This year marks the 100th year since the inception of the American Heart Association, the primary sponsors of American Heart Month. First celebrated in 1964, American Heart Month aims to shed light on one of the leading causes of death in the United States, heart disease. While the mission continues to be critically important, in the past century, the death rate from cardiovascular diseases has been cut in half!
A good deal of this progress can be attributed to the tireless efforts of volunteers and healthcare professionals who have advocated for heart health causes in Washington D.C. and inspired the public through creative campaigns. My first association with the American Heart Association was back in elementary school where I remember participating in the Jump Rope for Heart Challenge. The challenge was to ask friends and family to sponsor you for every jump you made – I don’t remember the donation piece, but I can still picture the gymnasium and jumping rope with my friends!
There is something about the heart that has always fascinated me, as a vital organ and the center of our being. That interest prompted me to seek a career in the field of cardiology, specifically cardiac rehabilitation. I have remained dedicated to the field of heart health for over thirty years! As you can imagine, American Heart Month holds a special place in my heart. It has always been a significant and busy month. Over the years, the way I’ve commemorated the month has varied, but my support of the mission hasn’t changed.
Heart Month is important to me.
A big part of answering what Heart Month means to me is learning why it’s important to me in the first place. What set me on the path to cardiac rehab is something that happened when I was in high school. My grandmother had open heart surgery to repair her heart valve. I remember visiting her in the hospital and attending her therapy sessions. I was inspired by the difference that therapy made in the recovery process. It impressed me enough that as I was looking at school and future career choices, I set my sites on the world of cardiology.
I started my career in cardiac rehab in the early 1990s. At that time, cardiac rehab therapy consisted primarily of exercise with education classes offered once per week on Wednesday afternoons. The participants who attended cardiac rehab were typically heart attack and bypass patients. Other diagnoses were not covered by insurance but that has since changed. In addition, education has proven to be an important component of the recovery process.
Working in cardiac rehab for a major heart center, Heart Month meant both celebrating and highlighting the importance of what I did every day. I’ve spent many Februarys providing education to staff, patients, and the community as well as setting up fun events to support that education. Some events I’ve participated in include the following:
- American Heart Association Heart Walk – premier event for raising funds to save lives from the country’s number one and number 5 killers – heart disease and stroke.
- National Go Red Day- raising awareness of cardiovascular disease for women.
- Annual Cardiology Seminar – held annually during Heart Month to provide education for staff working in the field of cardiology.
- Community Education Event – an annual event to provide a cardiac-related topic to the surrounding communities.
- Staff Education – we sprinkled educational information throughout the month related to heart health, from word puzzles, and contests to special “heart-healthy” meals in the cafeteria.
What Heart Month Means to Me
Unfortunately, my grandmother’s heart troubles didn’t end after her surgery. Approximately 10 years later, she went to a small-town ER with shoulder pain. Her electrocardiogram was unremarkable, so she was sent home with a diagnosis of an arthritis flare. She did what she could but unfortunately, didn’t know how to better advocate for herself. Following the doctor’s instructions, she returned home and experienced a massive heart attack. Every February, I celebrate the opportunity to empower patients like my grandmother with the knowledge they need to identify symptoms, improve their heart health, and be their own best advocates.
While I no longer work directly with patients, through my work with Pritikin ICR, I can impact cardiac patients across the country. Each of the various locations teaching the Pritikin program highlights the importance of a comprehensive approach to heart health. Beyond focusing only on heart-healthy exercise, patients going through the Pritikin program also learn how to…
- Maintain heart-healthy nutrition through comprehensive nutrition workshops, cooking schools, and individualized sessions with a dietitian.
- Reduce stress and focus on mental well-being through Healthy Mind-Set Workshops.
- Improve knowledge related to exercise through active exercise and Exercise Workshops.
I’ve witnessed incredible changes in the field of cardiac rehabilitation since the start of my career. The list of qualifying conditions has expanded far beyond what they were once limited to, and through programs like ours, patients are given the tools to lead heart-healthy lifestyles.
Heart Month continues to be an important time for me. The way I see it, even if even one person is made aware of heart symptoms and the need to advocate for themselves, my efforts have been worth it!