On a cross-Canada road trip in the 1960s, Cherie Davidson’s parents made it as Abbotsford from their Vancouver Island home before disaster struck.
Her father suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to hospital in critical condition. Davidson flew to Vancouver to be by his side, then wound up staying at his home once he was discharged from the hospital.
Headed out to get food, Davidson’s mother was barely out of the driveway when her father had another heart attack. This time Davidson, a young nurse at the time, was right there with him.
“It was traumatic,” said Davidson. “I had worked in critical care, but it’s different when you’re handling it for your own (family).”
Davidson’s father ended up in a hospital in Duncan, then Victoria for a few months. She collected information that might help her parents once they left the hospital, but felt there had to be a better way to receive post discharged care.
During a stint of nursing at Stanford in California, Davidson worked with a cardiologist doing research on stress as a contributing factor in heart attacks. Once she returned to Victoria, she learned that a group of social workers and cardiologists were trying to develop a heart-health education program.
Davidson was asked if she could get the program off the ground and be the facilitator. She took on the position as a volunteer, setting up a series of eight week classes that included a cardiologist, nutritionist, social worker, fitness expert and pharmacist. The program soon took off.
“We wanted it to be education. I think it’s incredibly important for the community because there’s a lot of stress that goes with heart disease and we encourage people to change their lifestyle if that needs to be done,” said Davidson. “If those things don’t happen, then people are going to run into problems again.”
Davidson has since retired from nursing, but 29 years later the Island Heart to Heart program is still going strong, offering support for thousands of cardiac patients and their partners recovering from a heart attack or procedures such as angioplasty, stents and open-heart surgery.
During the weekly sessions, participants meet with others who have had similar experiences, increase their understanding of what happened, and develop coping strategies to improve their quality of life.
According to the program’s website, starting a cardiac rehabilitation program within 30 days of a heart attack can reduce a person’s chance of another heart attack and cut their risk of dying by 20 to 30 per cent.
Thelma Fayle is one of the people who’s gone through the program, held at the Hillside Seniors Health Centre.
After a fun dinner one night with friends, Fayle and her partner Daryl attended a public lecture at the University of Victoria. Within a few minutes, Daryl said he didn’t feel well. He kept touching his chest, leaning forward and shifting in his chair.
Thinking he was having a heart attack, Fayle soon rushed Daryl to the emergency ward of the Royal Jubilee Hospital where more than a dozen people were waiting in line. By this time he was experiencing violent chest pains and placed on a speeding gurney.
“I burst into uncontrollable, terrified sobs,” said Fayle, who sat in the hospital’s family room, feeling overwhelmed.
An hour and a half later, the cardiologist returned to report the damage — Daryl was expected to make a full recovery, but needed two stents put in (tiny mesh tubes that help restore blood flow through blocked arteries).
Six days after Daryl’s heart attack, the pair began the heart-health education program at the advice of the cardiologist. One night a week, they listened to specialists talk to a class of 20 people who had recently had heart attacks. The couple wondered why people aren’t taught such life skills earlier.
“Just sitting in a circle on that first night with a group of people who had recently had heart attacks and hearing their varied comments helped to normalize our experience. We were not alone,” said Fayle, adding the next morning Daryl woke up feeling happy and relaxed for the first time since his heart attack.
“It dawned on me for all that time, I had very nearly held my breath, hovering over his every move in my waking hours and having disturbing dreams in my sleep.”
Even though Davidson has stepped away from the program, she still has contact with many of the people involved. About a year ago, she sat in on a session and was pleased to see people are still as enthusiastic as they were when the program started in 1986.
The program has also spread to other communities. During a visit with her daughter in Cranbrook two years ago, Davidson’s son-in-law suffered a heart attack. His cardiologist recommend he attend the local heart-health program.
“You like to think that you made things better for somebody or helped to do that,” said Davidson. “Often these patients will come very stressed but they gradually realize that it’s not the end of the road, you do have life after heart disease.”