In the summer of 2006, seemingly healthy mother of four Margaret Robertson found herself waiting for a new heart.
She had never thought that at age 52, while exercising four days a week, a heart attack would put her life on the line.
“When I look back, I still can’t believe that I had a heart attack,” she said. “I was probably the healthiest I had been in my life.”
Or so she thought.
Following frequent back pain in 2005, her physiotherapist recommended she exercise more frequently. She joined a gym, hired a personal trainer and felt better than ever.
But one day upon returning from walking her dog, the Victoria Village resident sat down and experienced an uncomfortable feeling. It felt like heartburn.
Robertson took a shower, hoping she’d feel better before heading to work, but stepped out feeling progressively worse.
“(My husband and I) had a big argument because I said I’m not going to the hospital for heartburn,” Robertson recalls. “But it kept getting worse … I just sat down on my bed and told my husband, ‘this is really bad heartburn’.”
It turns out the condition was far more serious. When she arrived at the emergency department, Robertson said staff took one look at her and quickly ushered her into a bed.
Her recollections are vague, but she remembers riding in the back of an ambulance. She was told she had experienced a heart attack and needed a stent placed in her heart.
“I didn’t believe them,” she said. “I said I can’t be … it was total denial.”
When Robertson woke up in the intensive care unit, she was no longer in denial. It was there where doctors decided her heart would not make a full recovery and that she needed a new one.
Robertson was eventually placed on the heart transplant waiting list, but not before making the difficult decision between a new heart and a mechanical left ventricular assist device, which temporarily helps the heart pump blood.
It was not an easy decision.
“One minute you’re euphoric and thinking about how you’re going to be better,” she said. “And then the next minute you’re like ‘Oh my God’ … because you know that in order for you to live, somebody has to die.”
One of the complications is while the mechanical device aids temporarily, the patient also falls to the bottom of the heart transplant waiting list.
Robertson and her husband ultimately decided to wait for the new heart. She said Toronto Rehab’s counsellors were instrumental in helping her cope with her decision.
“You’ve got a bit a guilt, but you know if you don’t get the heart, you’re going to die,” she said. “So you’re torn.”
Within three months, Robertson was told she was getting the heart she needed.
“They called me at 8:30 on a Saturday morning and said there was a heart coming in and it was mine,” she said. “I had an hour to get to the (intensive care unit).”
Entering surgery, Robertson was petrified. She had previously experienced a false alarm when the heart ended up being too big, and there is always a chance the organ could fail.
But the operation was a success.
Robertson likens walking out of the hospital with a new heart to being given a second chance at life.
“You feel like you’re born again,” she said.
However, while the operation was successful, Robertson had to adjust to a grueling routine of heavy medication. She had to take about 30 pills a day and multiple insulin shots due to steroid-induced diabetes.
“You’re weak, you’re tired, it really is a shock to the system,” Robertson said. “Your life centers around taking those pills, your eating habits all have to change … Your life has now changed.”
Robertson credits Toronto Rehab’s Cardiac Rehabilitation and Secondary Prevention Program for giving her life back. Her cardiologist suggested entering the program so she wouldn’t overdo it while exercising on her own.
“When I first started, I could probably do about half a mile, very slowly … now I’m walking six miles a day, four times a week,” Robertson said.
She was given the opportunity to show her gratitude to Toronto Rehab by taking part in their 9th annual On Track to Cardiac Recovery walk, which took place Feb. 25.
These days she attends weekly meetings and credits Toronto Rehab with getting her back on her feet, both literally and figuratively.
“They build you up not only physically, but also mentally, to give you that support to get back into life,” Robertson said. “I feel wonderful … my life is back.”
Robertson was never given a physical reason as to why she had a heart attack. But she did learn she was unhealthy due to a bad diet even though she looked like she was in good shape.
Toronto Rehab’s medical director of the cardiac rehab program, Dr. Paul Oh, said everyone should be vigilant in looking for signs of heart disease.
“This is not at all uncommon, when people who seem to be doing well in their 50s and 60s suddenly end up with a heart attack,” he said. “Heart disease can be very silent for a long period of time.”
But he noted it accumulates over time and can be deadly when it does strike. Sometimes it can be obvious, such as when one experiences a heavy weight on the chest.
“That’s the classic thing, but we know that doesn’t happen to everybody,” he said.
People should also look out for shortness of breath, fatigue, sleep disturbance and general discomfort.
Risk factors for heart disease include a family history with the condition, diabetes, high blood pressure, unhealthy diet and stress.
To maximize heart health, Oh recommends 30 minutes of physical activity a day, eating lots of fibre, fruits and vegetables and avoiding trans fat and excessive salt. One should also minimize smoking and drinking.
For Robertson, the lessons she learned at Toronto Rehab will always stay close to her heart.
“The thing to remember is it’s not just the exercise, it’s the food, and don’t ever think it can’t happen you,” she said. “Because it’s just waiting. For everyone.”