Heart walk celebrates survival

The fifth annual Tampa Bay Heart Walk is on Saturday at the Raymond James Stadium. It works to raise awareness of heart disease while also celebrating how far the American Heart Association has brought heart disease out of the shadows. Special to the Oracle

Saturday marks the fifth annual Heart Walk held at Raymond James Stadium and people of all walks of life will congregate to exercise, fundraise and participate in festivities. 

The fight is on in Tampa to diminish the current leading cause of death in the U.S.

“We’re just starting to talk about this, but last week we learned that we expect coronary heart disease — in the next year or two — to drop from the number one killer for the first time in history,” Jennifer Waite, vice president of the Tampa Heart Walk, said. 

“We’ve had a lot of success and I feel that’s a good example that our funds are used well. … We’re calling it Get One Done and we’re really looking forward to celebrating that milestone when it happens.”

According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, heart disease claims the lives of an estimated 611,105 Americans annually, which accounts for one in every four deaths. The most common form, coronary heart disease (CHD), makes up for more than half of those lives.

“Heart disease and stroke don’t discriminate as far as age,” she said. 

Coming from a family with a strong history of high blood pressure and strokes, Waite is currently on medication to counteract these conditions. Waite said as she got older, she learned more about her family’s history with heart disease, which her grandmother’s series of mini strokes, her grandfather’s death by stroke and her mother’s full blockage that required three surgeries.

“I do have a history, but it wasn’t like I was very much connected at the time (when she started),” Waite said. “Of course over these nine and a half years, I’ve met so many families. I used to work with schools, so there was a lot of children with congenital heart defects. 

“There’s one family that I’ve remained very close with, they live in California now. But the little girl, I was there in the hospital when she was waiting for a heart transplant.”

Waite, among many other Americans said she understands genetics can play a dominant role in acquiring this disease and can easily dispel the notion that it is only synonymous with the elderly. However, time can be essential in whether health risks can raise or lower.

“Your risk increases if your father or a brother was diagnosed with CHD before 55 years of age, or if your mother or a sister was diagnosed with CHD before 65 years of age,” according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Genetics or lifestyle can result in plaque build-up in the arteries as a person ages. Plaque build-up can result in signs and symptoms by the time someone is middle-aged. Although this disease strikes various age groups across the board, Waite reassures the public that it’s never too early to start healthy habits.

Early November heat is not enough to stop Heart Walk participants from coming out to make a difference. Last year, an estimated 35,000 people attended the event.

Survivors, family and friends, generous donors, and even pets are all expected to assemble at this prominent arena. People will be welcomed by companies at booths, a live DJ, and free screenings starting at 8 a.m. At 9 a.m. the walk will begin. 

All participants can start together but can choose whether they want to meet the one-mile goal or proceed to the three-mile goal.  

The staff has worked alongside with 1,500 employees of the Home Shopping Network in restocking their vending machines with healthier alternatives. As a result, 50 percent of vending machine snacks have low to no sugar content.

“People see the Heart Association everywhere. We’re on food labels in the grocery store, the heart check. The fact that you can’t smoke in restaurants was part of our legislation years ago,” she said. “Students in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas (counties) for the first time ever this year — they wrote it in their curriculum with CPR training — and so we provided all the kits to those high schools.”

Massive amounts of money being raked in is the other priority, other than health awareness. The Heart Walk’s fundraising goal for this year is $3.5 million. Waite said she understands the important role money plays in furthering the cause, as well as the commitment and patience required when trying to reach a certain quota, which doesn’t occur overnight.

“I participate as a fundraiser,” Waite said. “I’m never able to enjoy the walk. As you can imagine, it’s pretty crazy. We had 35 thousand people out there last year, so it’s like you’re checking with your different sponsors and your top companies to see if their okay, you’re coordinating volunteers. 

“Two years ago, there was torrential down pours so you were on stage coordinating with the police and do you want to cut the route. So, I’ve never actually walked it.”

Last year, Tampa had the third largest heart walk nationwide, in regards to funds raised and attendees. Dallas and Denver took the two leading spots. Also, the University of South Florida was the number one fund-raising university in Florida.

All proceeds from the walk will go towards research and education. Two top local recipients will be the University of South Florida and the Moffitt Cancer Center. Research, however, doesn’t necessarily stay local. The Heart Walk prides itself in funding the best research, even if it’s outside the confines of Florida.

Local sports teams such as the Bucs, the Lightning and the Rays will be several of many sponsors. 

“It’s a worthy cause to get behind,” Waite proclaims. “We want it to be a celebration of health and wellness. So the Heart Walk is free to the public — if somebody were to come out on Nov. 7 there’s no check-in and there’s no registration … so we really want it to be that celebration. To have fun and raise awareness.”