Belmont resident Ashley Nethercott has gone through some terrifying moments over the past couple of years because of her heart condition. What made it frustrating was the fact that it took a while before doctors could figure out why she was passing out for no apparent reason. She soldiers on with help from her family, friends and the students she teaches and coaches at Northdale Central who held a fundraiser to support her.
Before March break the students found out that their beloved volunteer teacher was going to have heart surgery. Grade 7 student Victoria Quance decided to do a fundraiser. She and her fellow classmates Kristen Bisschop and Madison Wright were able to get a jersey signed by internationally renowned wheelchair rugby athlete Dave Willsie of Nilestown as a donation. They made ballots for a draw and went door-to-door outside of school hours to sell them.
Nethercott, 21, went to the school to volunteer as usual one day. A student asked her questions about an assignment for a few minutes to distract her and following that they went to a classroom where all of the Grade 7 students had gathered for a presentation.
They gave Nethercott a massive fruit basket and a cheque, as well as a letter and a picture of the girls’ basketball team that she .coaches. The students thanked her for her contributions at the school and for helping them. They said that they wanted to do something to show their appreciation, support her and also raise awareness about heart health concerns.
“It was overwhelmingly crazy that they would think to do something like that,” said Nethercott, who was really impressed with the time and effort the fundraising took and the care it showed. “It was a lot of work for them.” A total of $160 was donated to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
Kristen said, “It felt really good to know we are helping people.”
Nethercott didn’t realize how much she meant to them.
The girls were surprised that someone as active as Nethercott could have a heart problem.
She has a rigorous schedule, which helps take her mind off of her health condition. Nethercott is at Northdale Central four days a week as a volunteer teacher and coach for the Grade 7/8 girls’ basketball team and the Grade 5/6 boys’ basketball team. She attended Wilfrid Laurier University where she finished her undergrad. Nethercott did a double degree in geography and environmental studies. She juggled her volunteer activities with working on her thesis, studying for and writing exams for school and a number of appointments at the hospital.
When she was 19, Nethercott started developing cardiac problems that would require visits to the emergency department. In her story, which she shared through the website Go Red For Women and on Facebook, Nethercott said at this point she was being blown off by doctors. Her first cardiologist put her on medications to slow her resting heart rate, which was 120 beats per minute (the average resting heart rate is between 60 and 100). Over the next year, the doses were increased, but the medication was not effective.
Nethercott started developing episodes where her heart rate would increase, she would experience dizziness and chest pain, then she would faint. These would start when she was lying down or walking up a couple of stairs.
“At this point, I realized that my heart started running my life and the things that I would do.”
Her electrocardiography (EKG) results (a measure of the electrical activity of the heart) were normal. She described what happened during the episodes, but by the time the paramedics got to her or she saw a doctor, the episodes were finished and not detected by the EKG.
A specialist eventually referred Nethercott for a study to measure the activity of her heart. The study was inconclusive and the doctors couldn’t find the additional electrical pathway they suspected she had. Nethercott’s cardiologist decided to implant a device in her chest to continuously record her heart function.
A few months later Nethercott had her most serious episode. She lost consciousness and stopped breathing. “By the time the paramedics arrived I was grey in colour, and at this time they had to insert a breathing tube and put me on a ventilator.”
Nethercott had an appointment to get the implanted device connected to a computer to see what happened during an episode when she actually passed out. Doctors discovered that her heart rate would go up to 261 bpm for a long period of time and suddenly drop to 15 bpm.
Nethercott was told that her body could not sustain life with the irregularity of the heart and she would have to have surgery as soon as possible. In March doctors repaired the atrioventricular (AV) node, which is a part of the electrical control system of the heart that co-ordinates the top of the heart. Doctors discovered some complications during the surgery and determined that it would be necessary to operate again in the near future.
“Hopefully my next surgery will fix my heart and I can go back to a normal lifestyle where I don’t have to worry about my heart on a daily basis. Through all of this, I found strength in myself with the unconditional love and support of friends and family. Their positive thoughts and words continue to be so uplifting, and I know I am stronger because of them.”
Nethercott said she hopes that women trust their instincts and continue pushing for answers, especially young girls. “Trust me, I know that doctors push you off because you’re young but listen to your body and get the help you need.”
Nethercott was one of 27,000 applicants for teachers’ colleges in Ontario this year. She was accepted to all five where she applied. Nethercott will be attending Nippissing University in North Bay to complete her studies with the goal of teaching students the same age as those she volunteers with at Northdale Central.