Sister to Sister event goes to the heart of women's health

February 08, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

YOU'D THINK, with all the pink ribbons flying, that breast cancer was the No. 1 killer of women.

Certainly it is the disease women are most aware of, and most afraid of, I think. Women are hugely informed about self-examination, the pros and cons of annual mammograms and the concerns about hormone therapy.

But the one thing most women do not know about breast cancer is this: They are more likely to die of a heart disease.

"Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women," said Dr. Robert Eckel, president-elect of the American Heart Association last week.

Despite the fact that medical evidence shows that women are as prone to heart attacks as men, doctors are less likely to treat women as aggressively as they treat men.

But not only do doctors underestimate the danger to women, women underestimate the danger to themselves. Irene Pollin was as surprised as anyone to learn this, and she is a medical professional.

"It stunned me," said the wife of Washington sports team owner Abe Pollin, who, as a psychiatric social worker, works with patients who must learn to cope with a chronic illness.

"I didn't know, and my own mother died of a heart attack at age 63. I never made the connection.

"And if I didn't know, then what woman would know?"

That was more than six years ago. Pollin, who helps people change their behavior, lifestyle and attitudes after a devastating diagnosis, spent a year trying to come up with a way to get women to change their behavior before a devastating diagnosis.

But first, women had to be made aware of just how serious, how pervasive and how preventable heart disease is.

"As a medical professional, this was enormously challenging for me," said Pollin. "To actually change behavior and prevent the diagnosis."

She decided to target working women -- a broad target since so many women work outside the home.

"These are the women who are vulnerable. They manage husbands, family, jobs, stress and they do without nutritious meals or exercise."

She wanted to reach them during their workweek. "Because weekends are always given over to family, kids, errands. She would never take time for herself on weekends."

And she wanted women to attend her health fair on company time, so she needed the cooperation of employers.

"We worked with the human resources people. This would be her boss' gift to her. An hour and a half for her health."

Pollin launched the first heart health fair in Washington in 2001. This year, the fairs will be held in 12 cities, including Baltimore for the first time.

It is free, it is fun. It isn't in a doctor's office or a hospital.

"I spent a year and a half creating an environment that was nonthreatening. Where a woman didn't even have to get tested if she didn't want to. She could do Jazzercise or watch a cooking demonstration. She could be with her girlfriends."

She called the health fairs "Sister to Sister," and her vision was confirmed when the women she met in line told her that they were there because their office girlfriends had talked them into coming.

But she was stunned at the results.

Fully 30 percent of the women tested that first year -- a number that has been confirmed every year since -- had some kind of indicator for heart disease.

"These are working women. Smart women. Women with health care, with their own doctors. There was high cholesterol, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes. It was true for the six-figure executive and the office worker.

"Why weren't these women asking their own doctors about this? Why weren't they aware?"

Those questions still haunt Pollin. The wives and mothers who so capably monitor the health of their husbands and children, who shepherd their loved ones in for the inoculations and tests and attention they need, why would these women ignore their own health?

How could they not be aware of the danger heart disease presents to them?

"One thing about it, the women who leave our health fairs will know what the indicators are for heart disease," she said.

"And if they want to get tested, they will have the results in their hands when they leave.

"The question remains, will they do something about it? Will they change their behavior?"

Sister to Sister comes to Baltimore's Convention Center on Feb. 18 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

If you work in Baltimore, Sister to Sister representatives have probably been in touch with your employer, encouraging him to grant you the time you need to learn about heart disease and to find out if you are at risk. If your boss hasn't offered you the chance to attend this health fair, march into his office and tell him you are going.

"The ideal would be to have the business community recognize the value of this to their community," Pollin said. "Bottom line, it can save them money."

And can save lives.

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