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American Heart Month

What the American Heart Association wants you to know about heart health

By Hannah Elmore

February is American Heart Month, and with heart disease being the leading cause of death in the United States, it’s important to be educated and take preventative steps to avoid cardiovascular disease in your own life.
According to their website, the American Heart Association (AHA) is the “nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke” with over 40 million volunteers and supporters, and 2,800 employees.
At such a large scale, the AHA makes a huge impact, but there is still personal responsibility to be had. The AHA increases awareness and teaches people how to make heart healthy choices at the individual level.
Macon Magazine sat down with Kelly M. Mitchell, AHA vice president of Georgia and Florida communities; Doug Rohme, AHA regional director for Central Georgia; Julie Ann Hamilton, AHA regional director for Northeast Georgia; Phyllis Kitchens Thurmond, chair of the Heart Initiative at The Links Inc. and lead for the Middle Georgia Women’s Heart Coalition; and Dr. Kendra Russell, professor and director of program innovation and evaluation in the Department of Nursing at Middle Georgia State University, to learn about the organization and its impact.

Macon Magazine: What is your mission and why is it important?
Julie Ann Hamilton:
Our mission is to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. And so, our goal is to educate, raise awareness, fund research and work in clinical settings, all related to heart and brain health. And it’s important because heart disease is the number one cause of death in our country. So, we need to change that.

MM: How does cardiovascular disease affect people in Central Georgia?
Dr. Kendra Russell: I believe one of the things that we see in this area, and I think especially with the African-American population, that our students report on frequently is that a number of people do not realize that they have heart disease or even that they’re at risk for heart disease.
So, when you see them in the office and they’re being diagnosed with end-stage chronic kidney disease or saying that they have heart failure, it’s shocking to them because they feel healthy, and they just start maybe having some problems that they were attributing to something else. I think the impact of knowing that you can be walking around and feeling pretty good, but be hypertensive is an issue that we wanted to address, and that’s why we’re stressing to know your numbers and stressing the importance of having a conversation with your healthcare providers.
I think in Central Georgia, that’s where we see that disconnect: knowing you’re symptomatic and that it is a problem even though you feel healthy and then having that conversation with your provider about what to do.
Phyllis Kitchens Thurmond: We also have to look at healthcare disparities. We have to look at access to health care and other barriers there. You know, for people to even get into their provider to know their numbers and to get that information, and just being able to access a doctor.
Doug Rohme: Everything is connected. It’s the food that we’re eating, the lack of exercise, not seeing doctors and being afraid to say that something is wrong with us; even that relates to heart disease. It’s not an old man disease. It affects everyone and predominantly women and African-Americans more so. So, that’s where we all have to come together to raise awareness, educate people and have things that are happening in the community.

MM: Can you tell me more about your community impact program?
The Central Georgia Heart Association partners with Kendra and her students at the college and with the eight women’s organizations that I’m associated with. Kendra and the Association came up with a beautiful plan to have a blood pressure clinic within the lower income community of Macon and it was at the Community Church of God. So, what we did was to have her students come three days a week, and I think the program was about nine weeks long.
In the end, the beauty of the whole thing is that we were served as a community, and for students, they were able to get their service hours that that they need for their program. It was a beautiful partnership.
With that, people can come in and get their blood pressures checked. If they had measures with repeated high blood pressure or had an elevated blood pressure that day, then we have resources where they could go to get checked out. This clinic ran for nine weeks in the community, and they’re getting ready to start up again and our organizations came through to volunteer. With that, the Macon-Bibb County Extension Service came and taught two cooking sessions, and then there was one education session.

MM: What is a successful outcome for your organization?
We want people to be healthier and happier, and to have the confidence that they know that they can do what’s necessary in a time of an emergency.
So, if you see someone laying on the ground, you know to call 911 or have someone else call 911 and maybe start CPR immediately. It’s all about saving lives and having people be empowered to be able to do those steps.
It’s about having the community be involved to learn, because you hear the great stories about a little girl who was at soccer practice, but she had learned CPR. One of her coaches fell over from a heart attack, and she was able to do CPR. Those are the stories that we need to tell, that she’s helping to save someone’s life. The whole team from there wanted to learn CPR. So, it’s just about connecting those dots.

Visit for more information relating to symptoms to look out for, preventative measures, upcoming events and ways to get involved. Attend the virtual educational webinar “Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain, Healthy You” from noon-1:30 p.m. Feb. 26. Register at

By the numbers
Population with high blood pressure:
33.5 percent in Central Georgia; 31.6 percent in Georgia
Population with low income/low food access:
23.71 percent in Central Georgia; 18.94 percent in Georgia
Stroke deaths per 100,000 people:
45.3 in Central Georgia; 43.6 in Georgia
Heart disease deaths per 100,000 people:
243.4 in Central Georgia; 177.1 in Georgia

Poverty levels, educational levels and household income impacts access to health care. In 2014, 28.5 percent of Georgia adults did not have a primary care physician or health care provider. Adults without healthcare insurance were significantly more likely to not have a primary care physician when compared to adults with health insurance (Georgia Department of Public Health, 2020).
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health (2017), cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the single leading cause of death in Georgia with approximately 41,443 deaths between 2014-2018. CVD includes all disease of the heart and blood vessels such as ischemic heart disease, congestive heart failure, hypertension, atherosclerosis and stroke. The incidence of stroke deaths in all ages, races and genders of Central Georgians is also of concern when reviewing Centers for Disease Control data. In 2020, the national stroke death per 100,000 was 37.4 percent, while Georgia’s stroke death average was 43.7 percent. The Georgia Department of Public Health reports that in 2017 Georgia’s stroke death rate was 15.7 percent higher than the national average. Georgia was placed eighth in the nation for stroke death.

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