Free SVI HeartAware Screenings Save Lives
Something told Wayne Pence to turn up the radio in his vehicle.

There was a story on about St. Vincent Health System’s new HeartAware program, which offers free cardiovascular screenings to people at risk for heart disease. Pence, a 58 year-old retail manager at Sears, felt fine and wasn’t in the habit of going to screenings, but the information stayed with him. Later, he filled out an online assessment through the medical center’s website. He qualified, and when St. Vincent called to set up an appointment, he accepted.

The screening detected a need for further tests. The results weren’t good, and suddenly Pence found himself being prepped for a quadruple bypass.

“I didn’t have any symptoms,” Pence said, “but they told me if I hadn’t had the check done, I probably would have died by the end of the year.”

The online assessments take about seven minutes to complete.

HeartAware and the similar StrokeAware online assessments go beyond just helping people identify their risk of cardiovascular disease, as many hospital websites do. Like Pence, anyone determined to be at risk receives a free medical appointment for further evaluation at Jack Stephens Heart Center in St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center. The health system absorbs the costs of these appointments.

St. Vincent spokesperson Margaret Preston said the ongoing HeartAware program, started in February 2007, is one of many free prevention, detection and education services the health system offers to the community.

“We strongly feel that prevention and education are needed, and see this as an opportunity to provide those services,” Preston said.

Pence was one of many people unaware they are even at risk for heart disease. He said much of his illness is attributable to genetics, but that his lifestyle contributed to it. “I was running my tail off everyday at work, so I thought I was getting exercise. I didn’t know that wasn’t cutting it.” Similarly, he has since learned to read nutritional labels and make health-conscious choices about what he eats.

Another St. Vincent patient, Wonder Lowe, said she had not heard of the free screenings, but that such a tool might have detected her congestive heart failure before the heart failure that nearly killed her at age 28.

Now 39, Lowe has survived heart failure four times. At the time of her initial diagnosis, Lowe was a full-time college student and mother of four, working two jobs and volunteering for her children’s schools.

Because of her young age and hectic lifestyle, her primary care physician misdiagnosed her fatigue, shortness of breath and weight gain as stress related and told her to cut back and get some rest.

She has since discovered that besides being common in African-Americans such as herself, cardiovascular disease is rampant in her family. In addition to her mother and grandfather who developed the disease in old age, her sister, brother and two cousins all have experienced stroke, heart attack or congestive heart failure before age 40.

“If I’d known my risk factors, I think I would have pressed my doctor for more tests,” Lowe said. “If he’d told me, ‘Because you’re African-American, because of your weight, because of this or that, you might need to watch these things because they can lead to heart disease,’ then it probably would have made a bigger difference. But at 28, you don’t know to consider heart disease.”

Hereditary and race risk factors are among those assessed in the online tool.
These sorts of free screenings can be enormously helpful, particularly in correcting the health disparity for minorities, said Arkansas Minority Health Commission Executive Director Dr. Wynona Bryant-Williams. “There seems to be an ethnic disparity in heart disease. Why are African-American and Hispanic women at higher risk of dying of this disease?” She said the issue is complicated, including socioeconomic, genetic and cultural lifestyle factors, but that free screenings do help. “It is possible that these two groups of women get fewer health screenings, or they have not received ethnic-specific health messages,” she said. Screenings alone, though, are not enough.

“We have so much data, so many kinds of educational materials and programs out there. The challenge is getting people to heed it,” Bryant-Williams said. “There’s no one tool or program that will reach every group. No minority group is monolithic. It takes a multi-layered approach.”

Lowe said she knows a lot of people who don’t go to the doctor because of the expense and lack of insurance. That sets the stage for things to get worse,” Lowe said. “These free screenings sound like something we really need to publicize.”

Pence has nothing but good things to say about his experience with St. Vincent, even though he laughs that he can no longer eat anything that tastes good. “I get up in the morning and actually see the day there, see that it’s a nice day, take time to look at things that I hadn’t before,” he said. “It’s good to be alive.”

February 2008

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