A world-renowned Canadian pioneer of heart surgery and an institution in the Ottawa healthcare community has died.
Dr. Wilbert Keon founded the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and in 1986 performed Canada’s first artificial-heart implantation, which was revolutionary for the time.
The institute says Keon died Sunday. He was 83.
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Keon was born in Sheenboro, Que., about two hours northwest of Ottawa, in 1935; he completed his undergraduate studies at Carleton University, earned his MD from the University of Ottawa in 1961, studied experimental surgery at McGill University and trained at Harvard University.
On May 1, 1986, Keon made medical history when he inserted the Jarvik-7 artificial heart into Noella Leclair, who had suffered her first heart attack the week before, during a three-and-a-half-hour operation.
The artificial heart helped bridge Leclair, then 41, for a week until she received a human heart from a 44-year-old man who died in a car accident. She lived another 20 years.
Keon performed more than 10,000 open-heart surgeries during a career that spanned more than three decades.
In 2000, he was arrested in an undercover prostitution sting and resigned from the institute he’d founded in 1976. The public outcry in Ottawa was so vast – thousands of people sent letters and signed petitions supporting him – that the institute’s board rejected his resignation unanimously. He spent another four years leading the institute before stepping down to focus on practising medicine.
In 1990, then prime minister Brian Mulroney appointed Keon to the Senate as a Conservative from Ontario. Keon and seven other senators gave Mulroney the numbers his government needed in the Senate to overcome a Liberal filibuster and push through the GST.
He once jumped to the aid of a Liberal senator who had collapsed in his seat, raising fears he had suffered a heart attack.
He retired from the Senate in 2010 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 and gave up practising medicine the same year.