When Cheryl Bertoia had a heart attack at age 53, she was in denial.

“I refused to accept that it happened because I was only 53 and I was not overweight, I did not have high blood pressure or cholesterol. There was no indication that I should be at risk,” says Bertoia.

That day, Bertoia felt unwell. She had just returned from a work trip in the South Pacific, and assumed it was jet lag. But her husband wasn’t convinced. After looking up her symptoms, he gave her an Aspirin and drove her to the emergency room. His hunch was right: though even the doctors had trouble believing the test results, Bertoia was having a heart attack.

Stories like this are all too common. Incorrectly assumed to be a “man’s disease,” signs of heart disease in women are often overlooked, despite the fact that it kills one in three Canadian women. Worse, heart disease in women is under-diagnosed, under-treated and under-researched. Witness to this gross disparity, cardiac nurse Wendy Wray set out to change it.

Wray founded the Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative (WHHI), the first collaborative nurse-led women’s heart disease prevention program in Canada. Since 2009, it has empowered women to take control of their own heart health through awareness, education and prevention. WHHI is a self-referral program, meaning any woman can join the program without a referral from her doctor. Many women self-refer because they lost a parent or sibling to a heart attack, but any woman interested in reducing her heart disease risk is welcome.

Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative - Cheryl Bertoia

Cheryl Bertoia, heart attack survivor, participates in the MUHC Foundation’s Run for a Reason event to raise funds for the cause that matters most to her: cardiac care.

“Misconceptions still persist that cardiovascular disease is not a ‘real problem’ for women,” says Wray. “The Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative is working to change this. This is a largely preventable disease and we can save lives by making women more aware of the risks as well as the symptoms of heart disease.”

Following her heart attack, Bertoia heard about Wray through a friend and joined the WHHI program to improve her health and reduce the likelihood of a second heart attack.

“In my time of need, the WHHI gave me something to depend on. If I needed to talk to someone tomorrow, I could. For me, the WHHI was that personal touch—that hand holding you need to get through a personal crisis that is as mentally straining as it is physically straining,” says Bertoia.

Bertoia describes the risk of a second heart attack as “a sword hanging over [her] head,” a reference to the story of the Sword of Damocles, which alludes to the ever-present risk of peril. For years she felt the spectre of that first life-threatening heart attack hanging over her, something that lessened with time and the help of Wendy Wray and the WHHI.

Women in the WHHI program are given access to a wide-range of services and resources to help them address the factors that play a role in heart disease risk: lack of regular exercise, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, poor nutrition, elevated blood sugar and smoking. The women receive one-on-one consultations, personalized risk assessments, prevention recommendations, support from a dietician and personal trainer, immediate referrals to a cardiologist for urgent issues, and more.

“We hear so little about women and heart disease. This is frustrating because cancer is complex and, as far as we know, not preventable. But heart disease is over 80% preventable,” says Wray.

February is heart month, and on Saturday, February 13, 2021, the WHHI will celebrate Wear Red Day Canada. Created by Wray in 2009 to raise awareness for heart disease in women, Wear Red Day is now a national event to close the gaps and ensure women are well-informed about their heart disease risk. While most years the event is held in person and includes everything from lectures to fitness classes, this year’s event will be virtual, and includes a slate of educational seminars by leading cardiology experts in heart disease in women.

Twelve years on, Wray and the WHHI program have helped over 1,000 women understand and reduce their risk of heart disease. For Cheryl Bertoia, the WHHI restored her confidence in her own health.

“I know what I need to do to take care of myself. I know I have this team behind me to catch me if I fall. I don’t need to be worried every day the way I was before,” says Bertoia.

The Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative is a priority of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Foundation’s Dream Big. Fix Broken Hearts campaign. This $50 million campaign will ensure that in ten years, Montreal will have the lowest rate of hospitalizations and fewest deaths due to heart disease in Canada. The WHHI is entirely donor funded, with no cost to participants. To learn more about WHHI, or to donate in support of this important program, visit muhcfoundation.com.