Without a Pulse
Local 52’s own bionic man beat the odds and is back on the job
John Littlejohn keeps a CLAC pencil and copies of his training cards tucked into the outside pouch of a small bag hanging from his shoulder.
“This bag comes with me everywhere anyway,” says John, a Local 52 member employed by Dependable Mechanical Systems Inc. (DMS). In the bag is a highly specialized—and highly expensive—medical device that keeps John alive.
“I’m like the bionic man. Not quite TV’s Six Million Dollar Man, but this stuff is worth over $100,000.”
Against long odds, John is back on the job with DMS, a Greater Toronto Area-based contractor that provides mechanical and electrical services for the industrial, commercial, and institutional construction (ICI) sector in Ontario. He and his fellow Local 52 members do the electrical work on everything from shopping malls to schools to libraries to recreational facilities.
John, a CLAC member off and on for nearly a decade, is affected by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a hereditary heart condition (see sidebar next page). He was diagnosed with the condition 10 years ago.
“I was wondering why I was feeling crappy,” he says. “The left side of my heart is double the usual size.”
For a long time, John managed his condition with medication. “It was never much of a problem for years. But over time, the meds became less and less effective.”
This past summer, things took a turn for the worse, resulting in John spending nearly three months in Toronto General Hospital. But only a few months later, he was back at work, thanks to a state-of-the-art left ventricle assist device (LVAD) that circulates his blood.
The device itself is attached inside John by a tube eight inches from his heart. He carries the control unit, about the size of a Walkman, and the expensive 14 volt lithium ion batteries in a shoulder bag. “I’ve got to plug myself into the wall like a phone charger every night to recharge it,” he says.
The device keeps John’s blood flowing, but as a result, he has no discernible pulse. “It’s more of a pressure, so you can never disconnect,” he says. “It’s like a sump pump in your basement that is on 24/7.
“Toronto General is the only hospital in Canada that does this procedure. They’re known for heart stuff. Dr. Ross, the head cardiologist, and her whole team have been great. Dr. Yao [cardiac surgeon], Marnie Rodger [nurse practitioner], Dr. Jaun, and the many other nurses and doctors made returning to work and my in-hospital and clinic care possible and as pleasant as could be. I’m eternally grateful.”
John isn’t done with Toronto General. He’s on a waiting list for a heart transplant, which can take up to five years. The LVAD has been a great solution, but it’ll only be effective for at most 12 to 15 years.
John’s family provides him with the emotional support he needs to get through such a serious health challenge. But his wife and son also are trained on the LVAD and how it works—in case something goes wrong.
“Diet and medication, plus carrying this thing around, is like a full-time job,” he says. “That’s why a lot of people don’t go back to work. Management at DMS, especially Dalas the electrical superintendent, and Raj the owner, were great at finding a good accommodation situation so I could return to work.”
John got his LVAD last July. He was back to work in early October. With his movement somewhat restricted, he’s transitioned to a more supervisory role where he’s dealing with blueprints and safety forms more than with scissor lifts and coils of conduit.
He’s also been active in the union. Local 52 was certified as the bargaining agent for DMS’s electricians in April 2015, and John served on the bargaining committee to negotiate their first collective agreement. In fact, he had to sign the agreement from his hospital bed.
“I felt like a shady lawyer when I went to the hospital to get his signature,” laughs Darren Schutten, CLAC representative.
There’s an old joke that in boom times, if you have a pulse, you’ll get a job. With amazing perseverance, and a solid workplace accommodation plan, John Littlejohn is working hard and making valuable contributions despite not having a pulse at all.