“Of course you can do it” – these words have become Wendy Wray’s mantra. A cardiac nurse clinician at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) for many years, she never anticipated becoming an advocate for heart disease prevention, but her determination to save the lives of women in her community has made her a catalyst for change.
Born in Nova Scotia and the second of six children, Wendy moved with her family to Quebec when she was five. “I grew up in the Laurentians and was very fortunate that we had a lot of extended family close by,” she recounts. “My parents separated when I was twelve, so having that ‘village’ of support certainly helped my mother, who became a single mom for a while and worked very hard to make ends meet,” she explains.
After graduating high school, Wendy enrolled at John Abbott College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, where she earned her Diploma of Collegial Studies in Nursing. “I always knew I wanted to be a nurse and after graduation, I was one of the lucky ones to be hired at the Royal Victoria Hospital of the MUHC,” she states. Wendy started in obstetrics-gynaecology, but eventually found her niche in cardiology, and as her expertise grew, so did her desire to not only treat patients with heart disease, but to prevent it from happening in the first place.
With a strong will and clear objective in mind, Wendy went back to school. She completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees at the University of British Columbia and Athabasca University respectively. It wasn’t easy, but Wendy often drew on the strength that her mother instilled in her when she was a young girl. “Choosing to go back to school while working full-time and raising a family was hard,” she says. “My three children were teenagers at the time, but they, along with my husband, adapted their lifestyles so I could pursue my education. There was certainly an adjustment period, but I could not have done it without their support,” she goes on to say. “Once we all ‘found our groove’, my family really embraced this change and my kids teased me about my grades!” she exclaims.
Positivity and enthusiasm go hand-in-hand when describing Wendy, and these character traits are prominently on display when patients visit the Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative (WHHI) at the MUHC. Launched in 2009, the project was Wendy’s brainchild, and it is the first nurse-led women’s heart disease primary prevention program in Canada. “Many people don’t know that heart disease kills more women aged 65 and older than all cancers combined,” she explains. “It is traditionally thought of as a ‘middle-aged man’s disease’, but the harsh reality is that women are six times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer,” she says.
The goal of the WHHI is to help women understand their risk of heart disease from factors within their control including: high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, poor nutrition and physical inactivity as well as those outside of their control such as: age, family history, and ethnicity. The program provides individualized, specialized care and teaches strategies to reduce a woman’s overall level of risk. “Misconceptions still persist that cardiovascular disease is not a ‘real problem’ for women. The WHHI is working to change this through education and awareness. This is a largely preventable disease and we can save lives by making women more aware of the risks as well as the symptoms of heart disease,” Wendy states.
The WHHI is truly a family affair for Wendy. Her husband and children regularly attend activities hosted by Wendy and her team, and her son chips in by designing posters and advertisements. “I’m very community oriented and I wanted to show my children that we all need to give back,” she explains. “I’m not very convinced that kids listen all the time, but they definitely watch what you are doing. I hope that my actions have inspired them and have taught them that if they set their minds to anything they will succeed,” Wendy says.
As the ‘voice’ for women in heart disease prevention, Wendy often gives talks locally and actively seeks to share her experience with other healthcare institutions in Montreal and across Canada. In November of 2017, her dedication to heart disease prevention was recognized by the Senate of Canada, and she was awarded a Canada 150 Anniversary Medal. Nominated by Senator Judith Seidman for this prestigious recognition, these medals were given to Canadians whose dedication, volunteerism, hard work and expertise make Canada and their communities a better place to live.
When she isn’t empowering women to take control of their health, Wendy stays active through golfing, skiing, and snowshoeing. She also affectionately calls herself a ‘foodie’ and she and her family often spend quality time together in the kitchen. Wendy is currently gearing up to participate in a 5 km race as part of Montreal’s Scotiabank Charity Challenge, where she will be raising funds for the MUHC Foundation in support of cardiovascular disease prevention. “This is another small way for me to make a difference, which is what I’m all about. I am approaching this event with the same mindset that I share with my patients and my family – ‘of course you can do it’!” Wendy says.