Robin Asbell: Congenital Heart Defect

As a Twin Cities-based chef, author and cooking instructor, Robin Asbell considers it her passion and life’s work “to make food that is both good for you and good tasting.” Her awareness of heart disease and the role a healthy lifestyle plays have always been high, as her father had two heart attacks and eventually died from heart disease. She herself has always been committed to a healthy lifestyle — riding her bicycle on 50-mile trips and regularly working out at the gym as well as eating healthfully.

“I really didn’t ever imagine that there could be anything wrong with my heart,” said Robin.  

However, in 2008, the then 46-year-old was shocked to discover that she had a fairly rare congenital heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome. Normally, electrical signals follow a certain pathway through the heart, which helps the heart beat regularly. In people born with WPW syndrome, some of the heart’s electrical signals go down an extra pathway. This may cause a very rapid heart rate called supraventricular tachycardia, which can be dangerous if it takes the form of atrial fibrillation. 

At the time her condition was discovered, Robin was juggling multiple projects and deadlines. When she felt pains in her chest, she popped an antacid and chalked it up to stress. One day when she thought she was experiencing heartburn, she called her doctor’s office and spoke to a nurse. The nurse knew that Robin lived near Abbott Northwestern Hospital (ANW) and stressed that she should immediately go there and get checked out. Robin was initially hesitant as she didn’t want to “make a big deal of it,” but she eventually was persuaded to go to the emergency room, where an EKG revealed the problem.

Doctors recommended that Robin schedule surgery to correct the heart defect, but since she wasn’t feeling any symptoms in the months after the diagnosis, she continued to ignore it. A nurse kept calling her every few weeks to schedule a surgery consultation, but Robin continually declined.

“I’d say, ‘I’m too busy; I can’t go,” said Robin. “I’m answering my cellphone here because I’m riding my bicycle. I kept thinking, ‘Why does this woman keep calling me? I told her I’m not gonna’ do this. I don’t need this.’”

It wasn’t until a friend of hers showed her a newspaper article about a young athlete with WPW syndrome who had passed out while playing basketball that Robin finally made an appointment. After meeting with Dr. William Katsiyiannis, an electrophysiologist at Minneapolis Heart Institute® at ANW and researcher at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation® (MHIF), she was finally convinced of the need for the surgery. Without it, she would increasingly be at risk for fainting, atrial fibrillation and possibly even sudden cardiac arrest.

“I started thinking of what would happen if I started fainting while I was driving or on my bicycle, out in the woods alone, or working alone,” said Robin. “I’m always running up and down somebody’s stairs with some food in my hands or working on cookbooks alone at my house. I do a lot of things alone where I could just fall, or I could be teaching a cooking class and just go headfirst into the stove. I thought, ‘This could be really bad, if I just suddenly fell over right now.’”

Through a minimally invasive procedure called a catheter ablation, surgeons destroyed (ablated) the tissues in the extra electrical pathway. After seeing her new EKG, Robin said she was pleased to hear doctors tell her that her heart was now “perfectly normal.”

Robin has since become a frequent supporter of MHIF’s educational initiatives, having spoken at a luncheon and also donated copies of some of her eight cookbooks for various MHIF events. 

“We’ve just seen so many advances (in heart treatments), and I feel so lucky to have been at a very cutting-edge hospital,” said Robin. “I think that it’s great that there’s an organization like MHIF looking forward to solving these problems, because again, so many people are affected on so many levels. I mean, some people like me are just born with problems, others need to learn more about preventing heart disease, and of course, there’s a huge need to learn how to fix various heart problems. So, it’s absolutely crucial stuff.”

She added, “I think one of the things that I think never gets enough play is the impact on women. We still have that silly stereotype that it’s men who have heart disease and heart attacks. If you’re having a pain in your chest or something in your arm, or you don’t know why your back is hurting … all those things could be your heart. But women just don’t even think about that, and so I certainly didn’t think about my heart at all. I’ve learned to just pay attention; especially to what the doctor or nurse tells you!”