Published by cahoadmin at July 21, 2016

Patients + Research: Heather Harris

Patients + Research is a platform for patients to discuss their relationship and experience with the research that leads to new cures, cares and treatments.

Meet Heather

Heather Harris was one of 24 people who took part in a ground-breaking clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital for patients with early, aggressive multiple sclerosis.

Heather Harris was one of 24 people who took part in a ground-breaking clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital for patients with early, aggressive multiple sclerosis.
Heather Harris and daughter Zoe

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your health story?

I noticed a numbness in my foot one morning that had traveled up the right side of my body by the end of the day. That was my first attack. I was given a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), months before my wedding and my 25th birthday. My disease progressed quickly, with a number of attacks every year despite the disease-modifying drugs I was taking. It became difficult to walk, to stand for significant periods of time, and to lift my arms above my head. I lost my vision completely in each eye at different times and was numb all over. My coordination and balance began to be affected and I was extremely fatigued. I felt like my disease was out of control—that there was nothing I could do to stop the inevitable—which was spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair.

Why does health research matter to you?

Health research gave me a chance to fight the inevitable. It is the reason I am not in a wheelchair today.

A clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital was my chance to fight MS. I underwent an intensive combination of chemotherapy and stem cell transplants in a procedure known as immunoablation and autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (IAHSCT). It was a difficult and risky process, but it was worth it.

Today I am able to do all of the things that I want to do. The research conducted by Dr. Harold Atkins and Dr. Mark Freedman has given hope to patients like me, who had a rapidly progressing disease that did not respond to the more traditional medications and therapies. Life in a wheelchair is now not the only alternative for us. MS is such an individual disease, and everyone experiences it differently. What works for one patient doesn’t necessarily work for another. Hopefully this clinical trial will lead to research and breakthroughs that help more people with MS.

How does health research contribute to a healthier Ontario?

Health research allows us to do things that no one thought possible. If I had my same disease 20 years ago, I would have been in a wheelchair by the time I was 35 years old. Because of health research, I am able to walk, to work full time, and to run after my two-year-old daughter.

Patients depend on health research for new and improved treatments that will change the course of their disease or condition, and alter the outcome for the better. Health research will ensure that we are able to move forward and develop more effective, safer treatments for patients in Ontario.

How can the patient voice support, improve or empower health research?

Hearing the stories of patients who have been directly impacted by health research will raise the profile of research with the public. It will encourage other patients to seek out and participate in clinical trials and other research, the results of which bring hope to so many.

It is important that as patients, we stay connected to the research that is happening in different medical fields, and that we are advocates for health research. Status quo is not an option for many who are suffering. Health research will provide hope for all.


If you would like to participate in the Patients + Research blog series, please email or call Elise Bradt at, 416-205-1469, or tweet us at @CAHOhospitals.

Stay tuned on our blog for more Patients + Research posts and share your own insights on Twitter with the hashtag #onHWS. To learn more about why health research matters for Ontario and how you can support it, download the Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter Policy Platform and check out our other blog posts and videos.