Wendy Nason of Miramichi, New Brunswick always knew she faced the risk of a heart attack, due to her strong family history of heart disease. After all, her father had his first heart attack at the age of 21 and died of a heart attack at age 35 in 1972, leaving Wendy’s mother with five children between the ages of 2 and 15. Her older brother died of a massive heart attack at the age of 25, and her sister has had triple coronary artery bypass surgery.
What Wendy didn’t know is that she also had undiagnosed diabetes, and this was putting her at even greater risk of a cardiovascular event. As far as she knew, she was reasonably healthy apart from high blood pressure, which was being treated with medication. She learned otherwise in February 2019, while on vacation in Cuba with her sister and brother.
“I dropped something on the floor and went to pick it up, and suddenly my right arm went numb from my fingers to my elbow,” Wendy recalls. “I put it down to a pinched nerve and didn’t think much about it after the feeling passed.”
One week later, Wendy found herself stumbling over her words while talking to her boss on the phone. This time, she attributed the problem to fatigue and ended the call. But the next morning, as she was calling to her niece to get up, she lost her speech altogether.
“It was terrifying,” Wendy says. “I started banging on the bannister to get my husband Jay’s attention. He came running and asked me some questions… when I couldn’t answer, he called 911.”
One of the first questions the paramedics asked Wendy was “Are you diabetic?” She was barely conscious so her husband answered “no,” but when they tested her blood sugar, the level was a whopping 25, far above the normal range of 4 to 7.
Upon arrival at the Miramichi Regional Hospital, staff hooked Wendy up for an EKG (electrocardiogram). At that time, there were no detectable problems with her heart. A few hours later, however, she had a strange “spell.” A second EKG found that she had actually had a heart attack while at the hospital. She was admitted and sent for an MRI, which revealed that the previous episodes of numbness and speechlessness had been caused by a series of mini strokes.
“They put me on blood thinners for a year and Aspirin for life,” Wendy says. “But at that point, I wanted to go to Saint John for an assessment at the New Brunswick Heart Centre.”
The staff at Miramichi agreed and she made the trip to Saint John by ambulance the next week. Cardiologist Dr. Sohrab Lutchmedial ordered a series of tests, including dye tests which found Wendy’s cardiac arteries to be surprisingly clear—no stents or bypass procedures were required. The MRI, however, found her heart to be weak on the left side and also raised suspicion of possible ongoing low-level seizures in her brain.
“I’m waiting to see a neurologist for the seizures and also on results from the ultrasound they did of my carotid artery,” Wendy says.
Since her terrifying experiences earlier this year, Wendy has made big changes in her life to get her previously undiagnosed diabetes under control and to improve her overall health. “I’ve lost 17 pounds since March,” she says proudly. “I’ve started eating a lot more fruits and vegetables and cut out the junk food, caffeine, pop and cigarettes. And, I’m taking medication for the diabetes now.”
While Wendy is still recovering from the destabilizing effects of her recent health crisis, she has generously agreed to share her story with Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation in support of its Spring 2019 Molly Appeal. This spring’s appeal is raising funds to support heart research at Dalhousie Medical School—specifically, a biobank at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick.
“We are collecting heart tissues and clinical information from patients across the Maritimes in the biobank,” explains Dr. Lutchmedial. “Our researchers will use this information to learn more about how diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other common conditions affect the heart. Our goal, of course, is to identify targets for potential new therapies to protect the heart and cardiovascular system as a whole.”
Another important goal for the researchers is to gain the knowledge that they need to be able to treat each patient’s unique manifestation of disease.
“Not all heart attack patients are alike, and Wendy is a clear example of that,” Dr. Lutchmedial notes. “Trying to figure out what makes her different as an individual, and then how to best tailor therapies that are specific to her particular situation… that is why we need to carry out the research that we are doing.”
Wendy is being closely monitored now to ensure her blood sugar is well under control, to minimize the risks of any future cardiovascular events. “I feel I’m in good hands,” she says, “and I’m happy to support the research going on right here in the Maritimes.”