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Bright Futures

Phoenix Children’s Social Media Intern Gabrielle Ducharme Shares How Personal Tragedy Inspired Her to Advocate for Heart Health

December 23, 2020, Gabrielle Ducharme
A Cautionary Tale to Prevent Cardiovascular Disease
A Cautionary Tale to Prevent Cardiovascular Disease

It was September 11, 2015 when my father woke me up early for school. I threw my pillow at him and told him to go away. It was like any other morning in my household. I didn’t realize it then, but it was the last normal morning I would have for a long time.

I grew up in a house full of women; my mother, my two older sisters, and yes, even my two dogs. My father was outnumbered, but he embraced living in a house full of outspoken women and barking dogs. My dad was my soccer coach, game-day buddy, chauffeur and biggest fan. He fueled my passion for basketball and volunteered his time in youth soccer, where he touched many lives and taught me the importance of doing the same. I was best friends with my hero, until I learned that he was a fragile human being.

My father never picked me up from school that day. I called him a few times, but he never showed. Some family friends finally picked me up, and said they heard he had passed out as a result of heat stroke. We rushed to the hospital. That car ride felt like an eternity, and then time stopped.

He was pronounced dead due to heart disease and hardening of his arteries at 51 years old. I was 16, my older sisters were 18 and 20. My mother’s world turned upside down, and she was left with pieces of a house that no longer felt whole.

My father was one of the most stubborn people I have ever known. He thought he could outrun, overmatch and outsmart heart disease. His philosophy was: “If I don’t go to the doctor, there’s nothing wrong with me.”

This flawed philosophy is why I am interning for the Phoenix Children’s Heart Center. I curate social media posts, interview doctors and draft articles to reinforce the importance of heart health – and how heart-healthy habits really need to be formed during childhood. I accepted this role because I have a unique voice on this issue and want to help Phoenix Children’s advance its mission to provide hope, healing and the best healthcare for children and their families.

Drawing from my personal experience, I encourage people of all ages to recognize the importance of heart health, before it’s too late. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends three key action steps to prevent heart disease: Move more, work on your weight and salt intake and don’t smoke.

Similarly, the American Heart Association stresses how everyone can benefit from a healthy diet and adequate physical activity, regardless of their age. Parents can play a key role in helping their children adopt life-long, heart-healthy behaviors by encouraging them to spend less time on the couch and more time on the move. Visiting a local park, planting fruits and vegetables in the yard and cooking nutritious meals together are just a few simple ways they can make heart-healthy living a family affair.

It also is critical to know the warning signs of heart attack and stroke and to get regular physical exams. My father would have rather died than go to the doctor for a check-up. And, sadly, he did. I want people to learn from his experience—to understand that taking your health seriously and teaching your children to do the same may be the difference between life and death.

My father’s birthday is the day after Christmas, so each holiday season brings its own challenges, balancing bursts of joy and grief. During this emotionally demanding time of year, I share his story, hoping it will help others in the future.

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