‘For 45 years, my check engine light was on and nobody knew’

16 May 2019

Cat Oyler. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Johnson & Johnson’s Cat Oyler told the Inspirefest audience that a world without disease is possible if we treat our bodies the way we treat our cars.

When Cat Oyler, vice-president of global public health and tuberculosis at Johnson & Johnson, walked on to the Inspirefest stage, she first asked the audience members if they drive a car. “How many of you have noticed that your cars actually have better healthcare than you do?”

She’s not wrong. She spoke about the reams of data and technology within the body of a car. She mentioned the sensors embedded in its systems that track how the car is doing and let its owner know if it needs more fuel or if it needs a service.

“Before anything even begins to go wrong, your car can tell you that it might be at risk,” she said. And how does it do this? That trusty check engine light, of course. The light that appears to let you know something might be amiss and won’t go away until you bring your car to get checked out. Oyler also pointed out that with so many advances in technology, you don’t even have to try and explain what’s wrong to your mechanic. “There’s a complete electronic health record for your car and that allows us to make disease prevention possible,” she said.

“We have less information about ourselves, about our bodies, than we have our cars and, even more importantly, our doctors have even less information to use to treat us than our mechanics have to treat our cars.”

Oyler then asked the audience to close their eyes and imagine a world without disease. What if it were possible to create ways to detect the possibility of disease long before it actually took hold of our bodies? What if we were able to use science to develop the human equivalent of a check engine light?

‘We have to think about how we make ourselves more like our cars’

With health being her line of work, it’s no surprise that creating a world without disease is something close to her heart. But in reality, there is a far more personal reason that is literally far closer to her heart.

“My heart was stopped for just over an hour,” Oyler said as she told the Inspirefest audience of the events that led up to major open heart surgery to repair a hole in her heart that was roughly the size of an egg.

“I remember saying to doctors I had trouble breathing when I ran,” she said. “Every year they checked me and said I was fine.” Oyler was athletic all her life and saw her problems breathing as something she needed to work harder at to improve. Finally, a doctor discovered that, despite what she had been told, she was not fine.

Oyler had an atrial septal defect, which had been there since birth but had gone undetected until 2017. “For 45 years at that point, my check engine light had been on and nobody knew.” Luckily, her open heart surgery was a success. They stopped her heart, put her on bypass, repaired the defect and restarted her heart. “This is how I celebrated,” said Oyler, revealing a photo of herself bungee-jumping off a cliff. Naturally, the audience erupted in applause.

When you think about a birth defect such as Oyler’s, it’s easy to see how the human equivalent of a check engine light could prevent late-stage interventions. As another example, she pointed out that rheumatoid arthritis can start 10 years before symptoms showing, and with scientific advances in genome sequencing and diagnostic tools, early detection can be possible. “We have to think about how we make ourselves more like our cars,” she said. “The science is ready and the time is now.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. 

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic