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Rhonda Peterson had a very active and healthy lifestyle. During summers, the 62-year-old's favourite form of exercise was to swim the lake near her Rothesay home and swim the pool at the YMCA in winter months. She ate healthy meals and did all the right things. That's why she was shocked to learn she was having a serious heart attack.

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Quick to smile and a joyful laugh that emanates from the depths of her essence, Rhonda Peterson is a woman who embraces life and the people fortunate enough to share some of it with her.

She and her husband David work at the YMCA, helping Saint John's refugee community. Rhonda is a supply teacher and David is what she describes as "the guy on the ground" who works closely with them for their first six weeks in their new country. It is not uncommon for David and Rhonda to host a dozen or more newcomers at a time for a meal in their Rothesay home.

In September 2018, Rhonda took on additional responsibilities to teach a literacy class at the Y. After teaching in the morning, she would come home for lunch, and follow it with a power nap. Afternoon siestas have been a part of her routine since her kids were little but the short power naps were getting longer.

As fall transitioned to winter, Rhonda also noticed she wasn't as active as she normally was.

During a visit in March with their son and his family in Quebec, Rhonda's fatigue worsened. Disheartened that one of her afternoon naps lasted four hours, she thought, "Good grief, Rhonda…get a grip! You're here to visit the kids and grandkids. Let's not sleep the week away."


By Thursday evening they were home and Rhonda experienced discomfort in the middle of her breastbone. The pain lessened when lying down only to return as she arose. It subsided again as she went to bed.

Friday, she developed a lesson plan from her home office. After eating breakfast, an unusual sensation of indigestion welled up in her chest. She had been taking medication for an esophagus issue, but this was different.

Saturday, she and David prepared to host a Somali family of 10, one she had spent a year advocating for to have four of their children be able to join their parents and other siblings in Saint John. This was a meal to celebrate their coming together. As she spent the day preparing food, the anticipation of the festivities helped Rhonda suppress any thoughts of a potential illness percolating in her body. But not for long.


When the discomfort returned, she believed changing bras would help, something she did three times, to no avail. She decided to suffer through and enjoy the evening. She now realizes these symptoms were stacking up for trouble ahead, however, when it comes to women and heart attacks, typically, no two symptoms are alike.


Dr. David Bewick, a cardiologist at Horizon's NB Heart Centre in Saint John, agrees, adding women's heart attack symptoms are different than men's.

"Some of the symptoms females can present with can be extreme fatigue, lethargy, nausea, dizziness, palpitations, heart racing," he said. "This can be preceded by generalized malaise or feeling unwell for several days."

Because of these more prolonged and less pronounced symptoms, many women are unaware of their seriousness and often do not seek medical assistance right away.

"The message travels around in a woman's body and you don't know what the message is saying to you," said Rhonda.

Rhonda awoke Sunday feeling well enough to go about her usual activities. It wasn't until evening while watching a movie with her son and his family at their nearby home that she could no longer hide the symptoms. The pain was more intense, lasting the final 20 minutes of the movie.

Her daughter-in-law suggested Rhonda visit the hospital but believing her symptoms were again related to indigestion, Rhonda went home to her husband who was suffering with a bad cold. He insisted he take her to the hospital but Rhonda went to bed with a nagging doubt and her cellphone.


"I began Googling symptoms and they were pointing to the heart and I thought, 'really,'" said Rhonda, still in disbelief. Upon lying down again she was finally struck with a classic symptom of a heart attack: pain going down her arm.  

"Oh, my goodness, maybe Google's right," Rhonda exclaimed.

During the short ride to Horizon's Saint John Regional Hospital, with David driving, more classic symptoms presented like nausea and numbness in her neck. After David dropped her off at the hospital to park the car, without disclosing any of her symptoms with hospital personnel, she took a number - number 118 - and took a seat in the crowded waiting area. While waiting, Rhonda placed her head between her knees to keep from vomiting and to alleviate the pain.


"I said to David, …you might want to tell the triage nurse I might be having…you know, I need help," she said, finding it difficult to even utter the words "heart attack."

She was seen by a nurse and ushered into another room for an electrocardiogram (ECG). Within five minutes, Dr. Jaroslav Hubacek, towered over the foot of her bed. At 6'2", the Slovakian-born interventional cardiologist with a shock of blond hair has a commanding, yet gentle presence. His message, however, was serious.


"You're having a heart attack right now," he said. "A serious heart attack with 100 per cent blockage."

To Rhonda, it felt like she was in a dream from which she wanted desperately to awake. Her mind raced to all the reasons why this could not be happening to her. She thought, "I'm healthy. I eat well. I see my doctor every year and get my bloodwork done. My blood pressure and cholesterol is good."

Noting Rhonda's distress, the amiable and approachable physician delivered Rhonda's treatment options with a mix of humour and compassion.


The procedure to have her stent inserted was straightforward and by 1:30 a.m., Rhonda was in recovery with David by her side. Suddenly, the enormity of what she'd just experienced struck.

"I had a heart attack!" she cried. In an instant, she was overcome with emotion. Moments later, Dr. Hubacek entered the room with a gift that carried Rhonda through her recovery.

As he stood at the foot of her bed like he did in the emergency room, Rhonda could only blurt out, "I'm crying."

He reminded her she had just experienced a major trauma and her emotions were just catching up with that reality.

"That's so good you're crying, Rhonda," was the kindly doctor's response. "That's the best thing that you could be doing right now," he said.

"I don't know where I'd be today if it wasn't for the doctor saying that to me," Rhonda recalled. "The best part of the journey was to give myself permission to cry…and for David to understand I need to cry."

Rhonda spent only two days in hospital and was turned over to the care of cardiologist Dr. Robert Stevenson who informed her the damage was minimal and she would likely fully recover.

"I had a heart attack and after a while I could acknowledge that," she said. "I wanted to get on the road to recovery as fast as possible."

And she has. By mid-July, four months after the heart attack, Rhonda felt she had turned a corner, feeling more like herself again with her energy replenished.



She realizes it's hard for people to believe they're having a heart attack. Her advice to other women experiencing similar symptoms is to not wait. "Go to the hospital at the first sign of a symptom," she said. "Don't sit with your number like I did-tell them you might be having a heart attack."

According to Dr. Bewick, the risk factors for heart attacks are hypertension, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol, family history and being over the age of 65. Her mother and some uncles had had heart attacks, but Rhonda had none of the other traditional risk factors.

Dr. Bewick said if people who exercise regularly experience pain or discomfort in their chest while doing an activity and it is relieved when they stop, "those are all what I call red flags" indicating a need for prompt medical attention.

This traumatic experience could have ended her life but has instead profoundly changed it.

Now, for Rhonda, life is about "being rather than doing and being more present," she said. For the first time in her 43-year marriage, she's left dishes in her sink and walked away, opting instead to play in the lake with her grandkids.

Throughout her recovery, Rhonda admits to occasional emotional "meltdowns," likening them to a relief valve on a pressure cooker. And slowly, as the pressure released, she often remembers the gift Dr. Hubacek innocently gave her that cold night in March. Permission to cry.



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