A Heart to Heart with the Right Honorable Adrienne Clarkson
Education and Advocacy Mediaplanet sat down with Adrienne Clarkson, 26th Governor General of Canada and Honorary Chair of Heart Month for the Heart and Stroke Foundation to share her story with atrial fibrillation.
Mediaplanet Every year, thousands of Canadians band together to support the Heart and Stroke Foundation during Heart Month. Why is this so important?
Adrienne Clarkson Often people don’t realize that heart disease and stroke touch so many lives in Canada. I feel, especially as a woman, there is a critical need for awareness because many women do not see themselves as being vulnerable to these diseases when in fact they really are. We are all living a great deal longer, and this means that women have a greater chance of developing heart problems after their childbearing years. In 1900 the life expectancy of a woman was around 50 years; today it’s 83, so there is now more time to develop heart disease. It’s also crucial to let the public know that there are continuous research breakthroughs, including a new treatment shown to cut in half the death rate from major strokes caused by blood clots, all of this is what Heart Month is about.
MP You’ve devoted much of your life to public service. Do you see it as your duty to share your experience with atrial fibrillation with Canadians?
AC All my life I have considered it important to do public service and to volunteer. When I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation 16 years ago I had to learn about it quickly. I believe it is important to share one’s knowledge with other people because as with all diseases it is very important that people not be afraid. If we stop being afraid then we can learn more, we can help others, and we have a responsibility as individuals to look after ourselves and each other in our society.
MP What did you experience leading up to your diagnosis and how has your pacemaker affected your lifestyle?
AC I, like many women, never really considered that I would be at risk to have something like atrial fibrillation, so it came as a surprise to me when I was told I needed a pacemaker. I had always led an active and healthy lifestyle and I never smoked. I was always against smoking, but being in business (journalism) where 99 percent of the people seemed to smoke, I suffered from second-hand smoke! Since my pacemaker was installed, I have continued exercising, eating heart healthy foods, and I am very fortunate in that it has not had any effect whatsoever on my lifestyle, including swimming in the frigid Georgian Bay at the beginning of summer!
MP Have there been any lifestyles changes you have had to make since your diagnosis in order to feel better and to manage further setbacks?
AC When I had a pacemaker installed during my final months as Governor General in 2005, I did not even consider that it would change my lifestyle. I have always exercised, watched my diet, and generally have had good health habits. I am very diligent about taking any required medication and making sure that I have all the medical information required to ensure I can continue to lead an active lifestyle. In my experience, because I make sure that I am on top of managing my heart condition, there is not much that I am limited from doing.
MP Heart disease is a leading cause of death for Canadian women — what unique measures can women take to fend off heart disease and stroke?
AC Awareness is key, and all women should discuss their individual risk of heart disease with their doctor and learn about prevention. Nothing beats an active lifestyle and healthy diet, and it needs to be instilled early, children should be encouraged to be more active. I walked 30-40 blocks to and from school, mostly in -20 degree Ottawa winter weather, as did most of my peers. This may sound cliché, but it is true! There weren’t many families who owned cars back then, and there wasn’t much of a bussing system either. Anything we do to help children form the habit of an active lifestyle and healthy diet will do wonders later in life for preventing heart disease.
MP You’ve been closely affected by heart disease and stroke. Can you offer any advice for those affected, as well as their friends and family?
AC When you are diagnosed, I think it is very important to make it known to the people with whom you exercise, and of course, to other friends and family. It’s also best to find a cardiologist you can communicate with openly and who is not only interested in your carburetor but your whole chassis, engine, and wiring! I firmly believe that more knowledge is always better and it is very useful to read newspaper health columns, and understand your medications, so that you are more prepared at your medical appointments. Also bring someone close to you, because it is helpful to the physicians if there is a second person there so that if there should be a crisis the doctor’s good advice is more likely to be heard and followed through on.