When the American Heart Association called on Leslie Harmon to co-chair this year’s Heart Ball, back from a two-year pandemic hiatus, the clinical and surgical services director of the Cosmetic Surgery Center in Little Rock and her fiancé cosmetic surgeon Dr. Rhys Branman were all in.

“As medical people, heart health and heart emergencies are always on our mind,” says Harmon, who is the only double-boarded nurse in Arkansas by the Plastic Surgery Nurse Certification Board. “We run a surgery center, so anything could happen at any given time.

“I started with the AHA in high school as a lifeguard. They had a five-part course that we had to do, and I've taken CPR [classes]. Then as a nurse, we have to take advanced life support and basic life support, so it's part of our daily, professional lives.”

While both have had family members who have been affected by heart disease and stroke, chairing this year’s event was appealing for other reasons, too — 55 of them, to be exact.

Never one to back down from a challenge, Harmon says, “I'm persistent. They needed help. They have 55 Sweethearts this year who've done a year's worth of community service and fundraising, and they haven't had a ball since 2019. … I felt like these girls have worked really hard through all this adversity.

“When somebody says, ‘Hey, I need help,’ yeah, I'm going to help you, but I'm gonna help you 150%.”

The Gift of Time

This year’s ball, set for April 2 at the Statehouse Convention Center, is themed “The Gift of Time” to help drive home the fact that time is precious, and better heart health can lead to more time on the end of our lives, time to spend with the ones we love.

“If you're with a family member and you think they're having a stroke, it's time sensitive that you get them to a hospital or to a stroke center where they can get the medication they need so they can possibly have some quality of life,” Harmon says.

“With heart attacks, you could be at a basketball game or whatever and somebody goes into cardiac arrest, and being able to start CPR on the dot, not waiting for EMS, could save their life. It's all about not waiting, but acting.”

The AHA signature event includes dinner, introduction of the Central Arkansas Sweetheart Class of 2022, live and silent auctions and dancing to the music of the 12 South Band. With about 700 guests in attendance, including the 2020 and 2021 Sweethearts classes who didn’t get a ball, organizers are hoping to raise at least $700,000 going directly to heart health research here in central Arkansas.

Attendees will hear the stories of survivors along with more about what the AHA has planned for the future while celebrating all it has achieved in the past, leaving plenty of time for “Instagrammable moments” with friends.

“We've been locked up for two years," Harmon says. "We don't want to come and sit and listen to talk for two hours. We want to see people and talk to people and socialize and be seen.”

Harmon, Branman and the AHA's executive leadership team are working hard to make sure this year’s event is successful by strategizing details, securing donations and selling seats at tables. Team member Jonathan Parkey, event and interior designer and the “J” in J. Parkey Designs in The Heights, is also working with Chris Norwood of Tipton & Hurst to make the night a beautiful one to remember.

The Work of AHA

While the world’s attention has been on the pandemic, the fact remains that more than 366,000 people in the U.S. suffer an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest each year.

When the pandemic hit, the AHA didn’t miss a beat and immediately began working with researchers, medical experts, community leaders, businesses and others to reduce the impact of the coronavirus. All along the way, the organization provided updated information on what heart disease and stroke patients should do to protect themselves.

“We also established a $2.9 million rapid research fund to fast-track scientific research to better understand COVID-19 and its interaction with cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases,” says Cyd King, AHA SouthWest Region’s media communications director.

In June of 2024, the AHA will celebrate its centennial. For nearly 100 years, its work has saved lives, pioneered scientific discovery and advanced access to quality care.

According to King, while there’s been a decline in deaths from heart disease and stroke over the past two decades, these gains were not shared equitably among Black, Asian, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latino and LGBTQ+ communities.

And in recent years, the death rate has been alarmingly on the rise, exacerbated by a tsunami of factors due to COVID-19, particularly for those historically under-resourced communities who have been disproportionately affected.

“We strongly believe every person deserves the opportunity for a full, healthy life," King says, noting its new commitment to championing health equity. "Our 2024 goal is to advance cardiovascular health for all, including identifying and removing barriers to health care access and quality.”







The Central Arkansas Sweetheart program was founded by Eileen and Dr. Ricardo Sotomora in 1998 and was designed to teach young women about heart disease and stroke — the No. 1 and No. 5 causes of death in the U.S. Through the years, more than 1,000 high school sophomores have participated in education classes and social events, volunteered at area hospitals and taken part in fundraising efforts.

Sweethearts learn about cardiovascular health and the importance of healthy lifestyle choices during their tours at Baptist Health, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Arkansas Heart Hospital, CHI St. Vincent Health System and UAMS, and are also certified in infant and adult CPR.

Participants serve a minimum of 20 community service/education hours that focus on how to become champions for heart health and stroke prevention and are eligible for awards within the program, including the Allison Justiss Sweetheart Scholarship and the Sotomora Award, both of which are awarded annually, and receive a special necklace from Sissy’s Log Cabin.

In the fall, the Sweethearts even wrote notes of gratitude to health care heroes and dropped off baked goods to the health care providers at pharmacies, nursing homes, hospitals and MEMS.

Central Arkansas Heart Ball
April 2, 6 p.m. | Statehouse Convention Center
Info: event.gives/heartofcentralar