Ronald Alan Sept, 1946-2012

Heart disease ran in the family; he had survived three heart attacks, and a heart transplant

Ronald Alan Sept was born on Jan. 11, 1946, in Medicine Hat, Alta. His parents, Albert and Anne Sept, were farmers from Maple Creek, a rural Saskatchewan town, some 85 km southeast of Medicine Hat. Ron, the first of two children (his sister Carol would come five years later) was milking cows and feeding chickens at age five. He liked to ride horses, herd cattle and help his mom bake cookies. But his favourite pastime was music. When Ron was 7, he took up the accordion and couldn’t put it down. He was so skilled after just two weeks that his teacher sent him home: “The teacher said ‘He’s gonna teach me!’ ” Ron told his family.

On Christmas Eve, 1958, when Ron was 12, his dad suffered a heart attack and died. Things changed quickly for the Septs. Anne rented the family farm to her brother and moved Ron and Carol to Medicine Hat, where she found work in a hospital kitchen. Ron grew up overnight, helping with chores, getting Carol ready for school. But he wasn’t all that interested in school. As a teen he often missed class—intent on making a living, not getting a diploma. One day, when he was 16, he skipped school to help a friend deliver milk. Ron was in the passenger seat of his friend’s milk truck when another driver ran a stop sign and smashed into them. Ron went flying through the windshield. Miraculously, his only injury was a cut on his forehead; this, however, wouldn’t be the last time he dodged death.

When Ron was in his late teens, his mom remarried. Ed Stahl was a rancher and a devout Christian. Things got a lot more strict around the home. Ron joined the navy shortly after and left home.

He travelled the world with the navy; Singapore was his favourite destination. When he returned home a few years later, he married Lois Chambers, a friend from high school. They had two kids, and he found work with CP Rail, first as a conductor and eventually as a freight train driver. “I think there were times when he didn’t like his job but he didn’t talk about it much,” says his daughter, Jamie. “He was a family man, a good provider.” The long hours, however, were taking a toll on his health. In 1989, Ron and Lois split up. Shortly after, Ron had a heart attack and underwent triple-bypass surgery. “He had a huge will to live and persevere,” says Jamie. Ron bounced back and was soon back at work.

In 1990, Ron met Jacqueline Goodine, a sales associate, while she was helping one of his neighbours paint a fence. “He was such a kind-hearted person,” she says. “You couldn’t help but to fall in love with him.” They bonded over their shared love of country music and karaoke—they sang Elvis covers at weddings in Medicine Hat together—and in 1993 were themselves married in Las Vegas. “If he had his way he would have been an Elvis impersonator,” she says. They were an active couple, always singing because “it was good for his cardiac problems and his lungs,” says Jamie.

In 1998, Ron had another heart attack. This time, he underwent quadruple-bypass surgery. But once again he defied the odds, recovered, and went back to singing karaoke with Jacquie. In 2000, tragedy struck yet again: this time, he wound up on the transplant list “because his heart wasn’t functioning the way it should be,” says Jacquie. Ron got a new heart, and recovered once more—even though his doctor told him he probably wasn’t going to make it—and went back to camping, cooking and singing Elvis tunes with his wife. “He was so strong through all of this. And he’d been cut open five times,” says Jacquie. When she got home from work he’d “always have supper ready,” she says. “He’d ask me in the morning ‘What do you want for supper?’ and I’d say ‘I haven’t even had breakfast yet.’ Cabbage rolls were his specialty.”

In September, Ron’s health began to deteriorate. He collapsed one night while getting into bed. Surely, Jacquie thought, it was his heart. Ron was admitted to Calgary Foothills hospital. On Oct. 4, the man who’d cheated death four times and got a brand new heart when doctors could no longer patch up the old one, contracted West Nile virus from a single mosquito bite. He was 66.