Heart on the Horizon

Despite the obstacles of the past two years, the American Heart Association has persevered, keeping the cardiac health of Americans as its central focus. 

“I think I’m proudest of how the American Heart Association pivoted during the COVID-19 pandemic,” communications director Cyd King says. “A lot of our events went virtual, yet the organization experienced its first $1 billion-year during the pandemic. That took a lot of work by a lot of people behind the scenes, but we couldn’t let up at a time when there was so much research to be done.” 

King says $3 million went into investigating the cardiovascular impact of the coronavirus and accelerating the antiviral drugs that combat COVID-19. Additionally, hospitals and communities were instructed on safe and effective CPR administration and how to maintain proper nourishment and activity while sheltering in place. 

The central Arkansas division of AHA has stayed busy bringing national resources and goals to the local level. Heart disease, according to the CDC, is the leading cause of death for Arkansans, and Arkansas is ranked fourth among all states for the highest heart disease mortality in 2020 with 8,621 deaths.

Currently, the AHA is investing $870,000 into research within the state, and King notes one of the main focuses right now is on the health equity space.

“We believe everyone everywhere should be able to equitably achieve optimal health and well-being regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity or where they live,” she says. 

According to 2019 CDC statistics, southeast Arkansas residents have a 40.8% hypertension rate. Health care facilities like DePaul Community Health Centers play an important role in providing tools and resources for that area.

“DePaul Community Health Centers and the AHA recently collaborated to implement self-monitored blood pressure programs at clinics in Dumas and Gould to help patients take a more active role in managing hypertension,” King says. 

Patients receive a blood pressure cuff to monitor their blood pressure at home and are instructed by the clinical staff on proper positioning and procedure for measuring and tracking blood pressure. Enrolled patients then follow up with their provider based on results and other underlying chronic conditions. 

Credit: Jason Masters

“We want to educate and inspire people to take care of their heart health,” says Nikki Smith, executive director of the central Arkansas AHA office, adding that it’s all about “removing barriers to allow all people to have access to the same resources and education.” 

The AHA is currently focused on six areas driving equitable health impact: access to care, research, quality of care, advocacy, the social impact fund and emergency cardiovascular care. 

One of the biggest impact areas is tobacco and vaping, where recent AHA efforts can be seen most prominently in the raising of the legal age of vaping to 21 in Arkansas. This is part of a priority to eliminate tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke, which they intend to achieve through policy change and legislation to obtain goals such as smoke-free workplace laws, restricting or eliminating the sale of flavored tobacco products, comprehensive tobacco control and cessation programs and placing more responsibility on retailers selling tobacco products to minors.

All of this, including influencing policy change and dissemination of information, requires funding, and the local AHA has numerous community fundraising opportunities planned for 2023, such as the Heart Walk in April and the Go Red for Women luncheon in May.

At the top of the list is the Central Arkansas Heart Ball, one of the organization’s largest fundraisers. Co-chairs Brandy and Richard Harp have participated in AHA events for more than five years, but their roles for the March 11 gala, themed “The Heart of Central Arkansas,” are new.

The Harps’ involvement with the AHA stems from health events in their own lives, with Richard’s mother suffering and recovering from a major stroke in 2017 and their son being diagnosed with a congenital heart issue as an infant. Recently, their focus turned to the Sweetheart program when their daughter, Isabella, found her charitable service niche within the organization.

The Sweetheart program was founded in 1998 by Little Rock residents Dr. Ricardo and Eileen Sotomora and seeks to give young women the opportunity to learn about heart health and become passionate volunteers serving the community. The program is open to all high school sophomores and juniors in central Arkansas.

Credit: Jason Masters

“Over the years, more than 1,000 young women have participated in the Sweetheart program,” Brandy says. “Currently, they receive training on the importance of good nutrition and physical exercise and also gain CPR training.”

Participants also tour the cath lab at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, spend a day with the cardiovascular team at CHI St. Vincent, tour the research facility at UAMS and witness an AHA-funded research project. By the end of the program that kicks off in August and concludes with the Heart Ball, Sweethearts will invest more than 500 volunteer hours at Baptist Health, UAMS and CHI St. Vincent. 

“[Our daughter] loves putting on her blue scrubs and Baptist name badge to volunteer,” Brandy says. “This program has ignited her passion to serve our community, and we could not be more proud.”

The spring gala will celebrate this year’s 42 Sweetheart participants, as well as highlight survivor stories and honor local businesses and individuals who go above and beyond to support and raise awareness of AHA’s mission.

For the Harps, however, the focus is on the future. 

“We are proud to champion the renewal of relationships and the creation of new relationships for the AHA post-pandemic,” Brandy says of the coming year. “It is also an honor to raise awareness of the research and community work that is taking place here in Arkansas. The money raised from fundraisers goes back into Arkansas.” 

And further down the road, the outlook is even more sunny and more equitable than ever.

“We are hopeful that more businesses, families and organizations will become involved in the programs provided by the AHA to further educate and inspire people to take care of their heart health,” Brandy says. “It is extremely important that all barriers are removed to enable people to have access to resources and education to reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks.” 

Central Arkansas Heart Ball
March 11 , 6 p.m. | Statehouse Convention Center | centralarheartball.heart.org





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