon (Dr. John Paul Sweeney) was amazing.”
“I called back 10 years to see if he (Dr. Sweeney) was still practising,” said Heyes, who learned the doctor had passed away.
Follow-up after surgery was done at London Health Sciences Centre.
“The oncologist decided no chemo due to my mom’s health issues,” said Mary-Lynn, “which were heart and diabetes. During that whole healing process (which lasted five-plus years) it was challenging for my mom. She had to have 13 lymph nodes removed and right-side mastectomy.”
“One (lymph node) was cancerous,” Heyes noted.
“What Dr. Sweeney said was, ‘It just started in one lymph node, but I have to take all of it.’ And with no drainage in your arms, it’s challenging,” said Mary-Lynn.
The mental tension was also debilitating.
“It’s a mental stress and that was very difficult for her. She got very down, initially, and then my aunt (Marie VanDamme) took her out and said, ‘You’re going to stay at my house.’ You need to be around people.”
“Your own family,” said Heyes.
“There are a lot of people here in Hickory Hills who drove her to the cancer clinic,” said Mary-Lynn. “Roy (Overland) did, my mom’s neighour’s daughter did, and there were volunteer drivers (Canadian Cancer Society) from the cancer clinic as well that would pick her up and take her when we couldn’t.
“And there was the cancer group I was with right here in Tillsonburg,” said Heyes. “There was about 15 to 20 of us. We would meet in the restaurant near the theatre (Christopher’s).
“They were very supportive,” said Mary-Lynn. “You could just call and talk to somebody.
“If you look at it in total, all the people involved in her care to ensure that she is where she is today, it’s quite remarkable.
“She is very strong in her faith and the CWL in Langton was amazing. They helped her a lot as well. These people cannot go unnoticed.”
“A lot of prayers,” said Heyes. “I always say, if you have hope and faith miracles do happen. So I did receive a miracle. They (medical staff) did not think I would survive.”
She remembers a trip to Tillsonburg District Memorial Hospital.
“I was sitting on the porch at the back and I was thinking, ‘Gee I don’t feel very good.’ It was hot as hot, and gory looking and it burst as I stepped into the door. I cried for three hours. I never knew what was happening so I said, “I’ve got to take myself to the hospital. So I did. I said, ‘Please help me, I don’t know what’s happening. I was all full of blood.”
She saw Dr. H.F. Lamb and two nurses who could not believe what they were seeing.
“It was a mess,” said Heyes. “He wrapped me all up, I came back home, and three hours later I bled through again. I said, ‘I’m going to be a goner I think.’”
Dr. Lamb was still on duty that night at 8 p.m., and she was told they were calling London.
“After that, my neighbours, they took me 11 times to London. Until Dr. Sweeney said to me, ‘Astrid, I don’t think I can save you.’ I said, ‘Doctor, just do the best you can.’ And yes he did, and that’s why I am so grateful to him.”
“My mother is very tough,” said Mary-Lynn. “Not many people could have gone through what she’s gone through. You’ve got to believe. She’s stronger than she knows. My aunt says that to her, I say that, my brother (Philip, and wife Karen, with grandchildren Alexander, Sam and Lauren), we all say it. ‘You are stronger than you know.’ There’s a will to say ‘I can do this.’ You have to persevere even though it is very challenging.”
“And be kind to others,” said Heyes.
“Ever since I moved to Hickory Hills in 2002, I can’t thank the mayor of our town enough, the councillors, and all the people that are very, very kind.”
Astrid gave up her car last November, and with the local community centres closed or offering limited services (Hickory Hills community centre and Tillsonburg Senior Centre) since 2020, it has limited socialization.
“I did before, both, but I can’t do it right now,” she said. “Maybe it will change.”
Mary-Lynn drives her mother to her home in Oakville for nearby appointments.
“She just had an appointment this week in Mississauga,” Mary-Lynn noted.
“I am blessed,” Heyes smiled, “and I thank her for it.”
“In any health crisis, you need support,” said Mary-Lynn. “You can’t do it by yourself. It’s not possible.”
“MSC (Multi-Service Centre) has been wonderful for me,” said Heyes. “My PSWs, yes.”
“She has a very good repertoire of PSWs that take care of her, which is good,” Mary-Lynn nodded. “Not everybody has that option.”
Heyes recalled being part of the Tillsonburg MSC assisted living program, which helps clients stay at home rather than going into a retirement home, when it was still a new pilot project.
“They just wanted to see if it was working – and it is working. I don’t know how long it will last, but… they say they have palliative care too. Haven’t come to that stage yet, hopefully.”
For now, Heyes is looking forward to her 84-and-a-half birthday.
“These days she celebrates half birthdays,” says Mary-Lynn.
Will she be getting cake?
“I don’t know,” Heyes grinned.