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Chloe Angyal Headshot

Joannie Rochette, already an icon

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Last night, the world watched in wonder as Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette took to the ice in Vancouver and skated her short program before a roaring home crowd. The program, which earned Rochette the highest score of her skating career, put her in third place going into the long program. Rochette's mother, Therese, had died suddenly of a heart attack two days earlier.

I cannot begin to imagine how Joannie Rochette managed to get out of bed, let alone go to practice. How she found the strength to get out on the ice and compete in front of a television audience of millions, and skate with such grace and poise, is completely beyond me. When the music ended and Rochette had struck her final pose, she burst into tears, and the world joined in her grief and mourning as she bowed to the crowd, as her father looked on, crying.

It was a heart wrenching Olympic moment. And it that reminded me of just how lucky I am that my own mother is still alive to watch me skate.

When I was fourteen, when she was fifty-one, my mother had a heart attack. She was driving my older sister to field hockey practice when she began to feel tightness in her chest, swelling in her throat and numbness in her arms. Pulling the car over, she told my sister that she needed to go to the emergency room, and my sister, calm and poised, jumped into the driver's seat and drove to the hospital. My father and I were at home, getting ready for school and work. It was one of the scariest phone calls my father had ever received, I'm sure, and as soon as he put the phone down, we leapt into the car and drove to the hospital.

My mother was lucky. When it comes to cardiac events, time is of the essence, and she was treated during what the Australian Heart Foundation calls "the golden hour." Three days after angioplasty and having a stent inserted, she was released from the hospital. In fact, my mother was beyond lucky: A week earlier, we had been on vacation in the outback, and Mom had been doing the 8-mile walk around the base of Uluru, hundreds of miles in every direction from an emergency room. A day earlier, she had been kayaking, alone, in the middle of Sydney Harbour. When her heart attack happened, she was in a car, heading in the direction of the hospital, with an excellent driver in the passenger seat. And while it took her more than a year to get back to her full level of energy and strength, there was no permanent damage. She was lucky. We were so lucky.

Almost seven years later, Mom is happy and healthy and active - sometimes, she joins me on the ice after a session with my skating coach, and she and Dad are learning pairs skating together. She also serves as a spokeswoman for the Australia's National Heart Foundation; after her first few appearances on morning television, women started coming up to her in the street, having recognized her as "the heart attack lady." It's a title she takes seriously, and one she's glad to be able to add to her many other roles; wife, mother, doctor, daughter, sister, executive, friend, mentor, noodge. My sister, father and I are grateful to her doctors and to the forces of chance, which combined to ensure that she's with us today.

In Australia as in the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death in women.
Earlier this month, the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign held its annual National Wear Red Day to raise awareness about the risk factors for heart disease, and to encourage women to seek preventive care. Like the AHA, the Australian National Heart Foundation advises women to get regular check ups, exercise regularly, eat healthily, and to "know their numbers," including their cholesterol levels and blood pressure. These are rules my sister and I now live by, and we're proud of our mother's efforts to educate other women about the importance of heart health. The AHA website is an excellent source for information about risk factors, and the Go Red for Women site has more specific information about how heart disease affects women.

Tomorrow night, Joannie Rochette will take to the ice for the free skate, to compete for an Olympic medal. She's an unlikely podium contender, but regardless of the results of the competition, Rochette is already an icon. By merely showing up on Tuesday night, she reminded us what incredible strength it takes to overcome the pain and tragedy of heart disease, whether it's by taking the challenging first steps to prevent a future heart attack, or readjusting to life after a cardiac event, or by caring for - or mourning - a loved one. She also served to remind us that we should never, even for a second, take our parents, our siblings, our friends, for granted.

Like millions of others, I'll be cheering Rochette on from the couch tomorrow night. But I'll also be looking forward to the next time I can go back to my home rink, lace up, get out on the ice, and skate with my Mom.