February is Heart Month, a time to bring attention to and think about our cardiovascular health. Heart disease affects over 2 million Canadians and is the second leading cause of death in Canada. SHN is home to North America’s largest regional, community-based cardiovascular rehab service. This six-month program helps to improve our patients’ quality of life through supervised exercise, education and guided lifestyle change.

We sat down with Dr. Natalie Ho, a cardiologist with SHN, about the importance of cardiovascular health and how SHN is contributing to healthier hearts for Scarborough.

  1. February is Heart Month. What advice would you give to people to look after and improve their cardiac health, especially during the pandemic?

During the pandemic, a lot of people became more sedentary due to working from home and sitting in front of a screen for most of the day. As we all know, proper exercise and movement are so important for your overall health and heart health, but some people let this slip during the lockdown with gyms being closed and not being able to go outside during the cold winter months.

We have to exercise, both for the benefit of our physical and mental well-being. I would recommend balancing appropriate social distancing and public health protocols with our health, and this might mean getting creative with how you move. Some things you can do to take care of your heart and your health during COVID-19 include:

Get creative with your workouts – walk up and down your stairs, bundle up and go for a walk outside or do body weight exercises at home in a safe area.
Eat nutritious, home-cooked meals.
Avoid eating quick, processed foods with added trans fats and salt.
Try to limit your alcohol intake and find an alternative outlet for stress relief.
If you’re working from home, put some boundaries around your work schedule. This might include going for a walk in place of your normal commute time.

  1. SHN is home to North America’s largest regional, community-based cardiovascular rehab service. How important is this program for treating patients with cardiovascular disease, and how has SHN continued to treat these patients during COVID-19?

A lot of our cardiovascular programs were able to quickly pivot into a virtual environment, including phone calls and virtual appointments. These programs continue to allow us to keep a pulse on our patients. Other helpful programs that we have utilized include home visits for bloodwork and tele-homecare, which allows remote patient monitoring of key vital signs.

Our cardiac rehabilitation programs in particular moved very quickly to a virtual platform. Our team connects with patients virtually and can prescribe exercise and wellness routines to keep them on track after they’ve had a cardiac event.

Additionally, the arrhythmia service has been able to utilize remote monitoring of implantable cardioverter defibrillators and other implantable devices to detect irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias and potentially reduce the number of times patients need to travel to the clinic for an appointment.

  1. In 2020, SHN launched the Cardiac Amyloidosis Clinic at our General hospital. What makes this clinic so special to SHN, and how can it contribute to a healthier Scarborough?

The field of cardiac amyloidosis has exploded in the last several years. Cardiac amyloidosis, which is a condition where abnormal proteins (amyloid) deposit in the heart tissue and make it difficult for the heart to work properly, has historically been hard to diagnose with no available treatments.

As a result, patients were often diagnosed very late in the disease course and ultimately had a very poor prognosis. However, in the last few years, with the development of non-invasive imaging tests, we can now detect the disease without invasive testing and there are new medications being developed that can improve patient’s quality of life and potentially their and life expectancy with cardiac amyloidosis.

We have also discovered that this disease is much more prevalent than we thought and is in fact a common cause of heart failure. This disease has various types and depending on the type of cardiac amyloidosis, can affect different ethnicities to varying degrees. This is important, especially given how multicultural and diverse the population that we serve in Scarborough is. Furthermore, our clinic will provide patients with local testing and diagnosis, which can save patients a trip to downtown Toronto.

  1. You’ve been with SHN for 3 years now. What makes our Scarborough community so special?

Since I’ve been here I’ve been incredibly moved by our patients – our multicultural and diverse community show such special gratitude toward the health care providers. I wasn’t used to seeing this before starting at SHN.

There’s always a special relationship that develops between me and my patients. They come from all walks of life and don’t take their health care for granted – they will overcome hurdles such as transportation or mobility issues to make their appointments every single time and are always very thankful.

I’m also touched by the sense of community and family. Patients will often come to appointments with their families who are extremely supportive, and will help overcome any language barriers if they are present.

  1. Donors and our community of supporters help to ensure we can continue providing exceptional care. What would you say to encourage our community to support our Cardiac Program?

Heart disease is a large part of medicine, and as our patients are living longer and surviving longer after cardiac events, the prevalence of people living with heart disease is increasing. Caring for our patient’s cardiac health directly impacts their quality of life. The field of cardiology is shifting toward preventative medicine and specialized clinics to hone our expertise and understanding of specific disease processes.

We have a great cardiovascular program at SHN and a great group of physicians, nurses and health professionals with specialized skills. When patients come to our cardiac program, very few of them need to be referred out as a lot can be done right here at one of our SHN hospitals. The support of our donors has helped spearhead many specialized clinics to help our patient’s specific needs.

I would encourage our community to support our cardiac program because while we are a leader in cardiac care, there are some clinics and procedures that I would like to see offered by SHN that would really catapult us to the forefront of cardiology and help us provide complete cardiac care to our community.

SHN is proud to have dedicated physicians like Dr. Ho caring for our Scarborough community. To learn more about our cardiac programs visit SHN.ca/cardiac.

To donate to SHN Foundation and support heart health in Scarborough, click here.