A cyclist riding a bike outdoors


Riding for his life

After heart disease nearly knocked him down, Ride for Heart veteran Alistair Giffin is back on his bike

Chapter 1 A cyclist first

When he first got involved in the Heart & Stroke Ride for Heart in 2010, Alistair Giffin was mostly there for the bike ride. “I’m a cyclist and the event gave me the opportunity to ride on the Don Valley Parkway. The fundraising was secondary, but important to me because of my father.”

He gathered colleagues from CIBC, where he works as a senior business consultant, and put together a team for the annual Heart & Stroke event, in which cyclists took over one of Toronto’s busiest highways.

She basically told me I was ready to drop dead.
Alistair Giffin

Alistair wrote on his registration form that he was raising money in honour of his dad — who had experienced multiple strokes. Then as Alistair returned to lead his Ride team each year, he eventually added his mother’s name, after she had a stroke and a heart attack. Over the decade, Alistair raised more than $15,000 for heart and stroke research.

Despite his family history, it did not occur to Alistair, who lives in Markham, Ont., that he might be at risk. “My dad was a smoker,” he says. “And he drank; it was the ‘70s.” Alistair, meanwhile, was healthy and active and rarely drank.

But after Alistair had an emergency procedure to remove a kidney stone in 2019, the surgical team told him his “heart did something funny.”

The concern didn’t seem urgent, so more than a year passed before he finally got an angiogram.

Chapter 2 Heart disease hits home

While he was in the angiogram recovery room, the cardiologist rushed in. “She was freaking out,” he recalls. The test showed that the two main arteries of his heart were fully blocked, plus one branch of his heart’s arteries had never developed. He needed double bypass surgery immediately. “She basically told me I was ready to drop dead.”

That was February 2021. Alistair, then 54, had a double bypass and his undeveloped artery repaired. During pre-operative testing, doctors discovered he had atrial fibrillation, an irregular and often rapid heartbeat that can lead to blood clots.

“The surgery went fantastic. I felt amazing,” he recalls. Within a few days, Alistair was cleared to go home. A nurse removed the pacemaker wires that had been implanted during his surgery as a routine precaution. He ordered Swiss Chalet to the hospital and had a Friday night feast, his bag packed for his Saturday morning discharge.

But the food didn’t go down well, Alistair remembers thinking as he fell asleep early. It was two days later when he finally woke up.

Chapter 3 ‘They saved me from dying’

His wife, Lisa, told him what had happened. The removal of the wires had made an accidental tear in his heart. On Saturday, instead of going home, he was rushed into emergency surgery with internal bleeding.

When they opened him up, they discovered that the atrial fibrillation had led to air bubbles around his heart. These could have developed into life-threatening blood clots. Surgeons removed them during the procedure. “They saved me from dying,” says Alistair.

Hospital staff warned Lisa that Alistair could have cognitive impairment as a result of his heart not beating for a long period during the operation. However, when she told him all that had happened, Alistair starting swearing and saying, “So, I’m not going home?” She knew right away that his brain was just fine.

Recovery was tough for the normally active Alistair. “I spent that summer mostly getting out in the fresh air and just enjoying being alive.”

Now, Alistair is preparing for this year’s Ride for Heart, tackling a 50 kilometre road route near his home. He’s thrilled to be back on the CIBC team to support a cause that has truly affected his family, and to just get on his bike again.