Speaking from...and for the Heart!
Robyn Houle is 51 years old. Since the spring of 2000, she has suffered 9 cardiac interventions, including 2 bypass surgeries (her first at the age of 36). This past October she celebrated her 10th Anniversary of her last bypass and she’s remains symptom free. The Brockville Cardiovascular Program (BCP) at the Brockville General Hospital was not an option when Robyn was going through her heart issues, because… it didn’t exist. In spite of never being able to access the program, Robyn is passionate about ensuring its continued availability for anyone in the area who’s recovering from a cardiovascular event. This became particularly significant when her own mother had to have emergency bypass surgery.
As the Brockville and District Hospital Foundation’s Annual Appeal Campaign is well underway, fundraising for the BCP, it seemed fitting to talk to a passionate supporter about why it’s so critical for this program to be at The Brockville General Hospital to serve the surrounding community.
Q. Robyn, you exude enthusiasm, with such a healthy zest for life. When one meets you, heart disease would be the last health issue one would equate with you. You are passionate about dispelling the myth of heart disease, and in particular having oneself checked (especially women) if there are any risk factors. Can you tell us a bit about your passion to educate people when it comes to heart health?
A. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have a pre-conceived notion regarding what a cardiac patient “looks like”. Many risk factors for cardiovascular illness such as lifestyle (diet, smoking, inactivity, weight, stress and alcohol/drug abuse), high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, high cholesterol and diabetes are manageable, especially when we have regular communication with our family physician, so we have control over them. Other risk factors like family history, gender, age and heritage are beyond our control so we have a responsibility to ourselves and the people who love us to pay attention. This is especially critical with women who are “hard-wired” to take care of others before themselves. Because of this, a cardiovascular event tends to be more significant with women because we wait too long to get checked out.
Because my diagnoses all happened when I was young, fit and healthy, it was critical to me to share the story of what my family and I went through because heart disease and stroke is the leading killer of women.
Q. You were a young wife, and mother of two small children when you first encountered heart issues. What thoughts and feelings were going through you mind at the time?
A. My initial symptoms – fatigue, shortness of breath and an ache in my back - were easy to ignore because they were omnipresent (especially for a full-time working wife and mother with two young kids) and familiar to almost everyone I knew. When we discovered that I had an almost 100% blockage of a very critical artery, I was in complete denial because I was only 34 and I was healthy and slim. Having said that, I knew there was a catastrophic history of early onset heart disease on my paternal side thanks to my mom sharing that info at my doctor’s appointments when I was growing up. All of the members of my medical team were very careful about giving me enough info to be safe instead of scared silly. The information gave me a chance to communicate with my kids that there was something wrong with my heart but the doctors were going to work hard to fix it.
Kids are very smart though, and my daughter Callie, picked her moment to ask me if I was going to die (kids figure out that a heart is important at a young age). I asked her if she would let me take a moment to be think about my answer, which she granted. I thought long and hard about what to say and when I came back I told her that I expected everything to be just fine but that, if something bad did happen, it wouldn’t be because of anything that she did or didn’t do and that I loved her, her brother and dad very much. I can assure you that this didn’t become any easier each time the blockage recurred.
Q. During your heart health journey, the BCP was not yet formed. Where did you have to go? What did your treatment and care involve?
A. When I left the Ottawa Heart Institute after each procedure, I was given a booklet containing a recovery protocol and a phone number to call if I had any questions or concerns. The responsibility was enormous and I didn’t really have anyone to check in with so an already exhausting recovery became even more difficult due to anxiety and a growing sense of isolation. It would have been so much better if there had been a place like BCP at that time because I would have had support and a group of peers who were also going through a similar circumstance. I also think it would have also eased the concerns my family was experiencing.
Q. How are you doing now? What proactive steps do you now take to maintain your heart health?
A. I’m doing really well and I owe it to the incredible teams of medical professionals in both Brockville and Ottawa. My family doctor and cardiologist, who were in Brockville, communicated effectively with the Ottawa Heart Institute and my doctor and I stay in regular communication to make sure that everything’s okay.
In spite of this, I don’t have the luxury of assuming that my indigestion symptoms are innocuous or that an aching back is an aching back because we’re hyper-attuned to anything being even a little bit “off”.
Q. The Foundation’s Annual Appeal focus for 2016 is the BCP, why would you encourage your friends, your neighbors to make a donation to the program?
A. We’ve all heard the expression “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”. With respect to the BCP, I would say “you don’t know what you need until you need it”.
Isn’t it ironic that I’m so committed to a place that I hope and pray I never need to use?