France Contant and her husband Serge were deliriously excited about their future, until faced with the terrifying reality that France might not have one.
In January 2020, just before the pandemic changed our lives so dramatically, France gave birth to her third child, a gorgeous little girl the France and her husband Serge, named Brielle. Less than two weeks after Brielle’s birth, France began feeling intense stomach pain. Her usual trick to alleviate pain were unsuccessful and she found herself curled up in the fetal position in the bathtub in an attempt to get some relief. What she describes as “an intense pressure, and it was burning” was relieved briefly by the application of ice packs, but at one point, when she was nursing the baby, the pain returned more intense than ever and her arms went numb. Serge quickly took the baby and saw the fear and distress in his wife’s eyes, and watched as her skin began to turn colour until it looked like she had been “rolled in red paint from the bottom up.”
France was rushed by ambulance to the emergency department in Timmins. A blood test quickly confirmed that something was going on with her heart. Without any onsite cardiology expertise, France was transferred 300 km to a Sudbury hospital for an angiogram.
It was in that Sudbury hospital France and Serge received the staggering news. At 29-years of age, with three children under the age of five, France had experienced a massive heart attack.
France was diagnosed with SCAD, or Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection. A sudden tear in an artery wall of her heart that resulted in a flap that completely closed off the artery resulting in a massive heart attack. The causes of SCAD are largely unknown. The condition primarily affects women aged 30-60. It accounts for roughly 25 per cent of all heart attacks in women under 60 years of age. SCAD may lead to heart attack, cardiac arrest and even death.
But perhaps SCAD’s most devastating statistic is that it strikes hardest in women who have recently given birth.
France shares her reaction “This is something I would have never expected.I’m young and active, for most of my life I’ve been a dancer, I have no family history of heart disease and no risk factors that could lead to a cardiac event.”
The damage to France’s heart was extensive. Half of her heart became stunned, and a blood clot formed in a chamber. After a few days in hospital in Sudbury, and missing her children terribly, France was getting ready to go home but France and Serge were nervous and felt she didn’t have a clear recovery plan. As a precaution she was airlifted even further from home to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, a decision that ultimately saved her life.
Along with her medical team at the Heart Institute, France had high hopes that she could heal on her own, and so she waited, had a lot of tests, and waited some more. Several weeks of continuously experiencing pain went by and she felt at a crossroads. Since she lived so far away, the team at the Heart Institute didn’t think she should go home, her heart health was too uncertain. France shares what happened next; “Three and a half weeks after my initial heart attack, I had a second heart attack. Thankfully, I was in the institute when it happened because I’m pretty convinced if I was at home in Timmins, I definitely wouldn’t be here today.”
A six-hour, double-bypass surgery resolved France’s SCAD issue. Physically she could now begin to heal but being so far from home and family for more than six weeks brought a different kind of heartache.
“I missed a lot of stuff while I was in the hospital. I missed our son’s school registration, I missed our daughter’s fifth birthday, for me those are big milestones in their young lives, but I knew if I didn’t get better, I wouldn’t be around to see them grow-up at all,” said France.
She would spend her 30th birthday at the Heart Institute, over 550 km from her family.
France knew the next phase of recovery would be daunting, her health was fragile, she was far from home and the world was entering a global pandemic. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d have the family I have now,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘you know what France? You need to push through this, be strong for your kids because they only get one mom.’”
Once home, doctors asked France not to lift anything, including baby Brielle, for 12 weeks. When that time was up, husband Serge recorded the moment on his phone as France cautiously lifted the baby from a bed, kissing her gently on the cheek. “How does that feel?” he asked, “Good,” France replies, tears filling her eyes. “It was a momentous time for us,” she adds.
From her Timmins’ home during the pandemic lockdown in March, France participated remotely in the Heart Institute’s Cardiac Rehab program. The road to recovery has been a long one for France but there were bright spots along the way “The heart institute put me contact with the Ottawa SCAD peer support group. By interacting with other patients, I don’t feel so alone on this journey.” France says. “Luckily, I was back at home when the COVID-19 affected all our hospitals, I was able to start my cardiac rehab with the Heart Institutes telehealth telephone program. This remote patient support program is great, and it propelled me for success when I started my in-person rehab here in Timmins. When I have important questions, someone from my cardiologist’s team at the Heart Institute is a phone call away. My recovery went flawlessly,” she adds.
In September 2020, at five months post surgery, France joined participants across Canada in the Heart Institute Foundations JUMP IN ™ initiative—a fitness challenge raising awareness and funds to benefit women’s heart health. During Heart Month 2020, France posted daily to her Instagram account, continuing to show her support for the Heart Institute.
“The teams at the Heart Institute are really the best in their field. I’m very grateful for the work that they do. I will forever feel gratitude for what they did for me, and to have been given the gift of time and be able to watch my kids grow up. I have a long healthy life ahead of me and I proudly wear my battle scar.