Robin Boriack, a grandmother of four, lives in the central California city of Lodi.
John Teerlink is an internationally-recognized clinical scientist, a physician at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Unlikely associates, it would seem. But each is dedicated to saving people from heart failure. The disease affects more than six million people in the U.S. and kills nearly 300,000 each year. Robin’s husband Marc, an Army Veteran, battled heart failure for four years before it took his life in 2010 at the age of 52.
She vowed then to honor her husband and educate people about heart failure. “I may have lost Marc, but we can’t give up on people’s lives,” said Robin. “We have to challenge and fight failure – heart failure.”
Following Marc’s death, she founded Challenge Failure, a 5 and 10K walk/run in Lodi, where Marc and Robin grew up, raised five children, owned Subway sandwich shops and later ran a Flying J truck stop. The event raises awareness about heart failure and money for research at the SFVAMC, where Marc was treated.
Heart failure is a progressive disorder in which the heart can’t pump enough blood and oxygen to the body’s organs. “It may not be as captivating as other diseases, such as cancer; there are no color ribbons for this cause, and Challenge Failure doesn’t have corporate or celebrity backing,” said Robin.
This disease, however, causes more hospitalizations than all cancers combined, costs the nation an estimated $32 billion a year, and more than half of those who develop heart failure die within five years of diagnosis.
“But the disease is treatable, and healthy habits can ward off heart disease, and that’s what we want people to know,” Robin said.
The Challenge Failure walk/run attracts people of all ages to partake in physical activity, and it’s become a community tradition, growing to 500 participants in some years.
For the Boriack family and their friends, it’s a labor of love. They prepare educational materials, solicit local sponsors, get businesses to donate prizes, arrange race logistics and get as many people as they can to the starting line – then, they walk or run in the race with fellow Lodi residents.
In four years, Challenge Failure has raised $120,000 for research at the SFVAMC Heart Failure Program, which is directed by Dr. John Teerlink, a world leader in the study and treatment of the disease.
It was in early 2008, when doctors said that Marc’s heart was damaged beyond repair and they referred him to SFVAMC for “end-of-life” care. “We were told that there was nothing more they can do and that we should prepare to say our goodbyes to Marc,” said Robin. “I was in shock.”
Luckily, said Robin, he was placed under the care of Dr.Teerlink, who, with Marc, refused the death sentence. He treated Marc with a variety of drugs to strengthen his heart and body, and Marc’s condition improved considerably.
Researchers at the SFVAMC are pioneers in developing treatments for heart disease and heart failure. Over the years, scores of Veterans have participated in clinical trials so that novel treatments could be tested and evaluated on a large scale. In turn, Veterans and the general public alike now benefit from a class of hypertension drugs found to stem heart failure, beta blockers that reduce the risk of death in heart failure patients who must undergo surgery, and a medication that makes heart muscles contract longer – rather than making the heart beat faster – thus, increasing the amount of blood pumped to vital organs with each beat.
Teerlink, today, is involved in the design and investigation of many therapies, and he has shared findings in over 100 medical journal articles and at international medical conferences. With the aging of the population and the increased prevalence of heart disease, treating heart failure is a concern in many parts of the world.
But for Teerlink and his patients, it’s not all about heart drugs. He emphasizes a holistic approach – healthy lifestyle changes, such as better diet and exercise. He and clinic staff stay closely engaged with their patients to encourage them throughout their treatments.
“There is a misconception about heart failure – that sufferers are so debilitated that they can’t do anything. Frequently, patients give up on all physical activity,” said Teerlink.
“We used to tell heart failure patients to sit down, take it easy don’t stress your heart,” he said. “Turns out we were completely wrong. It’s actually very good for patients to exercise, as long as they listen to their body and don’t overextend.”
The bold drug treatments helped Marc, but Teerlink’s holistic approach was equally effective in getting Marc out of critical care and back on his feet. “Dr. Teerlink even got him well enough so that we could take a big family vacation – a Panama Canal cruise,” said Robin. “It was a wonderful and memorable 10 day adventure."
“But little did we know it would be our last vacation with Marc.”
Heart failure is not merely a disease of the heart – it harms blood vessels, lungs, muscles and kidneys, too. The damage in Marc’s body had taken its toll, and, Marc died in March of 2010.
“Marc lived two more years after others said he could not be helped,” she said. “And those were quality years for Marc. Time to do things he enjoyed. Time to be with his family. We owe those two years to Dr. Teerlink and the people at the San Francisco VA.
“Our only regret is that Marc didn’t get to Dr. Teerlink sooner,” said Robin.
During the two years he was treated at the SFVAMC and after Marc’s death, Robin learned as much as she could about heart failure – that it can be caused by other artery disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, which often can be prevented with healthy behaviors. She understands that there are patients for whom the cause is not known – many of those cases are the result of viruses or genetic factors. Marc perhaps fell into the latter category because he didn’t have some of the classic risk factors for heart failure, she said.
She also learned that heart failure is treatable and patients need not die.
“When I started working in the heart failure clinic (in 1995), the dictum was patients had a 50 percent chance of dying in their first year with severe heart failure,” said Teerlink. “But now, in some clinical trials, the annual mortality is as low as 6 to 8 percent.”
“I have patients that I’ve taken care of for 10 to 20 years,” he said. “I never dreamed of that. It’s a real joy.”
But even with some dramatic advances in research at the SFVAMC, more research and clinical trials are needed to continue to improve survival rates.
Robin Boriack realizes that, and 100 percent of the proceeds of Challenge Failure go to research at the SFVAMC, where every day Teerlink and co-investigators work on new drugs for heart failure.
She will soon start planning the fifth Challenge Failure, which will be held sometime in 2015.
Teerlink hopes to be there in memory of Marc, to be a cheerleader for Robin and the participants, and to educate people about heart failure.
“Even, with his busy schedule, Dr. Teerlink has come to Lodi for all four previous Challenge Failure events,” said Robin. “He’s not only a brilliant scientist and physician, he is a compassionate and warm person – he is a family friend for life.”
The admiration is mutual, as Teerlink is grateful and amazed at Robin’s energy and dedication to conquering heart failure.
On his office wall, above his desk, is a picture of Marc and Robin taken during the family cruise months before he died. It’s a reminder of their friendship, and the needs of the many patients with heart failure.
John Teerlink and Robin Boriack indeed have a bond. For both, failure is not an option.
NCIRE-The Veterans Health Research Institute has named Robin Boriack as a “Spirit of Philanthropy” awardee in recognition of her dedication and support of the Heart Failure Clinic at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.
She was honored on November 4, 2014 by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Golden Gate Chapter, at its National Philanthropy Day honoring individuals and organizations who volunteer time and resources to improving communities and the world.