Hattie Carter just didn’t think she needed to make changes. The Baltimore resident says, she could still fit nicely into her clothes, she felt healthy and besides, certain diet and exercise programs just didn’t fit within her budget.
“But, then there was a church member who works at St. Agnes Hospital who began speaking to a group of us about getting healthier,” Carter said. “She told us about a program that St. Agnes does and a group of us decided to do it.”
That program, St. Agnes’ Heart-to-Heart program, aims to encourage faith-based partners to effectively reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors in communities with severe healthcare disparities.
Officials say that through this evidence-based cardiovascular disease intervention program, Saint Agnes is reaching African American women who are at a high risk of the illness, providing screenings and assessments and establishing systems such as support networks, peer community health workers and resource development that will ultimately make Heart-to-Heart self-sustaining within the community.
“Success is being able to reach women in a way we otherwise wouldn’t,” said Dr. Shannon Winakur, medical director of the Women’s Heart Center at St. Agnes Hospital. “We’ve kept it in the faith-based community and with that support, the group that formed at the churches are able to learn and participate together and reinforce all the principles we are given them.”
The AstraZeneca HealthCare Foundation created a program designed to support and award grant funding to organizations like St. Agnes that are performing innovative work in the field of cardiovascular health, officials said in a news release.
Winakur says awareness of the threat of heart disease to a woman’s health remains low and statistics have revealed that one woman dies every minute in the United States because of cardiovascular disease.
The Heart-to-Heart program, which is free for participants, has been designed to raise awareness of heart disease in women and provide the needed tools, support and education to guide women to healthier lives, according to Winakur.
“A lack of awareness and education of cardiovascular disease has especially been a problem in the African American community and we think this will help,” she said.
The program provides heart risk screenings and a four-month program of health education, fitness and healthy lifestyle classes. To ensure the program is convenient and easy to access, all screenings and classes are held at the participating church.
Testing is also performed for blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. There is also a weight and body mass index exam, one-on-one consultations with a nurse practitioner and an EKG may be done to establish a baseline of a participant’s heart’s activity.
Heart-to-Heart also provides access to programs that focus on fitness and health education, including walking, yoga, low-impact aerobics, healthy meal planning, managing stress, controlling eating triggers and there’s a monthly support group led by a behavioral health expert.
“I thought I was healthy and then I realized that I had high blood sugar and the program helped me to realize that I was eating wrong, what I was eating and how I was cooking my food,” said Carter, who participated in the program in 2013.
Carter says she implemented all of the lessons from the program into her daily life and has since lost six inches of abdominal fat, lost 13 pounds, strengthened the muscles in her back and core which has decreased her back pain and has brought her blood pressure under control.
She said she’s also shopping differently and exercising more frequently.
“Now, my cholesterol is good and I no longer have to take medication. I’m maintaining well and they’ve given us alternative programs as well that has helped,” Carter said.
The Heart-to-Heart program also helped Carter fight off depression, she said. It also helped her to realize an individual is never too old to take care of themselves.
“I’ve gotten a lot stronger, I’ve recovered from a rotator cuff injury and I even sleep better,” she said.
Winakur says St. Agnes has been fortunate in receiving support and a new grant from AstraZeneca to help with the community outreach.
“There’s so much that needs to be changed as far as awareness to cardiovascular disease and women,” Winakur said. “All women can be empowered and all can take steps that can change the course of this disease.”