Choosing to participate in the Southern Maine Heart Walk four years ago seemed serendipitous. At the time, I was trapped in a cycle of depression and self-loathing, fueled by a failing relationship and too many nights spent binging on junk food and Netflix. Finally, fed up with myself, I resolved to change and to give out some love in hopes of feeling it grow within and for myself. My family and I had done the Walk in 1995, after my second open-heart surgery, and one day I stumbled across pictures of us there, smiling in our awful 90s stretch pants and bowl-cuts. Shortly thereafter, I registered myself as a participant and Team Captain, recruiting my entire family to walk with me. And thus an annual tradition was born.
The Heart Walk is designed to raise awareness of the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and stroke. The Walk also serves as an opportunity for people to donate to the American Heart Association. Contributions go toward education, research, and life-saving technology. Every year, the AHA sets a specific goal for each Heart Walk. At this year’s Walk in Portland on May 15th, the goal was $290,000. At last count, the collective efforts of those involved in the Walk (participants, survivors, families, and sponsors such as Hannaford and MaineHealth) raised $292,106.
People join the Heart Walk for different reasons – for their parents, siblings, children, grandparents, friends. Some walk in memory of loved ones who succumbed to the realities of heart disease and stroke. Others walk to celebrate the miracles that surgery, technology, and medicine have afforded to their friends and family members. And others, like me, are survivors themselves; they walk because they can, because they were given a second (or third or fourth) chance to place one foot in front of the other.
Each time my family and I take those first few steps beyond the starting gate, I am overwhelmed with gratitude to simply be there, among so many other people touched by heart disease and stroke. Survivors are given red or white caps, and I don mine with pride (to hell with the fact it makes me look like a creepy gym teacher), scouting the crowd for others wearing them. I don’t know them, and yet we are connected. Kindred. Affected by similar experiences, and here to tell the tale.
Speaking with other survivors, AHA volunteers, and family members, you notice a common thread to these various stories. Contrary to popular stigmas about people who suffer from cardiovascular disease (they were obese or unhealthy or smoked all their lives), a vast majority of those who suffer from heart disease and stroke did absolutely nothing to bring it on themselves. Very often it is congenital or hereditary, and too often, it is pure bad luck. Consider this:
– Cardiovascular disease is the leading global cause of death, accounting for more than 17.3 million deaths per year, a number that is expected to grow to more than 23.6 million by 2030.
– About 2,200 Americans die each day from these diseases, one every 40 seconds.
– Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the world and the leading cause of death in the United States, killing over 370,000 Americans a year.
– Cardiovascular diseases claim more lives than all forms of cancer combined.*
Despite these alarming statistics, there continues to be a lack of awareness of the prevalence and impact of cardiovascular disease. I can’t help but wonder how much of a difference we could make to those suffering from cardiovascular disease if we funneled as much money into heart-related research as we do for that concerning cancer. But that is a different question for a different day.
What I’d most like to share about the Heart Walk is the feeling of purpose that hums through the crowd as we prepare to begin the three mile route. The sense that hundreds of strangers are connected by invisible scars and irregular heartbeats. That goosebump-inducing sensation that occurs whenever I think of how fortunate I am to be part of such an amazing group of people. In 1990, the chances of my surviving childhood were slim. Twenty-six years later, here among this Heart Walk crowd, I see I’m only one of many miracles. Can you imagine how surreal that feels? If you’d like to experience the feeling firsthand, I encourage you to walk with us. I promise you won’t regret it.
For me (and for so many others), the road to the Southern Maine Heart Walk has been long and winding. And I give thanks every single day that I have been granted the opportunity to walk each step of that broken, blessed, beautiful path.
*For more information on cardiovascular disease and stroke: https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/ahamah-public/@wcm/@sop/@smd/documents/downloadable/ucm_480086.pdf
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