Peer-to-Peer Support for Women Living with Heart Disease

October 22, 2015

After Hope Sarfi had bypass surgery last year, she had good support from family and friends. They helped her out where they could, some learned about her condition and they listened to her concerns—everything you could want from those closest to you. But she felt something was missing.

That something was sharing experiences with others who had gone through the same thing. The people around her could understand only so much about how she found the surgery frightening and what it felt like learning she had to adapt to having a lifelong condition.

Lucky for Sarfi, the University of Ottawa Heart Institute recently launched Women@Heart, a volunteer peer-to-peer support program in which women not only learn more about their disease but meet others who have heart conditions.

“The main thing is being able to talk to people about how you feel, and help each other. It gives you a chance to tell your story and hear stories from others,” Sarfi said. It’s comforting knowing you’re not the only one going through a life-changing event like this, and learning how other women manage their heart conditions is helpful.

The program, launched in the winter of 2015, offers women a chance to attend biweekly meetings for six months in community locations across Ottawa. As well as meeting other women with heart disease, participants also learn more about cardiovascular disease, treatments, coping strategies, tips for managing stress and lifestyle changes, and more. Importantly, there is an atmosphere of camaraderie and people who support one another.

The groups gather at community centres, in church meeting rooms, at libraries or other locations close to where participants live, said Nadine Elias, Program Lead at the Heart Institute’s Prevention and Wellness Centre. Group sizes range from six to 12 people, which helps provide an intimate environment.

Peer support groups can address needs that health care professionals may not have the time for. This includes discussing personal issues, offering emotional support and sharing experiences with others who have a similar disease or condition.

Cardiovascular disease has important physical, psychological and social effects on women, she said. Generally, women’s quality of life is significantly lower than men’s after a heart event, a problem that is exacerbated for those who have little or no social support. People need support to help them better manage their conditions and reduce their risk of repeat events, she said.

“It gives you a chance to tell your story and hear stories from others.”

– Hope Sarfi Women@Heart Participant

Studies show that women tend to fare better health-wise if they participate in support groups. Such groups also help empower people to do the things they need to do to improve their own health.

Meetings are lead by women who have heart disease themselves, such as Roxy Hamilton, one of the first group leaders in the Women@Heart program.

“We undergo an intensive three-day training program, and are given binders with a lot of information that we use at the meetings we lead,” said Roxy Hamilton, who lead a group in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata.

Each meeting has a planned theme and format. Content for the program was designed at the Heart Institute by a team that included cardiologists, psychologists, other additional experts and patients. Hamilton was a volunteer on the advisory boards and provided input on what patients would want to get out of the experience.

The first meeting includes a meet-and-greet but is largely an information session on women and heart disease. The material tackles common myths and misperceptions, gender differences in heart disease, and symptoms and diagnosis. Other sessions include material on managing stress, tips for reducing the risk of recurrent heart events, and problem solving to address the challenges of making lifestyle changes that may be necessary to get healthy and stay that way.

As a participant, Sarfi found she got a lot more than support and information from the program. She made new friends. After her support group finished, the participants continued meeting to attend lectures about heart disease at the Heart Institute.

Members of the group are now emailing one another and plans are afoot for other get-togethers, including group walks, plays and movies, and other activities. “Most of us live close to each other, so it’s easy getting out to see each other,” she said.