Mike House, MBA ICD.D, President & CEO of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation, was not supposed to live. At birth he suffered from craniosynostosis, a defect where the bones in the fetus’ skull fuse too early, leaving no room for the brain to grow. The surgery to correct the problem is risky with a high chance of death or disablement, and about a 10 per cent chance of success. Few doctors are willing to do the surgery, but House’s parents finally found one willing to take the risk to save their child.
“There’s also a 1 per cent chance of becoming a genius, but clearly that didn’t happen,” laughs House, “but I did beat the odds.”
Not only did he sail through the surgeries, he only suffered what he calls “a funny shaped head for awhile and a scar for life.”
He also came away with a burning passion for children’s health.
“Somebody decided I was worth taking a chance on and because of that, I have been able to realize my potential in life. My career aspirations have been focused on giving back and trying to maximize the time I have on this earth. I’m so appreciative of every moment. As a teen or young adult, you seldom think about your expiration date. When you are a kid in my position and have to think about it, well, that changes how you view the world.”
While House had his surgeries and was recovering, events were underway to bring about the realization of the Stollery as we know it today. In 1978 the Northern Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation was formed to advocate for a children’s hospital in Edmonton. It was a long journey but in 2001, the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation came into being.
Mike talks about how his journey dovetailed with the progress on establishing the Foundation. “In 2002 I was sitting in my apartment talking to my wife. She asked, ‘what would be your dream job? I said, ‘running the Stollery Foundation.’ For the next 10 years I built up my skill set and my resume so when an opening occurred to be the president & CEO, I’d be ready to apply. In October I’ll celebrate my 10th year with the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation.”
His dream of giving back and helping to save lives had become a reality – and House is working hard to ensure that when he leaves the position, the Foundation continues to grow and fulfill its mission.
House says, “In this position it is a privilege to meet every family and every child. We never know what kind of impact they have in the lives of others. Some need a major transplant or have a chronic disease. Some children sadly pass away. No matter what happens, these kids leave an indelible impact on the world, and we want every child to get the best chance possible to realize their full potential. At the Foundation, it’s more than about raising money and giving back. It’s about helping people become the best version of themselves in the time they have, be it our patients, donors, partners, medical care teams or administrative staff.”
There are many things the average citizen does not realize about The Stollery; namely, its reach. The Stollery is the second largest children’s hospital in Canada, and it is the number one place in Western Canada for pediatric heart surgery and organ transplants for children and teens. The Stollery also has the largest catchment area of any children’s hospital in North America with patients and their family members often coming from as far as Vancouver, Winnipeg and Yellowknife. Patient care covers genetic disease, trauma, viral disease, mental health, cancer and more. While Edmontonians are used to associating the hospital with its location at the university, it is actually operating out of three sites, including the Stollery’s 79 bed Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) within the Royal Alexandra Hospital and the 6 unit NICU at the Sturgeon Community Hospital in St. Albert. The funds raised for the Stollery support all three locations.
It’s not just the patients who receive world-class care.
“The Foundation strives to do the extra things to help relieve stress on the families,” shares House. “We know the importance of doing the little things like providing parents with breakfast, finding phone chargers, etc. At the Stollery we take a full family approach to ensure that everyone is taken care of. The parents are there to advocate for their child’s health. We are there to support the child and their caregivers.”
Part of this support is seen in the many inclusive spaces catering to every culture and spiritual practice. A prayer chapel is available for all faiths. The healing garden with its celebration of earth, air, fire and water provides both a green space and safe space for those that draw spiritual strength from the elements. A labyrinth and indoor garden gazebo provide yet another place to rest in contemplation. The Kaw Kaw Koo Aboriginal Gathering Room allows families to come together for cultural ceremonies on site. The colourful, children’s themed witch tree outdoors offers a conical shape used by those that visualize and work with energy for spiritual healing. At the Stollery Children’s Hospital, the care fully embraces the patient, their families, their culture and their spiritual beliefs. A full spectrum approach has proved to be key in the physical and mental wellness of everyone that passes through the doors.
But it’s not enough. House and his team are determined to work with donors to fill the gaps still existing in the model of care.
“The next evolution is investing in a Stollery network of care, and it stems from the fact that children are best served close to their home, communities and parents,” explains House. “Currently, 40 per cent of our patients come from outside Edmonton. With a network of care, instead of coming to a facility, the care operates around a central hub. Out of seven developed countries, Edmonton is the only city that does not have its own standalone children’s hospital. With the Stollery currently operating within an adult hospital setting at the University of Alberta Hospital, our goal is to ultimately convince our government to construct a purpose-built children’s hospital to serve northern Alberta and beyond.”
The vision for the dedicated children’s hospital space is to tie it into the University of Alberta for research, allow children across Western Canada to experience the highest level of care without leaving (where possible) their communities, and to correct a longstanding wrong – a lack of resources and programming for Indigenous and multicultural communities.
“When hospitals were designed in the 70s and built in the 80s, cultural programs were not built into the infrastructure or the programs. With the hub, we want to include this from the start,” says House.
The Stollery is not waiting for the hub to move swiftly and proactively on Indigenous programming.
“The Awasisak Indigenous Health Program at the Stollery is the first of its kind in North America,” says House. “We do not want Indigenous communities waiting until there is an emergency situation before seeking help. Awasisak strives to heal past trauma, build bridges and gain trust to improve the health status, outcomes and services for Indigenous infants, children, youth and their families who require tertiary neonatal, pediatric or outreach care. We do this by actively including Indigenous communities as part of the health care team who speak Cree and Dene and work collaboratively for patient-focused solutions that are culturally safe and accessible.”
Awasisak has been in operation for five years and the success of the program continues to grow. Should a new children’s hospital come to fruition, this program, and many other innovative solutions, would be a part of the path forward.
“A needs assessment has been completed by Alberta Health Services to demonstrate the need for a standalone children’s hospital that focuses on mental and physical health,” says House. “The provincial government is developing a business case to show where it’s best to break ground, and how much the facility will cost. At that point it will be up to the government to commit capital dollars. But to help with capital costs, and to speed the progress of the build, the Foundation will commit $250 million to the project. Once the hospital is complete, the Foundation would help support operating costs with a further $20-$30 million annually. We want this to be the most attractive philanthropic offer any government capital project could receive. The response from all parties has been good so far.”
At birth and as a child, children’s health care saved his life. Now, House will never stop working to help as many children as possible reach their fullest potential, no matter how many, or few, years they are given.
“Kids are the most complex patients,” he says. “Some don’t walk. Some don’t talk. They come in all shapes and sizes – as small as your cell phone and as big as a professional athlete – and they are constantly changing and growing between appointments over decades of time. They come with caregivers breaking under the stress of the situation. They come with problems that can turn into lifelong conditions due to obesity, organ failure, even a lack of flexibility. The Stollery is here to intervene on all levels. We see the full picture, from how a child’s health and circumstances (poverty, homelessness, victims of racism and/or crime) all affect their outcomes – both physical and mental. Full spectrum intervention at the beginning of a child’s life has a profound effect on their future.”
He continues, “Some circumstances are beyond our control. But we never stop moving, growing or achieving in what we can do for our patients and their families.”
The commitment of House and the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation has not gone unnoticed. Recently House was recognized as the Network Person of the Year among the 170 children’s hospital foundations that make up the Children’s Miracle Network. In early 2022, House was a YPO Global Impact Award Honoree representing Canada
Since 1950 YPO has shared the vision of extraordinary CEOs. On an annual basis, YPO recognizes some of the most impactful work coming from its members around the world with the Global Impact Award. House was humbled by the recognition that took into account his professional fundraising for 25 years; his work in the charitable sectors of health, social service, art and education; raising more than 300 million US dollars for charity over the course of his career and his 2019 trip to Africa where he and several other community leaders climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Stollery.
House is adamant, “The success is not a ‘me’ thing. It’s a ‘we’ thing. It’s not about me. It’s about elevating children’s health in Edmonton in ways unlike anywhere else in the world.
When he’s not changing lives outside of work, he continues to change his own. Maintaining balance means tapping into his creative side.
“I have always had a creative side, whether it’s through pottery, painting, or carving soapstone,” smiles House. “On my last birthday I got to spend time with local artist Giselle Denis and paint alongside of her. I’m proud of my painting from that experience. I also grew up playing sports and I am an avid golfer.”
House has heartfelt thanks for a long list of people that have heavily influenced him, his career, and the Stollery.
“There are 100,000+ people in our community who make a difference and make the Stollery what it is, along with medical professionals, families and researchers, rural and general practitioners. I also thank the board of directors who have believed in me for 10 years. I’m grateful to be able to work with Alberta Health Services and our government, and for my amazing family – my wife, daughters and extended Stollery family. I thank my parents too…I want to thank everyone I know!”
House concludes, “In a lot of ways the Stollery is a representation of how amazing the city is; just this little city in the middle of the prairie provinces that has this incredible facility and potential. The Stollery is such a big part in giving children a great quality of life. We should all be proud of what we accomplish together and when the new hub is (hopefully) completed, there will be a network through the Stollery so some children won’t have to leave their community to experience this outstanding level of care. To me, that would be a career highlight. We’re working on it.”