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WomenHeart 'gives them a new purpose in life'

Sharonne Hayes
Sharonne Hayes
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At 51, DeArra Foster had double bypass surgery after a heart attack.

Her father had died at 57 of heart disease, but she hadn't dreamed something like that could put her, a woman, at risk.

"I was scared for a while. I thought I had a time bomb in my chest," Foster said Friday. As she moved into the recovery phase of her treatment, she was the only woman at the hospital doing cardiac rehab.

"I thought, 'What did I do to deserve being here with these old men?'" she said.

A year later, in 2002, Foster traveled to Rochester to take part in a WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic. For the first time that year, the national volunteer training organization brought together women from around the country — it also was the first time Foster realized she wasn't alone and that many other women throughout the country were struggling with the same chronic illness.

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The event brought the group of women together. They learned the anatomy of the heart and went through extensive public relations training, Foster said. "When we left, we thought, maybe we could even perform a bypass."

She took that training back to her community in Des Moines, Iowa, and she realized something important: "Even though I was the mother and the caregiver, if I didn't take care of myself, I couldn't take care of others. Self care is not selfish, and every woman needs to hear that."

This year is the 15th year of the symposium. Foster and other alumni, as well as the newest class of about 60 women, gathered Friday to learn about heart disease and treatment through WomenHeart. They are part of a group of more than 750 women who have received training throughout the country.

The goal is that when they return to their communities, they can start support groups to educate their communities about heart disease, said Dr. Sharonne Hayes, founder of the women's heart clinic and professor of medicine and cardiovascular disease at Mayo, which has been involved with the organization since 1999.

"That first year, I won't say we didn't know what we were doing, but it had never been done before," Hayes said. "It was very clear that it was magic, that it worked, that it was good for the women."

"I remember the first year, a bunch of women came in that perceived themselves as victims," Hayes said. "And they left gunning for bear, out to overcome the world."

Since that time, Hayes said, the curriculum and training has evolved, but the one thing that hasn't changed, she said, is that it supports women, let's them know they're not alone and gives them a new purpose in life: advocating and educating women with heart disease.

The women create support networks in their communities They get extensive training in how to be a community educator and how to establish and run monthly peer-led support groups for other women at their hospitals because heart disease can be a lonely one for women. Now, they also focus on secondary prevention, using educational modules, resource guides and videos, said Mary McGowan, CEO of WomenHeart.

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What we hear them say all the time, said McGowan, is "I don't want what happened to me to happen to any other woman."

"It takes women from a victim, to giving them a new purpose in life," Hayes said.

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