“Our mission is to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. That single purpose drives all we do. The need for our work is beyond question. In everything we do, we strive to have an extraordinary impact on your life by fighting these diseases.” —American Heart Association
The American Heart Association was founded in 1924 by six cardiologists. One of those six, Paul Dudley White, once said, “We were living in a time of almost unbelievable ignorance about heart disease.” People at that time were thought to be hopeless cases. With innovative studies and dedicated physicians and volunteers working tirelessly to change that, the AHA now encompasses more than 22.5 million supporters who work to “fund innovative research, fight for stronger public health policies, and provide lifesaving tools and information to save and improve lives.” [www.heart.org]
The organization is split into affiliates across the nation. The Lehigh Valley Division, included in the Great Rivers Affiliate, is headquartered in Allentown. The tireless staff works year-round to bring awareness to the community through a series of events and fundraisers. The board and committee members have a plan of events in the area that is used to raise money for research. They are perhaps at their busiest during February, which happens to be American Heart Month, but according to Dawn Fernandez (Special Events Director, LV Division), heart health should be present in people’s minds all year long.
“It is the number one killer of women, even with all the different types of cancers. One in three women are affected by heart disease,” said Fernandez.
With the knowledge that many women don’t know the difference in symptoms between males and females, one of their three signature events, the Go Red For Women Luncheon, was created 12 years ago and specifically targets women’s heart health.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve progressed in saving 626,000 women’s lives over that time and we estimate that we’ve educated over a million. That’s pretty inspirational,” Fernandez said. “And that’s the focus of Go Red For Women.”
So how do the symptoms differ? Women may experience sweating, nausea, and/or jaw pain.
“It’s not always the typical chest pain or left arm goes numb,” explained Fernandez. “Women may think they’re having indigestion and it could be a heart attack.”
To illustrate the importance of not underestimating these symptoms, actress Elizabeth Banks directed and starred in a short film especially for the American Heart Association called “Just A Little Heart Attack.” It can be viewed on the Go Red YouTube channel (OfficialGoRed4Women). Banks called it “a little film about a super mom who takes care of everyone except herself.”
The other two signature events are the Heart & Stroke Walk, which takes place in September, and their black-tie IGNITE Heart Ball. This year, the event’s third, the ball is being held Saturday, Feb. 28 at the Marriott Renaissance in Allentown.
“It’s philanthropic. We invite CEOs and executives to sponsor, there’s dinner and dancing, a silent auction,” explained Fernandez. “Our emcee this year is WFMZ’s Melanie Falcon. We have an Open Your Heart speaker, Ted Zeller, as our survivor who’s going to share his story.”
Fernandez continued, “We try to recognize heart health throughout the year because it’s so important, but the community really seems to recognize February as heart month. It keeps us busy with fundraisers, which is good for us. We’re willing to support any event happening in heart month.”
Something else easily recognized by the community is the annual Wear Red Day, which took place Feb. 6 this year.
“The idea is that people will wear red in solidarity and use social media as a tool to spread awareness,” said Fernandez. “We encourage a lot of companies to do it because of how widespread it can get. It’s a big boost for awareness.”
Outside of their three well-attended signature events, AHA-LV spends the rest of the year sponsoring small fundraising and awareness initiatives throughout the Valley.
“There’s a teaching garden, sponsored by Easton Hospital to give to the Wilson School District, where kids learn how to garden; they break ground, plant the seed, and harvest and learn to cook. There’s a whole curriculum,” said Denise Sellers, Metro Executive Director for the LV Division. “We had CPR Anytime Kits donated by Tilghman Medical Center distributed locally. The board is looking to get some healthy food into downtown Allentown. We also participate in the Get With The Guidelines program, Fit-Friendly Worksites program, and the Lunch & Learn sponsorship with Lehigh Valley Hospital. Anything that spreads awareness and raises money for the AHA; stints, heart valves, and pacemakers have all come from research dollars.”
In 2013, $300,000 in research grant money was given to Lehigh University, 750,000 PA residents were trained in hands-only CPR, and 60 PA companies were recognized as “Fit-Friendly.” Advocacy groups play a huge part in these successes. Visit www.yourethecure.org for more info.
In 2014, a bill was passed for the pulse oximetry test, which enables every newborn in PA to be tested for congenital heart disease.
“That was a huge thing that just happened in PA because of us,” said Sellers.
That feeling of accomplishment is what drove Sellers and Fernandez to the organization:
“I applied to be part of a good cause,” said Sellers. “Sometimes you work for a company, but you’re not making a difference. I said, wow, I can do what I do and make a difference.”
“I had been in nonprofit work afor a long time,” said Fernandez. “My mother-in-law is directly affected; she has three stints in her heart. The likelihood that my husband will have heart disease is pretty strong. My father also had a heart flutter.”
Personal stories like hers are also why they feel their events are so popular with the community.
“These people have family ties. They’re passionate survivors or they’ve lost someone. We get a lot of parents of kids with congenital heart defects,” said Fernandez.
The most important part of their work is to simply make sure people pay attention to the warning signs.
“Don’t assume it’s indigestion. If there is something different or weird, you need to check it out,” said Sellers.
“If you’ve never experienced this severe jaw pain or you’re sweating profusely, go to the doctor or ER,” added Fernandez. “Maybe it’s not a heart attack, but if you go, you’ll know.”
Their advice: Know your numbers.
“Get a panel of blood work done,” said Fernandez. “Know your cholesterol and blood pressure. Our education is to say, ‘If anything seems out of the norm, outside the range of our normal aches and pains, take that time to go see a doctor.’ Be even more aware if there’s a family history.”
“We find women are more prone to ignore it, because we’re the one who takes care of everybody, the kids, husband, animals, we’re going to work, so we ignore everything,” said Sellers. “We try to tell people, don’t—because you could die. And there is no prejudice to heart disease; it hits us all.”
To learn more about the American Heart Association or to donate to the cause, visit www.heart.org.