How a Johnson & Johnson Employee's Health Scare Brought a Company Mission to Intercept Diseases to Life

Cat Oyler is Vice President, Strategy and External Innovation for Janssen Research & Development, LLC, Development, part of the Johnson & Johnson (No. 8 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list) family of companies.

On April 9, I will run the Rutgers Unite half marathon. Three days later, I will have heart surgery.

For years, despite working out almost daily—sometimes twice a day—I haven’t been able to run faster than a 10-minute mile. No matter how long or hard I train, I have a difficult time breathing when I try to increase my pace. But every time I’ve seen a doctor about it, they’ve sent me home with a clean bill of health. So I came to believe that a 10-minute mile was just the best I could do.

Then one day this past January, I found myself struggling to breathe. It felt like a kettlebell was sitting on my chest, and when I tried to take a deep breath, it was like bands around my chest were preventing my lungs from expanding.

I went to the emergency room, where they did an ECG and an echocardiogram. Both came back abnormal.

The Lifelong Condition I Didn’t Know I Had

I was pretty surprised about the results and thought: “Wow, this is not exactly how I planned to start 2017.” Still, the doctors weren’t very concerned, and sent me home. When I told my parents what had happened, they reminded me that I’d been born with a heart murmur, but that the doctors thought it had gone away.

A few days later, I was chatting with a colleague, Bruce Rosengard, M.D., Johnson & Johnson’s Chief Medical Science and Technology Officer for Medical Devices. When I mentioned the abnormal cardiac results and my history of a heart murmur, Bruce thought there could be something serious going on.

He put me in touch with the Boston Adult Congenital Heart (BACH) service at Boston Children’s Hospital, which is staffed by a group of doctors who specialize in adults with congenital heart defects. I had a cardiac MRI that revealed I was born with an Atrial Septal Defect (ASD), which is a hole between the left and right atria of the heart, and is, indeed, associated with heart murmurs. Although it is hard to hear, I still have that murmur, but the ASD had remained undetected.

Only about 2,000 children in the United States are born with the condition each year. In many children, the hole is small enough that it closes naturally. In other people, like me, the hole is larger and doesn’t close, allowing blood to flow the wrong way in my heart.

Symptoms can include shortness of breath, fatigue and exercise intolerance. And I’ve had all of those. But they’re pretty vague symptoms, so I didn’t know anything was really wrong. So why didn’t the ER docs catch it It’s tough to diagnose, especially in a noisy ER with a patient who is fit and active, like me.

Oyler crossing the finish line at the Run to Home Base charity run in Boston

Fortunately, the repair is relatively straightforward: An interventional cardiologist will thread a catheter through a vein in my leg up to my heart, then insert a nickel titanium device that looks a little bit like two wire mesh cymbals. The device will clamp around the edges of the hole, and, if all goes well, my own cells will grow over the device in time, resulting in a permanent repair. Amazingly, I’ll only be in the hospital one night, and back at work a few days later.

Why We Need to Approach Healthcare Like We Do Car Care

Serendipitously, for the past year, I’ve led a team within Janssen Research & Development, part of the Johnson & Johnson family of companies, that has been working to transform human health through preventing, intercepting and curing disease. We call this ambitious strategy creating a “World Without Disease.”

One key insight we gained is that, in many ways, our cars have better healthcare than we do. If we imagine a future in which we monitor and prevent issues, we can begin to transform human health. In this future vision, just like in cars today, sensors will constantly monitor all aspects of our health, starting from birth. As soon as anything begins to deviate from our baseline state of health, we will get an alert—like a “check engine” light for our bodies—so we know it’s time to see a healthcare provider.

If I had come embedded with a check engine light, it might have been on since I was born!

Once we have this early warning system in place, many diseases and some injuries can become avoidable. Simply by knowing who is at risk for a disease, we may be able to intervene earlier, preventing a disease before it even starts.

In the event a disease can’t be prevented, early detection will allow doctors to intercept and treat diseases at their most curable stage. And perhaps through novel combinations of medications, surgery and other treatments, we may be able to cure even more advanced diseases. Through focusing on prevention, interception and cures, we can keep people healthy, or return them to health. Isn’t that what we all want

Discovering I’ve had an ASD my entire life—and that it’s gone unnoticed until now—reinforces my belief in the importance of our World Without Disease approach. Johnson & Johnson is ideally placed to bring together consumer, medical device and pharmaceutical expertise to transform human health, but we can’t do it alone.

It will take innovation, investment and the support of patient advocacy groups, payers, healthcare professionals, regulators and other industries. The entire healthcare ecosystem must collaborate to imagine and make this healthier future possible.

While we are working together to make that happen, I’m getting ready to run that half marathon. My doctor cleared me to participate, and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” will absolutely be on my running playlist.

Once I heal, and once my check engine light has been turned off, I’m going to train for another half marathon. And you know what I’m planning to run that one a whole lot faster.

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