As a 40-year-old mother and business owner used to exercising regularly and going on long runs, Susan Rodrigues filled her days with meetings, travel, and caring for her son. She regularly went for morning hikes while moderating a 12-client conference call. She was a woman who ran a business, and a home. But that hectic pace, coupled with her family history of heart disease, came at a near fatal cost. Susan had a heart attack standing in line at the bank in her hometown of Victoriaville.

“I was dripping with sweat,” remembers Susan of the symptoms she experienced during the heart attack. “I was nauseous, and sweaty. I made my deposit, and as I was leaving the bank I almost blacked out. I managed to get across the street and sat down on a bench. I was feeling very, very, unwell.

Susan Rodrigues - heart disease

Susan Rodrigues (left) with Nurse Wendy Wray who runs the Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative (WHHI) Clinic at the MUHC

“I called my husband and said I think you need to come and get me. At that point I couldn’t hold the phone anymore my whole arm had gone completely numb. I got to the hospital and I almost collapsed. A nurse just looked at me and said this woman needs to be seen right now.”

However, it took three days before Susan’s medical team acknowledged that what she had experienced was indeed a heart attack. Diagnosing heart disease in women can be challenging. Susan was initially believed to have simply been under stress.

“Because I was a woman and because I was young they thought it was an anxiety attack. Normally, you come into the hospital with hereditary heart disease and symptoms like mine and you are rushed in to have an angioplasty or angiogram to check your valves.”

For Susan, that process took three days.

“I had three blockages in the secondary arteries. I came back with a stent, and everybody was shocked. Nobody could believe that I had actually had a heart attack and that is because I was a young woman.”

But, everything changed for Susan when she moved to Montreal and sought care at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). It was when she met Nurse Wendy Wray and became a patient at Wendy’s clinic, Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative (WHHI), that she truly felt the treatment was tailored to her needs.

Created in May 2009 at the MUHC, the WHHI’s mission is to increase awareness, prevent and treat heart disease. It is the first Nurse-led heart disease prevention clinic in Canada, one that focuses on building and maintaining a healthy lifestyle to decrease the risk of heart disease. Funded 100 per cent through the generosity of donors, over 900 women in Montreal have benefitted from its preventative model of care to date.

“Too many women still mistakenly believe that breast cancer is the greatest threat to their health while in reality it is heart disease,” says Wendy. “They are not looking for the symptoms of heart disease – symptoms like chest discomfort, shortness of breath or extreme fatigue. They may miss or dismiss these symptoms, delaying or not seeking medical help, potentially putting themselves at even greater risk.”

Wendy dreams of the day when programs similar to the WHHI will be available and accessible to women coast to coast in communities and clinics of all sizes.

Susan has become an ambassador for the WHHI. She wants to help educate other women, and inspire them to take control of their health by eating well and exercising regularly.  She herself follows the 80/20 rule, 80 per cent healthy foods, 20 per cent indulgent treats. She also exercises a lot, but in a practical way made through lifestyle changes. She no longer owns a car, and walks everywhere she can.

Susan Rodrigues - heart diseaseAt the moment, she is not capable of working more than 25 hours a week, and she must make time to nap in the afternoons. Susan meditates and strives to keep everything in perspective, and not to set unnecessary deadlines or stress over timelines.

Susan’s marriage didn’t survive heart disease, but she and her ex-husband remain close, and together they prioritize the parenting of their son, who is now in high school.

While Susan still mourns the woman she was before the heart attack, she has learned to appreciate what being a heart patient has brought to her life.

“There are blessings, and the blessings are that I have balance. My relationship with my son is wonderful, my ex-husband also. I know myself better than I did before; I know how to manage my time.”

February is heart month, to learn more about women’s heart health, and to support the work of the WHHI visit the MUHC Foundation’s website: