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McMurray Comes Together for the Morgans

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Heart failure. Open heart surgery. Now. This is all April Morgan remembers hearing from her newborn’s doctor, the rest was a nightmarish blur.

Thus began a saga for April, 33, and Matt Morgan, 33, three years ago, when their little girl, Lily, arrived premature at 35 weeks old. She was 4 lbs. 7 oz. Her pediatrician heard a heart murmur, but didn’t think much of it until the seventh day when Lily stopped feeding. That’s when a pediatric cardiologist diagnosed her with Congenital Heart Failure (CHF), which is a progressive condition in which the pumping power of heart muscles is affected. To make matters worse, Lily was born with four holes in her heart, as well as a blocked aorta.

“Your heart sinks when you hear these words. You don’t know what to do,” recalls April.

“All you can think is: you can’t live without a heart. She was premature, making her heart the size of a walnut. Would she need a transplant, where would we get that size transplant? I would have made a deal with the Devil night that if I had met him,” she continues.

According to the Canadian Congenital Heart Alliance (CCHA) an Ontario based non-profit, “Congenital heart disease (CHD) is the world’s leading birth defect. About 1 in 80-100 Canadian children are born with CHD. Sixty years ago only about 20% of children survived to adulthood; that number has since increased to about 90% – resulting in a growing population of young adults who require lifelong cardiac care.”

Lily was immediately Medevaced to Edmonton where a team of doctors awaited her at the Stollery Children’s Hospital. April and Matt drove down not knowing their newborn had flatlined on her way to the hospital, and had to be resuscitated. They wouldn’t be told this for many weeks. It took the NICU team some time to stabilize her; the cardiologist didn’t leave her side that night. The couple also didn’t know they wouldn’t leave the Stollery for the next two months.

In addition, with the heart holes, and a narrow aortic arch, the main artery failed to provide blood to the lower part of Lily’s body, making her hands and feet cold all the time; and her blood flow was backwards.

“She was almost drowning herself. And, she would randomly stop breathing, because babies can’t regulate their breathing with such major conditions,” recalls Matt, who is a welder for Syncrude, and in town for over 24 years.

Lily had her first of seven surgeries at two weeks old. Her doctors fixed the aortic arch to correct the blood flow, but Lily caught a post-surgery virus. At two months, she went home where she stopped eating again. A G-Tube – surgically inserted feeding tube fed her a high calorie formula. An open heart surgery followed when she was six months old. She’s had a few strokes as well.

The Morgans, who have two older daughters, Brianna, 11 and Chloe, 4 now, began making frequent trips to Edmonton for Lily. With a compromised immune system, Lily had to wear a surgical mask whenever someone visited the family. One of these visitors was Billy Martin, a family friend, who convinced the duo to go out for a much-needed date night last year. This is when the Morgan house came to his attention.

A drywall business owner, Martin, was horrified by the 1984 mobile home’s condition. Matt had bought it in 2008; selling wasn’t an option, as they owed a lot on it.

‘I noticed the cracks in the ceiling, there was mould, and water insulation problems, things that are common in older houses, and maybe liveable for average people, but not Lily,” notes Martin, who has been in Fort McMurray for 18 years.

Along with his girlfriend, Bree, Martin planned for over two months to pull off what would later be dubbed Extreme Makeover: Fort McMurray Edition. The idea was inspired by the popular TV show, and the goal was to get the project done in mid-January when the Morgans would go to Disney in Florida, thanks to the Children’s Wish Foundation.

Through social media, and word of mouth, Martin and his friends, especially Stephanie Klaamas began rallying support. A team of about 120 volunteers, 118 companies and an estimated $340,000 in donations later, the house was renovated in nine days. The big reveal took place on January 25, 2018 garnering provincial media coverage.

“It made us reflect on how hard the Morgans life was, and the house was making their sick daughter more ill. We wanted to help them concentrate on making Lily better,” comments Klaamas.

“We moved the family and their belongings out in under two hours. We had the trailer gutted and down to studs by noon the next day. On day two we found some extreme rot, which meant having to replace the entire right side of the trailer down to the steel frame. Following this, it was pretty much as planned,” shares Martin.

That plan saw new trusses, reframing the entire addition and adding in-floor heating. New plumbing, heating and electrical followed. HEPA filtered HRV system, insulation, drywall and paint spruced up things. A $20,000 custom kitchen, new vinyl floors, and new furniture throughout the house was added. The only original remaining portion of the house is the steel frame. Martin and his team ensured every renovation item was installed with easy cleaning in mind. Dunvegan Gardens recently donated landscaping.

Rob Rice, Owner/Operator, Home Hardware Fort McMurray, along with his wife Jaylene, came on board right after they saw the Facebook campaign; and donated a $10,000 pre-paid account. He reflects on why they helped.

“Because you have to give back to this community. The Morgans are members of this great city and are a very deserving family. You have to help people in need.”

Rice, 39, knows a thing or two about being in need.

“Fort McMurray is my home, I’ve lived here since I was four years old. I remember when my family lost everything due to a house fire in the 90s and this amazing and generous community gave back to us.” recalls Rice, who has worked for the store for the last 20 years, and became its owner five years ago.

“Rob and Jaylene’s support pushed me to go for more,” Martin enthuses.

And, the more emerged in the form of a brand new 2016 Grand Caravan donated by Legacy Dodge/Denesky. 

“The minivan came with custom items from Subserious AutoWorks and True North Automotive.  This was huge. This made it feel like we were on the real show,” Martin enthuses.

Guy Bordian, General Manager, Legacy Dodge feels helping the Morgans was important.

“We did this because we support many different causes in the community both financially, and with staff who volunteers. We suited the minivan with winter tires and rims. The Morgans are great people, who have been dealt a tough blow. The Bouck family (Legacy Dodge), the Herman Family (Denesky) and the staff from both businesses felt it was the right thing to do,” Bordian explains.

This feeling of “doing the right thing,” spread across different sectors. Markaz ul Islam, the Islamic Centre of Fort McMurray pitched in $10,000.

“Lending a hand to others is as important in Islam as praying to God. When sister Bushra Irfan, who was volunteering for the project shared about the campaign there was no hesitation. This is the least we can do,” notes Mohammed-Ali Al-Zabidi, President, Markaz ul Islam.

The project has inspired Martin to start planning his own non-profit company called “YMM Angels” with a motto: “Building with the Spirit of Fort McMurray.” The group will take on similar projects. Stay tuned for launch details on social media.

“We collectively changed the Morgan family’s life by giving their little girl a safe home to grow up in,” he notes.

As for April, she just “can’t thank Fort McMurray enough.”

“I owe Billy and his team my life. They saved Lily’s life. There are fewer sick days and resulting trips to Edmonton for Lily, because of the renovations. The house used to be so drafty, I could tell the temperature by looking at the window. My older daughter had continuous nose bleeds. The last time my girls had a virus, Lily was hospitalized for six days. We would be continuously removing mould. The house would’ve been condemned soon, and we would have no place to go,” she says through tears.

“You see this on TV, and you dismiss it as marketing. Yet, you wonder if it could happen to you, and I did - after Lily was born. To have this happen is amazing. I have given back to this community as a volunteer donating thousands of hours for Victim Services Unit, including 3,000 hours in one year alone.. I can’t thank everyone enough,” notes April, who was also nominated for a Heart of Wood Buffalo Award in 2013.

Coming together for others – one of the many things we do best in McMurray.


Kiran is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.