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Heart transplant won’t slow Fonthill Masters athlete

71-year-old Jeanette Dempster hopes her swimming prowess will get her to the Canadian Transplant Games next summer; 'You need to set a goal, and work towards it'
Jeanette Dempster hopes to compete next year in the Canadian Transplant Games.

They say that adversity breeds strength and resilience. A 71-year-old Pelham woman is living proof.

Jeanette Dempster survived a serious heart condition, and underwent a heart transplant. She is back swimming competitively, hoping to take part in the Canadian Transplant Games in Ottawa next August.

The retired nurse, who worked mostly in mental health departments in Niagara hospitals for 40 years, has been a Fonthill resident since 1976. Dempster suffered a cardiac arrest at age 42, and lived with an ICD devise — a battery-powered implantable cardioverter-defibrillator placed in the chest to detect and stop irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmias — for 20 years thereafter. She was diagnosed with additional serious heart complications in 2014, and ended up on medical disability with congestive heart failure.

“I underwent a heart transplant in 2018 at Toronto General Hospital,” she said. “In my eyes, it’s the best hospital in the world. Dr. Michael McDonald, one of Canada’s top heart specialists, performed the surgery. I’ve been tolerating the daily anti-rejection drugs quite well. You learn to live with the side-effects.”

As part of her recovery, Dempster took up hiking with the Bruce Trail Club. She had been a Masters swimmer at Brock University in her 30s, and decided to get back into the sport.

“The Brock Swim Club is open to all ages,” she said. “The group is fantastic. I’m the oldest participant currently, encouraged by the supportive swim coaches at Brock. My cardiologist also encouraged the exercise, although with a transplanted heart, I need a long warm-up. The 50-metre freestyle has been my best event in time trial swimming in competitions in Etobicoke, London, and Ottawa. The Canadian Transplant Games will be held in Ottawa in August of 2024, and I’m aiming for that.”

Her swimming is augmented by resistance training with weights. She doesn’t do any running these days, due to her osteoporosis, a degenerative condition involving bone fragility.

Dempster intends to keep competing as long as possible.

“There are aches and pains to fight through, but you need to set a goal, and work towards it,” she said.

Beyond the Canada Transplant Games, the World Transplant Games may also be an option for Dempster down the road. Established in 1978, they involve athletes from some 60 countries in an array of summer and winter athletic events, and promote amateur sport among organ transplant recipients, living donors, and donor families. Perth, Western Australia is the site of this year’s World Transplant Games.

With children and grandchildren the area, and the opportunity to travel in her senior years, Dempster and her husband, Dave, enjoy retired life. She is active in the Pelham Garden Club, and is looking forward to the group’s garden tour on June 24.

Organ donation is always an issue which is top-of-mind for Dempster, and she encourages all to be aware of its positive impact.

HeartLinks, a support group of heart transplant patients out of Toronto General Hospital, has a Facebook site — — which provides testimonials from those like Dempster, who have received a donor heart.

“It is, quite literally, the gift of life,” she said.


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Don Rickers

About the Author: Don Rickers

A life-long Niagara resident, Don Rickers worked for 35 years in university and private school education. He segued into journalism in his retirement with the Voice of Pelham, and now PelhamToday
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