Joannie Rochette’s connection to heart disease and stroke began tragically in 2010. Just two days before she captured a bronze medal in figure skating at the Vancouver Olympics, her mother, Thérèse, died of a heart attack. Now, the Olympian is volunteering as Honorary Chair of Heart & Stroke Canvass. She’s speaking out about her experience and her hopes for empowering more women to make their heart health a priority.
Tell us about your beginnings as a figure skater and the role your mom played.
I started skating when I was around two years old. It was just for fun back then. I'm from a very small town In Quebec and I learned to skate on the St. Lawrence River with my whole family. It was something that I always did with my mom. She would come in the stands and watch me skate for almost every practice. She was there every step of the way.
Then just as your career was peaking at the 2010 Olympics, you lost your mom. Was there any warning?
I was 24 years old when my mother passed away. She was 55. My mom wasn't seeing a cardiologist or anything like that. It's something that took me and my family totally by surprise; we didn’t see it coming. In my mind, heart disease was an old man's disease. I didn't think of my mom being at risk. But now when I think back on it she was a heavy smoker, wasn’t eating very healthy and she was stressed. She was always worrying about me for the Olympics also. Looking back, knowing what I know now, maybe I could have seen it coming a little bit more.
What influence did your mom have on your life?
My mom was my best friend, my psychologist, my secretary, and she took care of my finances. When she passed away, that's when I really appreciated everything that she did for me. Skating was never exactly the same without her. At the same time, when I'm on the ice, that's when I feel closest to her. I know I would not have come this far in skating and in life without her. She raised me to be tough and to overcome adversity and anything that's being thrown at you in life.
Joannie talks about her new role with Heart & Stroke Canvass.
Why do you think so many women don’t consider themselves at risk for heart disease and stroke?
Women often don't put themselves first. My mom was definitely like that. She'd put my dad and me first. After my mom passed away we found a piece of paper in her wallet that outlined some of the symptoms she was experiencing. She had never talked to us about them. She had pain in her left shoulder, numbness in her hands, blurry vision and she was tired all the time. When I saw that piece of paper, I felt guilty for not noticing it sooner. I was so busy training for the Olympics. The focus was on me at that time. I think that's also part of the reason that she didn't speak up.
What would you tell women on the importance of having a healthy lifestyle?
Often, heart disease is not a disease that happens overnight. That's why it's so important for women to be aware of the symptoms and that if they experience them, to talk about them with a doctor.
What’s your message for the volunteers and donors who support Heart & Stroke?
I think it's pretty incredible to see the number of volunteers involved in this cause. We all know someone in our family affected by heart disease, and as an athlete, I think it's very important to set goals for ourselves. It's also about teamwork. When we all work together, every little bit adds up in the end and makes a difference. That’s why donors are critical for Heart & Stroke. Funding research will definitely lead to medical breakthroughs and help save lives in the future.
You’re currently studying to become a doctor. What has that experience been like?
I feel so fortunate to be able to study medicine. It's been my childhood dream after figure skating. I grew up watching my mom; she worked as a personal support worker in a seniors’ home. There's always been a side of me that's wanted to help other people but at the same time to understand how the human body works. I had the chance to shadow a cardiologist and a cardiac surgeon and actually see a heart beating. That was one of the most magical moments, so far, in my medical career.
What do you hope to accomplish in your role as Honorary Chair?
If I can help one other woman who is having similar symptoms or who is forgetting her own health while putting her family first, I feel like I will have done something for my mom. That's what feels good about being involved. I definitely hope that we can get people together and educate Canadians about heart disease. My mom was 55 years old. It can happen at any age.