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Family, faith, music renew cellist Hooker

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For many people, attending a performance of Nutcracker is a treasured tradition at this time of year. When the overture began on opening night of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's production on Thursday, it was especially meaningful for one musician in the pit.

Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Yuri Hooker was making his first appearance with the orchestra since last season. In early September, Hooker was in Ottawa, rehearsing with the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) for the upcoming run of La Bohème with Opera Lyra Ottawa. After a dress rehearsal, he went out with a friend to a local club to listen to a klezmer band. That's the last thing he remembers.

The 37-year-old woke up days later in the Ottawa Civic Hospital. He had collapsed in the club with what turned out to be cardiac arrest. CPR administered by an anonymous bystander at the club saved his life.

"I've been told that if you are going to have a heart incident, this is the place in the country to have it," says Hooker of the hospital's Heart Institute, where he received treatment. "They call it 'the palace.'"

Hooker spent three weeks there, being monitored, cared for and tested. His wife, conductor Michelle Mourre, flew out to be with him, as did his parents and two children, Ari, 8 and Elly, 10. "I'm sure it was very harrowing," said Hooker, a 13-year veteran of the WSO. He retains little memory of the early days, except for pain from the CPR. "The first days were the most uncertain."

Surgeons installed an ICD (implantable cardioverter-defibrillator) in Hooker's chest on his birthday, Sept. 25. It works by detecting and stopping abnormal heartbeats, delivering electrical shocks to restore normal heart rhythm when necessary. "They told me it feels like being hit by a baseball bat," said Hooker.

The next day, Hooker flew home to Winnipeg to begin recovery. The doctors couldn't uncover what caused the incident and there is no history of heart disease in his family. "I don't have any dietary restrictions," he explained, "but I am not allowed to do any strenuous competitive sports because of the ICD. My day-to-day activities are not affected."

He resumed playing the cello and teaching four weeks ago and when we spoke last week, was excited to get back to work. "I miss being there and seeing my colleagues. It's wonderful. I realize what a blessing it is to play with other musicians of such high calibre."

The Calgary native put it aptly: "When you grow up in the mountains, you don't always realize how beautiful they are. The sound of an orchestra is overwhelmingly beautiful."

Music certainly played a role in Hooker's recovery, but his faith was the primary tool to healing. He and Michelle shared their experience with the congregation at their church last month. Michelle recalled how some of the first words out of Hooker's mouth after tubes were removed were "manuscript paper." She ran to a hospital computer and printed some out. In a weak voice, Hooker dictated to her the opening phrase to Bach's Musical Offering. "I don't really know why, except that I love Bach and the work. I spent a lot of time on it, arranging it for cello ensemble," Hooker explains.

Raised in a Christian household, faith was always an integral part of Hooker's life. He and Michelle ensure that their children learn these values as well. But there's nothing like a near-death experience to renew one's faith and since his cardiac arrest, Hooker has spent more time reading the Bible and scriptures.

"It kept the anxiety level down and gave me a sense of hope regardless of the outcome. Every aspect, from this happening to the way people reacted, has been very affirming of my faith. Through it all, I feel mostly blessed for this event -- I almost don't believe it. It has affirmed my belief in God and the kind of transformational work he can do."

Hooker has nothing but amazement and gratitude for the response from family, friends, their church and the orchestra community for the love, support and prayers offered his family throughout their ordeal. "I am so thankful and grateful for Michelle," he said. "She cared for me physically as my nurse after the surgery and stayed with me day and night in the hospital. She made sure my and the kids' emotional needs were being met and she has been my spiritual sounding board as well. She kept us organized and worked endless hours so that I could rest and so we could remain financially afloat... the whole experience has drawn us even closer as a couple and taught us to value each other in a deeper way."

The Grant Memorial Baptist Church choir and funds from NACO paid for his children to fly to Ottawa. "My parents were also a great support. Elation Pauls (WSO violinist) took up a collection to help out with our expenses. She even organized friends to bring us dinner every day for three weeks straight after we got back from Ottawa... we are very grateful to the WSO musicians and administration -- everyone has been incredible."

Hooker is a gifted musician, who, through his impassioned playing, has touched countless listeners. We may never have known quite what was behind his passion, but now we do.

As he returns to the work he loves so well, he thinks more deeply about why. "I am just wired that way," he says. "I like to think that what I do can positively affect people's lives -- change their outlook. It gives me the opportunity to serve people in a way not many can do."

gwenda.nemerofsky@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 G4

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Updated on Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 6:50 PM CST: fixed photo

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