Reflections on Heart Health Month

It’s the type of call that you dread ever receiving and, true to form, it shattered me. I had given birth to my first child a few weeks before and was struggling with the exhausting and bewildering experience of being a new parent. My parents had been helping me navigate how to care for little Celia and I was so grateful to have had my Dad offer to watch her one morning so I could just go drift aimlessly around the mall, looking at pretty baby girl clothes (we hadn’t known ahead of time that she was a girl!).

shell-shocked and ready to crack…with our first baby, a few weeks before my Dad’s heart attack.

One Saturday morning, I had been trying to get in touch with my mom with no luck. My sister and her family were away, so I couldn’t even ask her if she knew where they were. The day wore on but I didn’t think much of it until a phone call later that afternoon. My Dad had suffered a major heart attack that morning. He and my mom were at the hospital but she hadn’t wanted to worry me, despite the fact that she had to ride in the ambulance on the drive to the next city over on her own.

At those moments, your mind can jump to all sorts of horrible possibilities. This was it – my Dad was going to be either forever changed or gone by the end of this day. Was it because I had asked them to help too much? Why didn’t we see this coming? If Dad makes it through I won’t ever impose on him again…*

Heart attacks run in our family. My grandfather – the picture of health at 69 – was on holidays in Italy, just finished a swim and suddenly dropped dead on the beach from a heart attack. My grandmother had to fly home with his body, and she died not long after from what we believe was a broken heart.

At that time, my Dad was also the image of health – thin, active, and rarely drinking alcohol (despite working at a winery). He was an avid rugby and squash player during his younger years but also stayed active in retirement, walking and doing tons of work around the house and garden (forever tan in the summer months).

Well, we are lucky enough to still have my Dad here thanks to what seems like a series of thoughtful decisions. That morning, he had woken up feeling a little bit of indigestion but determined to go into work at the winery. It was my mom who convinced him to go to the walk-in clinic to get checked out (thank goodness for her intuition!). The walk-in Doctor was a former ER doctor and, though he wasn’t certain, had a hunch and decided to call an ambulance for my Dad. He was immediately taken to hospital about 45 minutes away where he went into surgery to address the massive heart attack he was having. He literally DROVE HIMSELF to the walk-in during this heart attack because my mom doesn’t drive!

When I finally got to visit him the next day, he seemed very pale and weak but had his sense of humour…”how’s the girl?” he said, referring to Celia. This was one of the worst times of my life. I prayed so hard for my Dad to make it through and be around to know my own kids. My Dad is the type of person who is quiet but knows exactly what to say to make you feel better. He’s the first person I go to with a crisis and can make even the darkest day seem manageable. His advice can be difficult but is usually the right thing to do. He’s a man who never complains despite having had some heartbreaking childhood moments growing up during WWII in Wales.

I’m sharing this story for two reasons. The first is that heart disease is sneaky. Do you remember that commercial about heart disease in women where it’s seen as sneaking up on women who are dancing or swimming. It had a bit of a creepy vibe but I thought it was an excellent way to show how unaware most of us are that problems could be forming without us knowing until it is too late.

The other thing to note is that we can be the image of health and still suffer from heart disease. This isn’t easy to accept, for me especially. At my check-up with a new Dr. this year he noted that my cholesterol was a little high but that this was not likely in my control. It’s frustrating to teach a ton of fitness classes, eat healthy and still have an issue that is genetic…one that I worry may lead me to follow the same path of my father (at 71) and grandfather (at 69), despite their healthy lifestyles.

The experience did forever change my father, in a good way. He doesn’t seem to stress about the small things any longer and he committed to joining Brock University’s Heart Strong program, becoming a regular gym member. It forever changed me by reminding me that while it’s lovely to do as much as we can with healthy eating and fitness, the reality is that there will always be parts of our health that are out of our control.

So what is in our control when it comes to heart health?

According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, 8 in 10 cases of heart disease can be prevented through lifestyle choices. These include:

  • Eating whole grains, lean protein and lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Exercising for at least 150 minutes (moderate to vigorous exercise) each week. Some studies have shown that strength training is just as essential for heart health as cardio.
  • Reducing stress
  • Not smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

It’s important to take care of ourselves but equally as important to listen to our bodies and pay attention to our loved ones, following any hunches we may have.

I feel so grateful to have my Dad here today, for my niece and nephew and our 3 little ones. He has read endlessly with each of his grandchildren and now has our littlest bringing him book after book to read.

💗Wishing you all good heart health this February 💗

My Dad 💗

*I can’t say this happened 😬

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