Since 1947, the Women’s Board of the American Heart Association of Greater Washington Region has been fighting heart disease and stroke, often with the high-profile help of America’s first ladies.
Rosalynn Carter helped teach kids CPR. Other first ladies – from Mamie Eisenhower to Laura Bush – have attended the board’s luncheon and fashion show, the longest-running continuous fundraiser in the nation’s capital. The event raises about $300,000 a year to fund research into heart disease and stroke.
Of course, the board’s lifesaving efforts attract women who don’t live in the White House – and it’s the efforts of these women that recently earned the board the AHA’s Meritorious Achievement award. There are 90 or so volunteer board members, including one who’s 100 years old.
“Women join the board and they stay. The issues remain relevant to them their whole lives,” said Chairman Lesley Lavalleye, who got involved nearly two decades ago. “I feel like every family is touched by heart disease. Whether it’s heart attack or stroke, it’s pretty much ubiquitous.”
Members determine the kind of research they want to help fund, and they often support scientists early in their careers.
One of those researchers was Yolanda Fortenberry, Ph.D., now assistant professor of pediatric hematology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 2002, the board awarded her one of her first grants related to cardiovascular diseases.
“That funding propelled my research into different areas,” Fortenberry said. “The Women’s Board is allowing vital research to be conducted in areas that are important to all of us.”
Another member, Darby Gingery, got involved because her parents and others in her family battle heart disease.
“Everyone in both my husband’s and my family have had heart issues,” Gingery said. “My brother recently had a heart attack at 42. My husband lost a brother to a heart attack at 42, and two brothers had heart attacks within six months of turning 50. Both his parents died of heart disease.”
Katherine Vernot-Jonas, whose husband is a pediatric heart surgeon, joined because she’s a “huge believer” in medical research and a great supporter of medical students. Her aunt died last year after 18 months in a coma following a stroke.
“We need to raise awareness of heart disease among women, reduce disability and find the cure for it,” she said.
Ellen Kay’s an example of how those awareness efforts work. The board member had high blood pressure and heart palpitations four years ago, prompting her to read food labels and start regularly exercising.
“I love the fabulous group of women I’ve worked with over the years, and I treasure the friendships I have made in the process,” said Kay, a member since 2001.
Vice-Chair Melanie Colton joined the group after her niece gave birth to a baby girl with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, where the heart’s left side is underdeveloped.
“It has become a labor of love,” she said. “Many of the grants funded have yielded progress in medications and surgery procedures that have saved the life of my great niece. She is a thriving, healthy 5-year-old with more hope for a full life than we first thought possible.”