Facing a sea of red dresses, Georgetta Thomas told her story, a tale of how she filled her days to the brim with the tasks of everyday life. Thomas spent her days constantly on the go with little attention focused on her own well-being—she was simply too busy to bother with healthy living.
By the time she did slow down in February 2012 for a routine physical and stress test, doctors told her she needed triple bypass surgery if she wanted to live.
“The stress test showed some narrowing areas in my heart ventricles,” Thomas said. “The doctors ordered a heart catheterization as the next step. The results showed multiple blockages. I had not one, not two, but three blockages and I was told I had to have a triple bypass.”
Thomas admitted that her first thought was that she didn’t have time for a triple bypass—but she also knew she didn’t have a choice if she wanted live much longer. By April 2012, she was on the operating table.
“Since that day, I made a choice to tremendously change my life, to get healthy and to stay healthy,” Thomas told the crowd gathered inside Baltimore’s Bethel A.M.E. Church for the 10th annual Red Dress Sunday. “I look at food completely differently. I’m careful about what I eat and how much I eat. I use a saucer as opposed to a dinner plate.”
Thomas said that she now exercises on a daily basis and monitors her sugar intake, all as a way to decrease her chances of succumbing to heart disease or stroke.
“We started Red Dress Sunday to highlight cardiovascular disease among African American women,” said co-founder Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a registered nurse who leads Maryland’s Minority Health Disparity Commission. “Many times we live stressful lives. Many of us don’t have health insurance and don’t get checked regularly.”
“We have to do a better job in taking care of our own health by listening the signs and symptoms of our own bodies,” Nathan-Pulliam told the AFRO. “Although all women are affected, African-American women have the highest mortality and morbidity rates.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women, resulting in approximately 292,188 deaths in 2009. Even as heart health awareness has increased, the CDC estimates that only 54 percent of women are even aware that heart disease is their leading cause of death.
The symptoms of a heart attack include pain or discomfort in the upper back, upper body, and chest areas, heartburn, extreme fatigue, and shortness of breath. Palpitations, or fluttering sensations in the chest could be a sign of arrhythmia, and heart failure can show signs of swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, and stomach, as well as shortness of breath.
The Red Dress Sunday initiative was started in 2004 by St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore in an effort to increase awareness about heart disease and stroke. Since its inception, the national campaign has spread to more than 130 churches.
The program works with members of Baltimore’s broad faith community to spread awareness, especially among women of color.
“We need your help because women know how to take care of their families—but first, take care of yourself! That’s what Red Dress Sunday is about,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, garnering cheers and applause before Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took to the podium.
“It starts with changing everyday choices,” said Rawlings-Blake, whose own efforts to get fit have yielded noticeable results. “It is not easy, everybody that is on the journey alongside me knows that it is a daily struggle, but all we have to do is look at the alternative.”
“We only have today to make a decision to be heart healthy,” said Rawlings-Blake. “Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us. I hope we act in this moment to make better health choices for our families.”