The Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative

A unique clinic at the Royal Victoria Hospital that saves lives


Wendy Wray, director of the Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative, and patient Ann Fitz Gerald.

February is Heart Health Month: Learn about heart disease and how to prevent it

 

When 55-year-old flight attendant Ann Fitz Gerald began experiencing chest pain and had difficulty moving her arms during an overseas flight, panic and anxiety set in.

While it wasn’t a heart attack, she had experienced an episode of angina – chest pain, but often a warning sign for heart disease. That’s when Fitz Gerald sought out the Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative (WHHI) at the Royal Victoria Hospital, which she credits with saving her life. 

The WHHI is a unique Nurse-Led clinic and the only one of its kind in Canada. Hundreds of women with a high likelihood of developing heart disease have already reduced their risk thanks to the clinic, which aims to reduce the prevalence of heart disease and stroke by promoting preventative care and healthy living, while also providing early diagnosis and treatment for women at risk. There are currently 335 women enrolled, with space for up to 450. 

With February being Heart Health Month, WHHI director Wendy Wray, a cardiac advanced practice nurse clinician, is hoping raise awareness about heart disease,  the major cause of death for women in Canada, killing eight times more women than breast cancer alone, and which is largely preventable. 

Fitzgerald eventually underwent heart bypass surgery in 2010, and relied on the WHHI both prior to her operation and during her rehabilitation, returning for follow-up visits once a month and now every two months. 

“Thanks to the support I received, my lifestyle has changed drastically. Before I was always go, go, go, but now I rest more and take time for myself,” Fitz Gerald said. “We need to support clinics like this, and we need more of them. They saved my life and I’m grateful to them.” 

As a single mother, Fitz Gerald said her heart issues caused considerable stress for her daughter, who was 15 at the time. She says the fact the clinic’s staff are available nearly 24/7 has been a huge comfort, not only for her, but her daughter as well.

“It’s like a life line that is always there for you whenever you might need it,” she said. 

Wray says the clinic works in collaboration with cardiologists, a nutritionist and physical trainer to provide highly personalized care to women at high risk of heart disease, and are always accessible by phone, pager or email.

How the clinic works

On the first visit, a woman comes in for an hour-long session with the nurse clinician, which Wray notes is virtually unheard of in the healthcare system.

“They’re not being talked to, but equally as important they’re being listened to,” she said. This includes getting a full picture of the patient’s medical history, family history, lifestyle habits, diet, as well as doing a complete physical exam and blood tests.

If a problem is detected, the patient is seen by a cardiologist that same day. Otherwise, the results may point to lifestyle changes that are needed to reduce the risk of developing serious heart problems down the road.

“We have been very successful in getting the women more physically active, losing weight and eating better,” says Wray. “Those who have elevated blood pressure and cholesterol are in better control. One major thing we have learned is that self-referral is very important from a motivation perspective for these women. No one sent them—they decided to come to the clinic, so they are very motivated.”

Prevention is key

Because of its limited capacity for new patients, the WHHI wants to reach women with its message of prevention before they require a visit to the clinic.

“Unfortunately we can’t take care of all women on a one-on-one basis, so our primary focus is on awareness of the risk of heart disease, that to a large extent it is preventable, and the importance of a healthy lifestyle,” she said.

Wear Red Day in support of the WHHI

At the Royal Victoria Hospital, Valentine’s Day has become known as Wear Red Day, an annual fundraiser organized by the Royal Victoria Hospital Foundation in support of the WHHI. On Thursday, February 14, patients, visitors and staff are asked to wear red to show their support. Red scarves may be purchased and donations can be made at several locations throughout the hospital (687 Pine Ave. West) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (the main entrance, the Ross Pavilion in front of Café Vienne, and at the main cafeteria). Donations can also be made online at whhionline.ca.

To learn more about the WHHI, visit www.whhionline.ca