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Registered Nurse and nursing instructor Sarah Beanlands. Photo: Morgan Dalgleish

Carleton’s Learning in Retirement Matter of the Heart lecture series makes cardiology accessible for all

By Brian Carroll on September 23, 2019

Registered Nurse and nursing instructor Sarah Beanlands. Photo: Morgan Dalgleish

Registered Nurse and nursing instructor Sarah Beanlands draws on her experience at hospitals like Toronto’s Sick Kids and the Ottawa Heart Institute to demystify heart anatomy, functions, illnesses and treatment. While her lecture series, Matters of the Heart: Comprehensive Cardiology, runs on Tuesday mornings, both retirees and younger people can attend. Her students have given enthusiastic feedback on both the course and Beanlands’ teaching abilities.

Brian Carroll interviewed Ms. Beanlands about her lecture series which runs from October 29th to December 3rd at Carleton University. Registration for the course is now open. This interview has been edited for length.

Apt613: Why a cardiology course for lay people?

Sarah Beanlands: I think this is really important information for people to have in general. It turns out that a lot of the people in the course that I was teaching had been personally affected by heart disease. Either themselves or a loved one had had heart disease, or had a family history of heart disease, or had undergone treatment for heart disease. There’s a lot of education provided in the hospital, but oftentimes when people are receiving that information, it’s very overwhelming given the circumstance. If yourself or a loved one has been diagnosed, it’s a lot of information to take in, in a pretty stressful setting.

By being able to relay this information in a more relaxed setting where there are other people who may come with the same kinds of questions or have the same kinds of experiences that you have, I think it’s a really wonderful learning opportunity for people to find out some things that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to find out.

It turns out that a lot of the people in the course that I was teaching had been personally affected by heart disease.

We start out week one really, really basic. What is the heart? What does the heart do? What does the heart look like? Because a lot of the conditions that people are diagnosed with, if you don’t understand the basic anatomy and physiology of the heart, let alone the specific cellular processes that contribute to these diseases, it’s going to be very difficult to really picture what’s going on in your own body.

The description of the lecture series mentions “a hands-on exercise to interpret an ECG”. What’s an ECG?

An ECG, or an electrocardiogram, is an electrical picture of what’s going on in your heart. Your heart conducts electricity. It’s that electricity that the ECG is picking up. There are different components of the ECG that can tell cardiologists, and lay people, what exactly is going on with the heart. The different segments have different heights, different time spans, different shapes that are all indicative of the specific mechanisms of the heart. By knowing what a normal ECG looks like, you can then interpret other ECGs and detect arrhythmias.

We do a few exercises in terms of pretty basic stuff at first. What are the components of the ECG? Identifying the various waves. Identifying if those waves have abnormalities and then moving on and identifying specific arrhythmias.

The course description mentions an ECG exercise, but in fact you wind up using more complex ECGs throughout the course as you explain normal and abnormal conditions. The students seem to grasp the more and more complex material. How do you keep the students from getting lost?

I do try and take the time to have people ask questions throughout, because this is complex material and I’d rather everyone be on the same page and understand what we’re going through. But building on the normal heart and the normal ECG throughout what we’re learning about and relating it back to people’s own personal experience does help to simplify some of these concepts going forward… treating this in a stepwise fashion of what a normal heart looks like. Therefore, what a normal ECG looks like and then building on that. What if there was something wrong with the coronary arteries? What if there was something wrong with the left ventricle? What if the person had X, Y, and Z other conditions? It does end up being pretty simple for people to understand those changes that are going on.

You’ve taught cardiology to nursing students at Algonquin College. How are the Learning in Retirement students different?

They have a lot more personal experience as recipients of care in the healthcare field than the nursing students who are learning to be healthcare practitioners. I really enjoyed that because I got to hear from people who had been patients, about how they had been taught in the past, and they had a different kind of baseline knowledge than the nursing students.

I found the Learning in Retirement participants had a lot of knowledge about the care they’ve received, the surgical procedures that they’d been offered, the drugs they were taking for these heart conditions, and even some specifics like the exercise routines that they had been recommended.

You supplement the theoretical material with real life examples, from your own experience at Toronto Sick Kids and the Ottawa Heart Institute. How did you decide how to pick and choose your examples?

Like a lot of healthcare practitioners, you do have a few cases in your mind that really stick out to you from a clinical standpoint: this was a very interesting case. For me also, from a very personal standpoint, from patients or clients who I’ve helped in the past who really made an impression on me as a healthcare provider.

I also had a case specifically at Sick Kids where it had been a higher profile case. Global News had done a story about it. She was an easy case to pick.

Other stories have actually lended themselves to really just wonderful learning experiences in general for me. So I try and share those experiences with others as well.

Newborns with heart abnormalities are too weak to withstand heart surgery. How are they kept alive until they grow strong enough for the surgery?

A big part of my role at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto was helping feed those newborns and grow them actually to be large enough to have these procedures. The care in the first few weeks for these cardiac kids is really just about maintaining a consistent nutrition schedule and providing them with the pharmacotherapy that they need to keep their hearts strong and their heart rate and rhythm regular enough to get them to the surgery.

It is a challenge. Healthcare providers have to weigh the pros and cons of delaying the surgery and actually letting the child grow to the size that they need to perform the surgery. If you think about it, our hearts are approximately the size of our fists. So if you think of a newborn who’s probably been born premature because of this condition in their “tiny little fist”, that’s really what surgeons have to work with. It is incredibly daunting when you think about the prospect of going in and doing surgery on a little heart that small.

Carleton schedules your lectures during the day. But not all your students are retirees. What do you know about your younger students?

A few of the younger participants actually ran home businesses or had flexible schedules like myself and did shift work. These people had an interest in learning about cardiology and had the time in their day because of the kind of work that they were in.

You don’t have to be retired as long as you’re available and you’re able to come on by.

Is there a question I should have asked?

I am teaching the course again this year. Is there anything different that I’m going to do this year or other topics that I would’ve liked to cover? This year I will do more of a focus on women’s health and cardiology, particularly in our last class… the different signs and symptoms for women.


Matters of the Heart: Comprehensive Cardiology by Sarah Beanlands takes place at Carleton University on Tuesdays from October 29th to December 3rd, 10:30am to 12:30pm. For more information see the course entry on the Carleton’s website. The course costs $140 (including HST). Registration is available online.