As told to Kimberly Rex
As a paramedic during my twenties and thirties, I dealt with endless medical emergencies. I placed paddles on patients’ chests, shocking their hearts back to beating, and performed CPR on countless heart attack victims. Since 2008, as a cardiology physician assistant (PA), I’ve spent my days examining heart failure patients, managing their medical care while they’re in the hospital, and teaching them and their families what it means to have severe end-stage heart disease.
So, 10 years ago, when I went on my first date with Robin and she told me about her heart attack, her bypass surgery and her 14 stents, I wasn’t scared. I knew heart disease and I knew it well.
I knew what having cardiovascular disease at a very young age — only 46 — meant for Robin: that her life had changed forever. But her heart disease didn’t bother me or stop me from wanting to be with her. Soon, we became an exclusive couple, and we got married six years later.
Even though I’m the wife of a woman with heart disease, I don’t consider myself Robin’s caregiver. She takes care of herself in all the everyday ways you can imagine. She’d already made major life changes before our meeting, the most important of which was to quit smoking after her first heart attack. She’d also started working out regularly with her friends. Unfortunately, not long after we met, Robin was in a very serious car accident, which required nearly six months to recover, and she was unable to exercise during that time. She changed her diet to reduce her caloric intake, but the lack of exercise made weight maintenance difficult. Ultimately, after she recovered from her injuries, her cardiologist approved her for weight loss surgery. She had a sleeve gastrectomy and lost 50 lbs. Since then, she has a higher tolerance for exercise and quicker recovery after exertion.
And me? I’m her partner in all of this. I do most of the household tasks that require more physical labor. I carry the laundry upstairs or I lift the heavy things when we’re working on projects together. We don’t cook with salt at home and we ask for no added salt in restaurants. I can’t say we always make smart choices around food, but we do our best. In spite of Robin’s heart disease, we lead an active life. We love to work on DIY projects — from small household repairs to large renovations. We love to travel, visit wineries and take spontaneous road trips where we just take a turn and see where it takes us. Once, we came across the world’s largest golf tee!
In 2013, as we sat in the airport after a vacation, Robin said she’d been having back pain for days and felt more short of breath than usual. We flew home to her cardiologist, who found a severe blockage in her left circumflex artery. They gave her a new stent — number 15. Since then, I travel with an automated external defibrillator. This way, I know I can take action if Robin has a cardiac event.
When the pandemic hit, Robin’s work as a respiratory therapist put her nose-to-nose with Covid-19. She was terrified and knew that with her heart disease, she was at a high risk of death if she contracted this virus. We sat down to talk about it and I assured her she could retire. Financially, we’d be okay and she needed to protect herself from this dangerous disease.
Robin and Rose in 2017
Some people might look at my life and think I make sacrifices for Robin’s health. But that’s not how I see it at all. These lifestyle choices, such as a heart-healthy diet and staying active, are also good for me. Sure, there are activities we choose not to do because of her heart disease, but we have a good life and enjoy every minute of it. She’s my wife and I’m hers. I’ve never felt the need to complain or the desire to stay away from her because of her heart disease.
There are times when I feel torn between my two identities, though: wife and medical professional. I’m Robin’s partner, first and foremost, but I’m also skilled in life-saving techniques and knowledgeable about cardiology. When Robin has cardiac symptoms or events, it’s hard to know which role I should fill. If she tells me she’s feeling pain, she may simply need me to be there for her emotionally, but my instinct is to take action in medical situations. I want to be able to do something. Yet there I am, in civilian clothes, without any medical gear, and I can’t do anything to help her. I struggle to separate these two parts of myself.
Of course, the hardest part is the fear of losing her. God forbid that day comes, I know I’ll have a lot of people around me — my friends, my family, Robin’s family, too. For now, I try not to dwell.
The good news is that almost every day is normal around here. The bad days are few and far between. I wish Robin would communicate more when she’s having a bad day and not try to hide her symptoms until the last moment. But that’s the kind of woman she is: stoic and brave. Much like my first impression of her a decade ago, she is bright, happy, confident and strong. I try to let her know that I’m resilient, too. I can take it.
There’s something perfect about our pairing. Her heart disease didn’t frighten me in the beginning. A serious traumatic accident didn’t send me packing. I wasn’t scared away when a fun vacation ended in her 15th stent. Nothing will scare me away from her now. I’m her partner in every way and that will never change.
This resource was created with support from Amgen, Bristol Myers Squibb and Novartis.