Stories With HeartInherited heart disease: understanding your personal risk factors

Posted on: Feb 22, 2023

Read about Susan Joop's experience heart failure - and the medical emergency that forced her to discover heart disease was in her genes.

In Canada, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death across the country, killing almost 100,000 people per year, and impacting over 20% of the population, particularly women. For Heart Month, which takes place annually every February, the Royal Alexandra Foundation chatted with Susan Joop, a former CK Hui patient, about her experience with heart failure, and about the care she received at the Royal Alex.  

Prior to her heart attack, Susan, a retired nurse, lived a fulfilling, relatively stress-free life. She’s happily married and has always made a point to stay active and eat well. “Prior to COVID-19, I was at the rec center almost every day,” said Susan. “I maintain a healthy BMI, don’t eat much red meat and go for an hour-long walk every day with my husband.”  

So, as you can imagine, it was quite a shock to Susan and her physicians when she suffered a flash heart attack on April 7th, 2022.  

“My husband and I were out on our daily walk. About two-thirds of the way through the walk, I had overwhelming chest pain and I had to sit down. I felt dizzy, and like there was immense pressure on my chest. My husband knows I am not one to complain, so when I said he needed to call 911, he knew the problem was serious.”  

Within a few minutes, the paramedics arrived, gave Susan some aspirin, and advised that she be transferred to the CK Hui Heart Centre at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.   

As it turned out, Susan suffered from a myocardial infarction, the formal term for a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is severely reduced or blocked. The blockage is usually due to a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances in the coronary arteries, commonly knowns as plaques. Sometimes, a plaque can rupture, forming a clot that blocks blood flow. A lack of blood flow can damage or destroy part of the heart muscle. The affected part of the heart can experience permanent damage if not treated quickly. 

When Susan arrived at the CK Hui Heart Centre, the cardiology team took her to a private room, and immediately began running tests to determine the source of her chest pain. Susan received an electrocardiogram, which shows the heart’s electrical activity and reveals any abnormal rhythm or areas of possible damage in the heart or arteries; an echocardiogram which checks the structure and function of your heart; a nuclear scan, an imaging test that shows how blood moves to the heart; and finally, an angiogram, which shows blockages in the coronary arteries. Based on her results, the medical team concluded she had indeed suffered from a heart attack.  

Susan met with Dr. Bader and Dr. Tyrrell to work out a plan for treatment, who suggested she undergo angioplasty and stent placement, an hour-long non-invasive procedure in which a catheter is inserted into the wrist and travels up the artery. At the tip of a catheter is a tiny balloon that, when inflated, flattens the plaque against the artery wall, widening the artery channel, and helping improve blood flow. The stents, which look like a tiny coil of wire mesh, support the artery's walls, help prevent the artery from re-narrowing after receiving an angioplasty and help keep blood flow open.  

“I knew I was in good hands with those doctors. I told them to bring it on! I wanted to get back to the things I love as soon as possible” Susan said, enthusiastically.  

Susan spent three days in the hospital, where she received excellent patient care across the board.

“All the staff were amazing, so attentive. The nurses were so nice and patient. I always knew what was happening next. The nurses said I’ve been caring for people all my life, now it’s time for us to care for you. That was really touching. I felt very taken care of.” - Susan Joop

At the end of her stay, Susan's team of physicians concluded that genetics and age were the most likely causes of her heart attack. This news came as a surprise for Susan, her family, and her doctors considering Susan’s overall excellent health and no known risk pre-existing risk factors, such as high blood pressure, stress, poor diet, smoking, obesity, and leading a sedentary lifestyle. 

Through her own inquiry, Susan learned she likely inherited a predisposition for heart attack from her father. Through sharing her story with us, Susan’s goal is to raise awareness about how heart attacks can happen to otherwise healthy people due to genetics, and so people feel compelled to understand their bodies and their personal risk factors. 

Susan is especially thankful for the care she received from the staff at the CK Hui Heart Centre, for the ability to access world-class public healthcare in Canada, and for the love of her family, including her husband, Arnim, and her two children who all provided her invaluable support during her stay in hospital and through her recovery.  

Thank you for sharing your important story with us, Susan, and being an advocate for heart health and understanding one’s personal risk factors.