Champions for heart health

Cayman has 25 new female “champions” of heart health.

Through a new programme launched locally, the women have learned how to educate their family, friends, co-workers and other women about the number one killer of women – heart disease.

A representative of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the US National Institutes of Health, trained the participants in the Heart Truth Champions Training Programme, which was organised by The Heart Health Centre, a local out-patient cardiology facility partnering with the institute to expand The Heart Truth programme in Cayman.

“These women are going to be great advocates for The Heart Truth programme because they have all had firsthand experiences with heart disease, whether personally or by nature of their professions,” said Jacqueline Ebanks, director/founder of The Heart Health Centre.

“They are women in our community who have a voice and significant influence in their families, their workplaces and their social circles. Who better to spread the message about heart disease and give other women the personal and urgent wakeup call that they need?” she added.

The women took part in a training session that covered heart disease prevalence in women, The Heart Truth campaign and The Heart Truth Champions programme. Each identified four activities within the community into which they plan to incorporate the messages of women’s heart health over the next 12 months..

One champion’s story

Sharon Smith, president of Reliable Industries, is one of the new Heart Health Champions. Her mother Alicia Tibbetts had a massive heart attack and subsequently died of heart failure 16 years ago, just a week after celebrating her 56th birthday.

We were completely blindsided,” said Ms Smith. “My mother was relatively young: she weighed about 105 pounds so she was not overweight; she didn’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol; her parents died of old age and didn’t have heart problems; she didn’t exhibit any of the symptoms or characteristics that most people associate with heart disease.

“She did smoke, which I now know is a risk factor, but I always thought that we had to worry about lung cancer, not heart disease. One week we were making plans for a birthday party and the next we were making funeral arrangements. We were shocked and devastated.”

Finding answers

“For six months after her death, I went to my doctor every week and interrogated him about heart disease. In my efforts to make sense of what had happened to my mother, I became obsessed with learning everything I could about cardiovascular disease, what to look for, the signs and symptoms, how it can be prevented and how it can be treated.

“I was determined not to be caught off guard again, and to tell others about this disease. Maybe I could help save someone’s life,” Ms Smith said.

She learned was that heart disease is the number one killer of women and that 80 per cent of women have at least one risk factor. Those risk factors include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, being overweight, being physically inactive, a family history of early heart disease and age (55 or older for women).

She also found out that one in four women in the United States die of heart disease, while one in 30 dies of breast cancer.

Since then, the mother of two has been spreading the heart health message. Her persistence, knowledge and instincts also helped save the lives of two of her brothers-in-law, who both experienced heart attacks, but were initially misdiagnosed until she insisted that specific blood tests be carried out on them.

“We make certain assumptions about people based on their appearance,” said Ms Smith. “We assume that thin people are not candidates for heart disease, and automatically assume that overweight people are most susceptible. The fact is that we just do not know.”

“Heart disease is referred to as the silent killer. We cannot tell that someone has high blood pressure or high cholesterol just by looking at them. There are many factors to consider, genetic as well as lifestyle. That is why it is important to have your annual sugar and cholesterol levels tested,” she said.

Having commemorated the 16th anniversary of her mother’s death on 29 April, Ms Smith has some strong messages for women.

“We cannot take care of our family and loved ones if we are not taking care of ourselves first. We must set the example. We need to be just as vigilant about checking our blood pressure and cholesterol as we are about doing our annual gynaecological exams,” she said.

Ms Smith added: “The fact is that you can lower your risk factors for heart disease just by adopting a heart healthy lifestyle of healthy diet and exercise. Even more important is that you can actually prevent heart disease by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. We need to take charge of our health.

“Be proactive. Ask questions. Do the research. You just may save your own life or someone else’s,” she said.

For more information about The Heart Truth® campaign or The Heart Truth® Champions programme, contact Jodie Kelley at The Heart Health Centre on 943.5800 or [email protected]