Veronica Sanchez of the American Heart Association
Issue no. 2: matters of the heart
words - Attia Taylor
illustration - Singha Hon
Veronica Sanchez is a Director of Community Impact for the American Heart Association. She also served as a Director of Health Equity, and is committed to community outreach and raising heart health awareness.
Attia Taylor: I’m curious about how you work with the American Heart Association on a larger scale, and what your day-to-day is like working in communities of color.
Veronica Sanchez: I work within the Greater Houston and the Gulf Coast area, bringing programs and services to communities that don’t know who we are. I try to bring them information that is culturally relevant, presented in a way they’ll be receptive toward. For example, we host an event for African-American women that we call, “Go Red Girlfriend,” and make sure that all the topics being discussed revolve around heart health for African-American women. We do the same thing for the Hispanic community, with an event called “Vestido Rojo” (“red dress”), a Latin version of the “Go Red for Women” luncheon, with a high focus on education. No matter the community served, we want to we equip, educate and empower women to make healthy lifestyle changes.
What we really want is for conversations and interventions to happen a lot sooner. We’re seeing an increase in the number of hospital visits related to heart and stroke events. In order to curb that number, we’re hoping that physicians will start having conversations with their patients about lifestyle changes.
Taylor: This issue of Womanly Magazine is hoping to raise awareness about heart health. In doing research for this issue, I’m learning that so many people don’t know their risk factors. There's also an issue of doctors just not asking women certain questions, or believing in their described symptoms. Do you have advice on how to advocate for yourself, and get the answers you need from a doctor?
Sanchez: We do have a program specifically geared for women that talks about the questions you need to ask when visiting the doctor, and which tests you need to make sure you get. We’re equipping women with that information, in English and Spanish, so that when they go to the doctor, they have a checklist to run through.
At the end of the day, in a doctor’s office, they’re trying to see as many patients as possible. Sometimes visits are as short as ten minutes. You don’t have a lot of time, so you really have to be your own advocate, come in prepared, and set the tone from the beginning of your visit: “Hey, I’m here for my exam, I have some questions, I brought them here with me. Can we go through these, so that when you’re going through the exam, you know what I’m looking for?”
Taylor: What kinds of questions should we ask?
Sanchez: Are these numbers normal? Am I prehypertensive? Stage 1 or stage 2? What are the guidelines, and where do my numbers fall?
We also teach folks in our community how to check their own blood pressure: the proper way to sit, where should the cuff be, making sure you’re checking your blood pressure on your left arm, because it’s closest to your heart. Little things like making sure you’re not talking when taking your vital statistics, so that your numbers are as accurate as possible.
Our guidelines just recently changed in November 2017 and as a result of that change more people will be diagnosed as hypertensive.
I had no idea what I was suffering from, because I wasn’t aware that the signs of a heart attack in women are very different than those for men.
Taylor: How did you get into heart health?
Sanchez: I’m so passionate about heart health because I’m a heart attack survivor. I was working a very stressful corporate job for several years. I suffered two heart attacks within a twelve-hour time span. The first heart attack happened at work. During both of my heart attacks I had no idea what I was suffering from, because I wasn’t aware that the signs of a heart attack in women are very different than those for men. If not for my husband forcing me to go to the doctor after the second one, I probably wouldn’t be here talking with you today.
As a result of that experience, my perspective totally changed, and I realized that as women we tend to put everything else first, and put our own things on the back burner. We’ll put our family first, work first, our friends, church...We say “Oh, I’ll make an appointment tomorrow,” and for some, tomorrow doesn’t come. And if it does come, it comes at a cost.
In my case, I had two heart attacks, which killed 25% of the muscles in my heart. For other women, it takes their life, or they have a stroke that permanently diminishes their quality of life. What I try to teach women is that if you love your family, you need to love yourself first. And while you wear a red dress to bring awareness regarding heart disease for women, you need to also love the woman inside of the dress enough to make the right decisions. You have to go to the doctor, and ask the right questions, so that you can be there for those family milestones that you don’t wanna miss.
What I try to teach women is that if you love your family, you need to love yourself first.
Taylor: What is your life like post-heart attack?
Sanchez: Now, I put more importance on asking the right questions, logging and tracking my [blood pressure and cholesterol] numbers when I go in for my follow-ups, so that I can see if they’re going up. I also track what eating habits and physical activity makes them come back down. I make sure that I’m taking the medication prescribed by my doctor. This is important. A lot of people in neighborhoods I visit will tell me that they know they have heart problems, but feel that since their numbers have improved, they don’t need medication anymore, not realizing that these medications are necessary to maintain.
Taylor: Can you give us a heart-healthy recipe you love?
Sanchez: Any recipe can be heart-healthy! When I do community outreach, I try to find recipes that are culturally relevant, and tweak them. For example, I’m a Hispanic woman, and I love tacos. Most tacos are either made with a corn tortilla or a flour tortilla. In America, you find a lot of flour tortillas. A better option would be a corn tortilla, because every flour tortilla equals ten corn tortillas, in terms of sodium content. You can reduce your sodium intake just by substituting the flour ones.
The best heart-healthy option is to use a lettuce leaf as a shell. It still gives you that crunch that you want in a taco. Now, you have a vegetable shell, you’ve got your pico de gallo, some protein filling, a little dairy, and you made your taco that much healthier.