When do you go to emergency?

During the pandemic, Heart & Stroke CEO Doug Roth and his family faced a hard decision about their mother’s health
Heart & Stroke CEO Doug Roth with his sister and mother on a lawn.

Doug Roth (left) and Terry Vigneux with their mother, Sandra, in June 2020.

Doug Roth wasn’t ready for the news his sister, Terry Vigneux, delivered in a phone call one morning in April. Their mother, Sandra Roth, had been feeling dizzy and short of breath. Terry had joined Sandra for a couple of telephone appointments with her doctor, trying to figure out what was going on.

Now the doctor said Sandra should go to emergency.

Like people across Canada, the Roth family were physically distancing in their homes, doing their part to avoid exposure to the virus causing COVID-19. The hospital was the last place they wanted their mother to go.

Pandemic precautions

The pandemic had already forced Sandra, 76, to put her busy life on hold. Normally her days revolve around church, volunteering and her neighbours in Baden, Ont., as well as keeping in touch with her five children and 11 grandchildren. Sandra lives with heart failure, diabetes and other conditions, and has a pacemaker. So she is at high risk of complications from COVID-19.

Now the dizziness and shortness of breath had the Roth family worried.

Terry, a registered nurse, was checking in daily, taking Sandra’s blood pressure, monitoring her blood sugar and adjusting her medications based on her doctor’s advice. They also tried changing Sandra’s diet, thinking that might help if the problem was related to blood pressure. But nothing worked.

Doug Roth, new CEO of Heart & Stroke

People have to get past their fear and have trust in our healthcare system.

Doug Roth CEO, Heart & Stroke


That’s when Terry called Doug, who is the CEO of Heart & Stroke, as well as another sister. At first they talked about alternatives; how could they avoid taking Sandra to the hospital?

“Then I had a bit of a lightbulb moment,” Doug recalls. "We were doing exactly what Heart & Stroke is educating people not to do. We needed to go to emergency."

They quickly agreed that Sandra should be seen in person and get the tests she needed. Emergency was the place to go.

Talking to his mother, Doug acknowledged her worries about catching the virus. “Yes, there's a chance, but your chances of having serious health issues are much higher at home." She agreed.

Terry drove Sandra to the hospital and was able to hand over extensive information about the recent changes in Sandra’s health. Because of pandemic precautions, Terry couldn’t stay.

Sandra went through several tests including blood work and an electrocardiogram (EKG), a check of her pacemaker and an assessment by a nurse who specializes in geriatric care. The ER team shared their findings with Terry, who in turn communicated with Sandra’s cardiologist. He ordered more tests.

They showed that Sandra’s heart failure had greatly worsened since her last cardiology checkup about six months earlier. That explained her shortness of breath and dizziness.

No regrets

While the news is not great, Sandra’s doctors now have a clear picture of the situation. They have changed her medications to keep her heart functioning as well as it can. And she may consult a surgeon to see if an operation could help.

For the Roth family, the decision to take their mother to the hospital was the right one.

"She would be way worse off if she hadn’t had those tests and had things changed quickly,” Doug says.

Terry agrees. “If we had not taken Mom to the ER that day, we would just keep believing that it was solely a blood pressure issue and never have realized that it was her failing heart condition. She would not have received the medical attention she needed.”

The family is grateful that Sandra is managing her new diagnosis. In early June she joined Doug and other family members — at a safe physical distance — in Stratford, Ont., for some Heart & Stroke Ride for Heart fundraising activities.

Throughout the pandemic and beyond, Doug wants people in Canada to understand the importance of the messages Heart & Stroke is sharing:

  • Anyone living with a chronic condition such as high blood pressure, heart disease or stroke who experiences new or worsening symptoms should seek urgent medical treatment.

  • If anyone shows signs of stroke, heart attack or cardiac arrest, call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number right away.

“People have to get past their fear and have trust in our healthcare system,” Doug says, stressing that hospitals are set up with extensive precautions to protect patients and staff from the virus. “We have a great healthcare system, with great experts, and you need to leverage them.”

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