When we think of patients suffering from cardiovascular illnesses, we traditionally associate it as a “middle-aged man’s disease”, not diseases that affect young women. However, the fact is that heart disease is the most common cause of death for women in Canada and Claire Webster was only 16 years old when she first developed symptoms.
Growing up in Laval, Claire, an avid tennis player, dreamed of turning pro and travelling the world playing the sport that she loved. After waking up one morning feeling light headed, she went to see her doctor, who told her that it was due to the stress brought on by the competitiveness of her sport.
However, Claire’s condition worsened over time, and by the age of 19 years old, she was referred to the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). It was at the MUHC that Claire received the news that she had been living with two serious heart conditions – sick sinus syndrome and atrial fibrillations – that left her with irregular heart rhythms. Her resting heart rate dropped to 32 beats per minute, well below the norm, and it would spike to up to 200 beats per minutes, twice the average, even though she was not engaging in any physical activity.
Even more troubling was the fact that Claire’s heart was also pausing altogether when she slept. “To this day, I still don’t have a clear reason as to what caused both of my heart conditions, but I am very grateful that the physicians at the MUHC caught it when they did,” Claire says.
To regulate her heartbeat, Claire was outfitted with a pacemaker, which she was told she would need to live with for the rest of her life. “At first I was frozen in a state of fear, always worried that the pacemaker would stop working and my heart would stop beating. I thought I’d always need to be careful with every activity that I did,” Claire states. However, over time, she realized that having a pacemaker in no way impeded her and has helped her live a very fulfilling and healthy life. As a busy mother to three children, she continues to play tennis competitively within Quebec and participates in a slew of other activities, ranging from spin classes to yoga and golf.
A pacemaker typically gets changed every ten years, and Claire is due for her next upgrade in three years. She’s already had four pacemakers throughout her life and every six months, she goes to the pacemaker clinic at the MUHC for a checkup, and visits the people who have become like her second family – the MUHC’s cardiology team.
It is Claire’s experience as a patient at the MUHC that inspired her desire to help other women by sharing her own story. An active philanthropic supporter in the Montreal community, she has decided to organize a fundraiser benefitting cardiology patients. Claire wants others to learn from her experience, while also encouraging women in particular to take their heart health seriously.
Along with her husband Stuart, and their friends Guy Laframboise, who is also a cardiology patient at the MUHC, and his wife Vanessa, Claire has partnered with the MUHC Foundation to launch the inaugural Say Goodbye to Heartache cocktail, which will take place on February 16 at the Montreal Racquet Club.
“It’s about giving back,” she says. “I am able to live a wonderful life thanks to the high-quality care that I received at the MUHC, and I want anyone else afflicted with heart problems to have that same opportunity,” she states.