Healthy Hearts: Foundations of a Healthy Community
By: Anna Zvansky
My heart ached when I first walked in to the transplant floor of the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. I was 15-years old on my first day as a volunteer and my assignment was to help the kids take their minds off their illness. Surrounding me were adorable children attached to IV poles twice their size, with bland yellow masks covering half their faces. All of these kids were given a second chance at life by gracious donors and their families who were willing to donate an organ to save a life.
Most touching was the story of little Kip, whose mom and I quickly bonded over her 4-year-olds’ passion for piano. Kip was an Asian American. At age 3, Kip’s parents were told that their son had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy- a condition in which his heart was abnormally thickened and thus was not able to properly shunt blood throughout the body, the only cure for him was a heart transplant. Kip was lucky to have been diagnosed early on, often times the only symptom of HCM is sudden death.
This was unfortunately the case with my friend and classmate Jon. Jon’s sister was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect at birth, which was quickly corrected, but for some reason Jon’s heart was never properly evaluated- as is often the protocol in children who’s siblings are diagnosed with a congenital hear defect. Jon, a tri-athlete and honors student only found out he had HCM after his sudden collapse and death following a concert.
Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the United States, comprising 36% of deaths annually, according to the American Heart Association. The sad truth is, unlike in Jon and Kip’s situations, most of these cases are entirely preventable.
A simple change in diet and exercise in our nation’s people can cut these numbers in half. The key here is to get people motivated about living healthier lifestyles. To address this issue, I started in my own community. As a Russian immigrant, I know firsthand how much members of the Russian community in Los Angeles enjoy foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol. While serving as vice-president of the Russian Club at UCLA, I initiated a project where we partnered up with leaders of the Russian community and initiated a project called “Steps to Health”. We partnered up the elderly residents of West Hollywood, with college students who spent 4 hours a week with going on walks and helping them buy groceries. The college students were given a list of grocery products, designed by me, that incorporated the elderly resident’s ailments and medications into account, so the elderly would be receiving the maximal nutritional benefits. The project was an absolute success and the elderly reported receiving praise from their physicians for loosing weight and lowering their cholesterol levels- key components of cardiac health.
I was only able to work on this project for a year because I graduated and went to medical school. In medical school, however, I was able to get involved in my community’s heart health in an even bigger way. My medical school is located in a community known to be highly affected by cardiovascular disease. This setting gave me the perfect situation to get involved. Three months into the school year I became President of the Latino Medical Student Association and started setting up free clinics in the community- to screen the residents for issues like heart disease, high cholesterol, and hypertension.
Along with the screenings we are able to provide guidance and referrals to the proper sources so that our patients can halt the development of their chronic diseases before it is too late. Additionally, I was in charge of planning Palomares Day, a day when my club brought in middle and high school students from within the community and taught them about heart health, proper nutrition, and ways they can contribute to the health of their community. I am also currently an officer in the Pomona Health Action Team, where we provide preventative medical care to members of the Pomona community. These opportunities give me the great honor of helping individuals, who often don’t have anywhere else to turn to for their healthcare needs, maintain and promote their health and well being.
Currently I am 2.5 years away from becoming a physician and when I enter the field as a full fledged doctor I will be on the frontlines of the battle of the predicted exponential increase in cardiovascular disease cases. Although I believe I have already made several contributions to the field, as a physician my ability to make a difference in the field of cardiology will be huge. My focus will be on promoting adequate primary care to as many patients as possible, because it is much easier to stop heart disease in its early tracts rather than trying to save ailing hearts.
Medicine in the United States is world-known for its abilities to perform unbelievable surgeries, the advanced technology we use on a daily basis to keep people alive years past how long they would have lived almost anywhere else in the world, however our shortcoming is that we fail at stopping many illnesses from progressing to stages where patients need all of this supportive care. By expanding access to primary care and educating individuals about becoming better self-care advocates, half of our chronically ill could be healthy today.
My goal as a physician will be to expand healthcare coverage and establish free clinics so that our underserved patients do not have to become chronically ill due to their inability to pay: I can guarantee that cardiac related morbidity and mortality cases will see a huge decline, as these illnesses are typically the easiest to treat and reverse in their early states.