Weston was a senior project manager on construction of the Teck Acute Care Centre, slated to open on Oct. 29. It is the centrepiece of a five-year, $678-million redevelopment project that will transform and improve treatment for B.C.’s children and their families.
Weston and his wife Jewel, like most parents in the Lower Mainland, were familiar with the sprawling hospital campus on Oak Street. The Chilliwack-based father of seven, and grandfather of nine had, with his wife Jewel, also fostered 23 children, and there had been plenty of bumps and bruises along the way.
But they had no idea just how familiar they would become with the hospital until one night in 2008, when two of their sons, Grason, then 8, and Philip, then 11, were horsing around on the sofa.
“We were just sitting around watching a movie. They were leaning on each other and started listening to each other’s heartbeat. I remember Philip had his ear to the chest, and then he told us ‘Grason’s heart sounds funny to me.'”
Weston said they didn’t think much of the 11-year-old’s assessment. He didn’t have a stethoscope and he’d only had his other brother John’s heart for comparison. “What do you mean? It’s beating, right?”
“Well, yeah,” Philip replied, “but it sounds funny.”
Weston and his wife decided to humour him and give a listen. Sure enough, said Weston, when they listened closely they heard something just a little off. Different.
“It was almost like a little squeaking sound. Almost like you were kinking a hose and there was a different sound than just a pure rushing of water. Almost a little squeak or a honk when the blood would rush through.”
Weston wasn’t alarmed, in part because he had a heart murmur himself. He’d been monitored throughout his life and there had never been a problem. His doctors knew about the heart murmur, but had never detected anything wrong with Grason’s heartbeat. Grason was also their most active child.
They took Grason to their family doctor, who referred them to Children’s Hospital for tests.
“Nov. 6 of 2008 was the appointment where we went in to get a full ultrasound, ECG with the cardiologist. My wife and I had booked to leave on a week’s vacation. Fortunately our flight was in the evening, our appointment was mid-morning. We thought good, we’ll go to the appointment, confirm everything is good and take off on our little holiday.”
But, during the ultrasound, Weston said the technician looked concerned and kept asking whether Grason got tired easily or did he ever faint.
After a battery of tests, it was the cardiologist who delivered the news: Grason had a severe aortic valve problem that was causing the sound his brother had detected. The aortic valve was almost completely calcified, and their son would need open heart surgery and a valve replacement.
“We were in complete shock. I think we were turning white. It didn’t make any sense. We were speechless.”
Philip’s discovery had saved his brother’s life. “We tell him that all the time. There is no question.”
The hardest part was yet to come. Grason had just turned nine when he went in for open-heart surgery. Weston and his wife were with Grason the pre-op room with him until the very last moment, all of them trying to be brave. “Doctors and nurses were reassuring, but when they take him out of your arms and walk him down that hall, that was hard.”
Weston said he “just lost it” after the medical team left with Grason. “I was crying. I was very, very upset.”
The surgery was a success. Grason had a full recovery and is now 17, and a high-level high school basketball player.
For Weston, walking on to the construction site of the redevelopment project at Children’s Hospital as the parent of a patient was hard to describe. “In some sense, you almost feel at home there.”
Weston, a senior project manager with contractor Ledcor, said his experience as a B.C. Children’s Hospital parent was with him throughout the whole project. “I thought, it may be a small way to give back but I owe them something. The level of care, concern, interest, respect and information you get from Children’s Hospital is second to none.”
Marty Geusebroek, an electrical engineering designer who worked on the project, was living in Alberta when he heard about the job opportunity. Each of his sons, now aged 7 and 9, had been born prematurely. Although his children were born in Edmonton, he’s familiar with what parents go through in a NICU, or neonatal intensive care unit, setting.
“It was stressful. Our son Jonah was seven weeks early.”
Jonah was in the intermediate care nursery at Misericordia hospital in Edmonton for almost two weeks after his birth. Two years later, when Geusebroek’s second child, Sebastian, arrived prematurely, he also spent two weeks in hospital.
“No parent wants to have to go see their child in the hospital,” said Geusebroek. “Everybody working in the NICU understands the weight and gravity of the situation, and they are there to help you understand what your child is going through, what to expect and how to best work with those things.”
Geusebroek said his history was with him as he worked on the project in Vancouver. “Having had that experience humbled me.”
Geusebroek said he’s been struck by how many people working on the project have been involved with B.C. Women’s and B.C. Children’s hospitals either as parents or as patients themselves. The experience informed their planning.
He recalls a meeting with architects and mechanical and electrical engineers when one of the clinical planners said, “We have to stop designing a space for mini-adults. Children are not little adults. Everything that a child needs is different than what an adult needs.”
“Children come with caregivers, parents, siblings, diaper bags, strollers,” said Geusebroek. “They are also in important developmental stages, that development needs to continue. So technical care is one part of it, but the mental and emotional growth of the children is important as well.”
One of the aspects of lighting that Geusebroek is most proud of is diurnal lighting that mimics the rise and fall of natural lighting outdoors. “This is so that children who are kept indoors have the natural sleep and wake cycle and are not affected by the artificial lighting within the building.”
Stephanie Valentinuzzi, a civil engineer, started on the job nearly three years ago as a project manager. Valentinuzzi was in charge of elevators and the hundreds of different types of doors the hospital required.
“I’d never had to work on a project where you have things to deal with like lockdowns or pandemics or an outbreak or think about things like (preventing) abductions. It was a huge learning curve,” said Valentinuzzi.
It was also a project she wouldn’t have missed. The door into the project, for Valentinuzzi, was her mother’s journey through ovarian cancer.
Valentinuzzi’s mother, Esterina, had been a school teacher and dedicated her life to children.
“To me it was a way of giving back to what she had given her life to,” said Valentinuzzi.
Valentinuzzi said her mother, who was born in Italy, came to Canada and threw herself into improving her life, starting with education. She met her husband Joseph, an engineering student at UBC, who also immigrated from Italy.
“They were the poorest of the poor to start off their lives, so her going to UBC and getting her science degree and then going into teaching was a big deal for her family. It was all about education and making a better life.”
That life included the birth of Stephanie and her twin sister Cristina. The Valentinuzzis settled in Kamloops where Esterina taught Grades 4 and 5. Stephanie Valentinuzzi said her parents worked hard, saved and planned so their daughters could reach their potential. Their dreams were realized when both daughters were accepted to UBC in the civil engineering program.
But in 2001, as the girls graduated from high school, their celebration was dimmed when, Esterina, 51, was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer.
Valentinuzzi tells her mother’s story often — it’s a cautionary tale she hopes other women and medical professionals can learn from. Like many women experiencing ovarian cancer, Esterina went to her doctor with unexplained pelvic pain only to be turned away. Doctors dismissed her concerns as menopause.
Her mother’s symptoms continued, including bloating, distended abdomen and frequent urination. “The people at the ER just kept turning her away.”
It wasn’t until she went to the doctor for the fifth time and refused to leave that she was taken seriously.
“If they had taken my mom seriously when she first went in, there would be, I believe, a 100-per-cent chance that she’d be here today,” said Valentinuzzi.
Valentinuzzi has become an advocate of raising awareness of ovarian cancer. “With ovarian cancer, if you catch it at stage 1 when it’s just starting to present itself, you have a 95 per cent survival rate. Stage 3 survival rate is living five years. To me there is no survival once you’ve lost your mom.”
Valentinuzzi was 17 at the time of her mother’s diagnosis. “I remember walking down a long hallway with the doctor and him telling us our mom had a month left to live.”
Her mother was positive, said Valentinuzzi. “She never said ‘Why me?’ She said, ‘Why anyone?'”
“She said don’t worry, it’ll be fine, we’re going to get through this and understand the plans going forward. Anyone can give you a prognosis and it means nothing. It’s all about your mental state.”
She insisted the girls continue to follow their dreams. Putting off their education was out of the question. “We wanted to stay home and take care of my mom, but she said no, you guys need to pick yourselves up and go on to UBC and do the things we’ve all planned for.”
What broke her mother’s heart were the children she met in the B.C. Cancer Agency waiting rooms. “She’d say, I can handle it, but for these kids it’s so unfair. We have to do everything in our power to help these kids.”
When Valentinuzzi’s mother went into remission, it seemed a miracle — and not one to waste. Esterina decided to further her own education, and in 2005 she got a master’s degree in mathematical problem-solving. She became an ESL and home and hospital teacher.
“For kids going through treatment and were off school, or were sick for some reason, she would go to their homes and help them with their homework, or go into the hospital itself and make the lesson plans for kids.”
Five years after her initial diagnosis, Esterina was still cancer free, but a year later she started to feel unwell. The cancer had come back. This time, the cancer didn’t respond to chemo and eventually spread to her lungs and brain.
Valentinuzzi’s voice begins to tremble. Her mother told them she really wanted to be at her daughter Cristina’s wedding. “We planned my sister’s wedding in a week, on May 14 2011. My mom was there. It was a beautiful day.”
Valentinuzzi and her sister took leaves of absence from work to care for her mother, who died a month later.
“We were 27 when she passed away. She said I’ve taught you everything you need to know about being good human beings, career-wise, and about being good moms. I knew I couldn’t leave you at 17, there was just too much I still needed to show you.”
One of the most important things their mother taught them was about helping others. It’s something Valentinuzzi and her sister Cristina take seriously.
“We go on jobs like this, and try to give back and find joy and honour her.”
Every day when she was walking the grounds of the new Children and Women’s hospital buildings, or working on solving an engineering problem, her mother was in her heart, said Valentinuzzi. She thinks her mother would have loved the new Children’s Hospital.
“Every room has natural light and a bed for the parents, a washroom, a nurse that’s close by, I remember being with my mom and you couldn’t track down a nurse because they were at the end of the hall, it’s dark, there are no windows. My mom would be so incredibly proud of the advances they’ve made that children can heal in an environment like this.”
• The $687-million redevelopment of B.C. Children’s and B.C. Women’s hospitals is a three-phase project anchored by construction of the Teck Acute Care Centre, scheduled to open on Oct. 29.
• The acute care centre includes a new pediatric intensive care unit, a high-risk labour and delivery suite, a new neonatal intensive care unit, an hematology/oncology department, two floors of medical/surgical in-patient units, 231 private patient rooms, family amenities and a new emergency department.
• The redevelopment project will connect the new acute care centre to existing buildings on he sprawling hospitals campus with covered walkways. It includes future renovation to other areas of the Oak Street hospital campus, addition of 10 maternity care rooms at the adjoining B.C. Women’s Hospital, and relocation of the Sunny Hill Health Centre (a rehab centre for children) from East Van to Oak Street.