Close to her heart

Former National Party Prime Minister Jenny Shipley has gone red, but it has nothing to do with changing her political allegiance. As the patron of the Heart Foundation’s Go Red for Women campaign she is helping to highlight heart disease death rates amongst women.

Former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley knows first-hand the devastating consequences of a heart attack. Her father died from heart disease at the age of 52 and she herself suffered a heart attack in 2000. That’s why she had no qualms in accepting the Heart Foundation’s invitation to become the patron for its Go Red for Women campaign. “It is a terrific programme and I am delighted that I was asked to be involved.”

Recent research shows that 74% of New Zealand women do not realise that heart disease is their leading cause of death. “There is a lot of information out there about breast cancer and we have a fantastic breast screening programme. The Go Red programme highlights the fact that heart disease is four times more prevalent than breast cancer, yet it is spoken about so much less.”

Mrs Shipley says women often lack the confidence to ask for help when it comes to their heart health and may even understate the severity of their symptoms when they do go to their doctor. “Women’s symptoms often go under-recognised and doctors are less likely to offer radical intervention to women.” She says the three things that she would like to achieve as patron of Go Red are to encourage women to work with their doctor to start a screening programme; to ensure women are given proper treatment on an equal basis to men; and to encourage general practice doctors and nurses to be proactive about introducing heart screening as part of their patient’s general health check.

Factors that assist in the prevention of heart disease include eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight and regular heart screening. “I would like to see a heart check, smear and mammogram become part of every woman’s regular health maintenance programme.”

Since her own heart attack Mrs Shipley has made some sweeping changes to her lifestyle to reduce the risk of future heart events. “I walk most days, try to make time to get on my bike and swim in the summer. It does take a constant effort to achieve 30 minutes of exercise a day but by doing it I’m probably saving my life.” She says that she understands it can be difficult for many women to find time to exercise when they are juggling multiple responsibilities such as children, work and broader family responsibilities. “I have made this mistake myself and even post heart attack I’m no perfect saint. But I encourage women to make the time to care for themselves. With heart disease you don’t always get a second chance to be too busy.”

Mrs Shipley is also diabetic and says she has become a ‘label reader’ in recent times. “Healthy food choice has become increasingly critical and there is much better information on food labels today. However I don’t have a lot of time to invest in hunting around the shelves for the healthiest products and would love to see more supermarkets begin to cluster healthy food choices.”

A medium-term goal of the Go Red campaign is to find sponsors in addition to its “marvellous” major sponsor Jennian Homes to help fund ongoing research. “We would like to fund research that is more specific to New Zealand women – that looks at the differences in the way men and women with heart disease are treated here and how our ethnic population manages the disease.”

Since she stepped out of politics in 2002 Mrs Shipley has focused her efforts on an interesting mix of company directorships, consultancy work, and speaking engagements. She continues to operate at the highest international level, while circulating with many of the world’s most influential people. When we chatted by phone she had just flown in from the Netherlands and London and within a week was heading back to Europe, then onto China, Thailand and Australia. “I’m overseas all the time which is not as exciting as you get older but it’s still fun. I’m so lucky to have the choice.”

She says that directorships take up a significant amount of her time. She is chair of the board of Seniors Money International Limited, Sentinel’s international holding company, chair of Mainzeal Construction and Development’s board, and an independent director on the board of Chinese Construction Bank. “The bank is one of four main banks in China and is going through extraordinary growth. China’s savings rates are very high which means it is in a very positive position despite the global economic crisis. It is an interesting project to be associated with.”

Mrs Shipley is also a highly sought after international public speaker. Many of her speaking engagements are business and income-related although she gives her time freely when speaking about projects and causes that matter to her.  Leadership development is another focus through Mrs Shipley’s involvement with the Club of Madrid (a group of former Prime Ministers and Presidents from democratic countries) and the World Women’s Leaders Council which are both active in a range of consultancy projects.

In addition to Go Red, Mrs Shipley supports several other private projects. She is patron of Basketball New Zealand and has offered her support to the Postnatal Depression Familiy/Whanau New Zealand Trust. Mrs  Shipley suffered post natal depression after the birth of her son Ben, and tells her story on the trust’s new website which she launched in October.

Despite her hectic schedule, Mrs Shipley managed to find time to return to Namibia to visit the Himba people, a remote African tribe she met during her appearance on TVNZ’s Intreprid Journeys programme. “The Himba people live in such a fragile setting and face many difficulties. I was impressed by the principal of the school who was trying so hard and the kids really touched my heart.” Mrs Shipley and her family have founded a trust which so far, has raised NZ $135,000 (around $750,000 Namibian dollars) to assist the Himba children. “Burton and I plus our children, their partners and our friends Mary and Gary Green spent a fortnight there working on a range of projects. We are very grateful as a family to have a chance to do something like this. I’m very proud to think the school now has a solar energy system and that the delightful kids who have so little are optimistically looking ahead.” Mrs Shipley says she will return to Namibia again next year and now has “a lot of friends quietly working with us in the hope that we will  make a difference for these kids.”

Wearing so many hats makes for an interesting life, she says. “I’ve been very lucky but I think that women can also make their own luck. I try to encourage other women both here and internationally to invest in themselves and make the right choices. If women are confident and self-assured I believe they can achieve almost anything.”

Jenny Shipley said about the story :

“Jo, You have done this very well. I enjoyed the read!

Thanks , Jenny

Rt Hon Jenny Shipley, former New Zealand Prime Minister