For Immediate Release February 01, 2024

SIH Heart Month 2024

February is American Heart Month, bringing awareness to the many cardiac conditions affecting people across the United States. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America and affects one out of three women. Geanita Pryor discovered that the hard way.

At 32, Geanita was diagnosed with hypertension (high blood pressure) after the birth of her second child. Left unchecked, it led to a heart attack and stroke.

“I wasn't understanding of how severe this could be. When I had a heart attack, I don't think I was on blood pressure medicine. When I had my son, I had a tubal ligation, which is usually a one-day thing. But I was in the hospital for three days because of my blood pressure and the anesthesia,” she says.

Geanita worked with her doctor for a long time to find the right blood pressure medication and consistently had tests to monitor her heart, but still frequently found herself in the emergency room. She had given up hope and gave her doctor a do not resuscitate, or DNR, order: a legal document expressing her wish to not be revived if her heart stopped beating.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago, almost 15 years after her heart attack, that Geanita was diagnosed with coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure.

“I had such thin blood vessels that they didn’t even show up on the Echo.”

This diagnosis gave Geanita what she was looking for: a diagnosis and a plan. Staff at SIH Prairie Heart Institute are helping her manage her cardiac conditions, teaching healthy eating habits and coaching her through cardiac rehab.

“I would say, ‘There's nothing I can do to support my heart.’ So for me to be able to go to cardiac rehab, go to the doctors, I want other people to experience that because it is a life changing thing. We got an upside to this. We have a win.”

Hypertension is a major risk factor for heart disease, specifically in African Americans. Dr. Steven Awuor, an interventional cardiologist with SIH Prairie Heart Institute, says that hypertension is notoriously under-diagnosed in Black American patients, but race isn’t the only contributing factor.

“Health disparities are less from race and ethnicity but are more the result of the social determinants of health that affect access to quality care, lifestyle choices and healthy seeking behaviors,” said Dr. Awuor.

Going to a doctor’s appointment can be incredibly difficult for people who cannot afford the co-pay, the gas money or the time away from work. This creates more stress, putting additional strain on the heart.

One of the World Health Organization’s definitions of health disparities is “systematic, socially produced (and therefore modifiable) and unfair" conditions that disproportionately affect historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Cardiac health disparities that affect the Black American community are an intersectional problem fueled by economic inequity.

“Beyond race and an individual's genetic make-up, the real issue is poverty and joblessness. It’s not much of a surprise that poorer communities (that are more likely African Americans and other ethnic minorities) tend to have bad outcomes for the same conditions compared to wealthier communities. It is also evident that poorer white communities have similar challenges with healthcare and have relatively bad outcomes. This is so important because poverty is something that we can address as a nation, but unfortunately the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen,” explained Dr. Awuor.

While poverty, joblessness, educational attainment, access to healthy food and safe housing are all things that create stress on the heart, these can all be improved through governmental and organizational action. SIH’s Community Benefits department strives to improve the health and well-being of all people in the community. In partnership with many Southern Illinois organizations, SIH Community Benefits and the Healthy Southern illinois Delta Network membesr provide education and resources on healthy living, screening opportunities, youth programs and much more.

Seeking cardio care can be intimidating, but Geanita wants people to know how important it is.

“The advice I would give is that it’s beneficial to your health and to everyone that loves you to go get the care done. Do whatever the doctor feels is comfortable for you and them, then make this a routine. Just like you get a flu shot and just like you get a physical, make sure your heart is cared for because it's very fragile,” said Geanita.

Fear may be driven by a potential diagnosis, insurance coverage or lack of trust in the healthcare system. “Most healthcare systems and providers are really focused on delivering the best experiences to their patients even though this may not always be possible all the time. Where the encounter is less than optimal because of race/ethnicity, provider or system issues, there will be an opportunity to mutually and respectfully remedy the situation. I would therefore encourage all to keep their appointments and follow through with the recommendations thereafter, as this may be the beginning of a solution to one's cardiac health problems,” Dr. Awuor.

Trying is the first step, but succeeding is the next, according to Geanita.

“You can succeed with having congestive heart failure. When you tell anyone that, there's a gasp. ‘What? You're gonna die!’ With the things SIH Prairie Heart added to my care, I feel like I'll see my grandkids. I just want other people to experience the fact that you can help your heart. It's not a lose-lose situation. I want to give them that care option that I had,” Geanita said.

To schedule an appointment with a cardiologist, please obtain a referral from your primary care physician. If you’re in need of a primary care physician, look at our Find A Provider Page to schedule an appointment at your convenience. If you are concerned about financial accessibility of scheduling an appointment, visit our Healthcare Assistance Program Page.