Your journey with heart disease started suddenly in 2009. What took you to the emergency room that night?
I was in a restaurant in Toronto, waiting for my then husband. And I started to feel tingling in my extremities. I also felt a pressure at the base of my throat.
I was starting rehearsals with the Toronto Symphony the next day. I thought I was coming down with a cold. I would find out later that my aorta had dissected. So there was a tear in the wall of this large blood vessel leading from my heart, and I was bleeding internally.
We went straight home. As I was looking for my health card, my legs gave out. My husband called 9-1-1, I think before I hit the ground. When the paramedics took my blood pressure, and it was something crazy like 210/180.
What happened in the hospital?
I was kept overnight then sent home the next day – a Tuesday. They made an appointment for me to come back on Friday for an MRI. And they pumped me full of drugs to regulate my blood pressure.
I didn’t know it but I was still hemorrhaging. I was feeling very weak and not myself. I called my GP, who saw me straight away. He sent me back to emergency with a note in red block letters: “Give this woman an MRI!”
I got the test. The technician gasped. She was like, “Oh my God... OK, Ms. Bruegger… I'm going to....” She literally couldn't finish a sentence.
Before I knew it, I was staring down at this zipper scar in the center of my chest.
So you had emergency surgery to repair your aorta. Looking back on that experience, what did you learn?
I think another person would have waited till Friday and died. So of course I feel this burden of know yourself, advocate for yourself, educate yourself.
I don’t blame the doctors. I had no history of heart disease. There was nothing really for them to go on. And a 31-year-old woman normally wouldn't be presenting with this kind of problem.
At the same time, I knew that what the instruments were saying did not reflect what I was feeling.
Really, the closer you are to your own body, the more you're going to be willing to fight for what you know in a situation that deserves attention.
So fast forward to 2019 and a whole new story with your heart. What happened?
It was June – almost 10 years to the day since my first heart surgery. I had just finished singing season closing concerts with the Calgary Philharmonic. Before that I’d gone from Carnegie Hall to the Barbican in London to performances with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra.
I was staying with friends in Calgary. When I woke up that morning, I started to feel chest pain. I found my friends in the kitchen. And I'm like, “Nobody panic, but we have to go to the emerg.”
At the hospital, they thought at first it was the aorta again. But after two MRIs, they found an 80% blockage in the “widow-maker” intersection of the arteries of my heart. I needed double bypass surgery.
While I was waiting for the operation, my father died across the country in New Brunswick — from the same thing I was going to be operated on for.
That sounds like a terrible time. You had bypass surgery and then what?
It took me about five minutes to know that I was not going back to work straight away. Last time, in 2009, I clawed myself back to performing again as soon as possible.
This time, I was like, “I am taking every solitary second that I possibly can.” I did not want to rush my cardiac recovery. Also, I realized just how incredibly rundown I had been before the operation.
There was also the fact that I would get to be at home in Nova Scotia with my children, who are age seven and five, all summer. I'm not mother of the year, don't get me wrong. I love my job and I do not look back when I go away to work. But I felt I had been missing things.
You’ve partnered with Heart & Stroke to promote the #RedList. Why?
I've been a huge fan of the work that Heart & Stroke does, for many years. My mother and I had done a mother-daughter campaign where we talked about raising awareness for the symptoms of heart attack that are different in women than they are in men.
As women, we tend to put other people before our own health. But you need to put on your oxygen mask on before helping other people. And your oxygen mask is your own heart health.
So that, to me, was the motivating factor behind wanting to be part of this campaign. Because I know how hard it is to choose yourself. And yet every time I've done it, everybody around me has benefited.
What changes would you like to see when it comes to women and heart health?
We need to know more about women’s hearts and brains. The research simply isn’t there.
Only through more research can we ensure that a future 31-year-old woman who goes to emergency with an aortic dissection gets the right treatment, right away.
What do you wish more women knew about their heart health?
I wish more women would trust their own instincts. You know? I think it's very important that they understand that nobody knows how they feel better than they do. And that they shouldn't allow themselves to be told how they feel.
But at the same time, it’s not all up to women themselves. We need the healthcare system to do a better job of understanding women’s hearts and recognizing when they’re in trouble.
That can’t happen without more and better research. And that’s why I’m proud to be part of the #RedList.
Learn more about women, heart disease and stroke.
Measha Brueggergosman appears with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Dec. 10-12, 2019.