Diane Brown, An Advocate for Women's Heart Health

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UW Health Cardiology Patient Diane Brown and Representative Steve Kagen from WisconsinMADISON – In many ways, Diane Brown's heart attack at the age of 52 changed her life for the better.

Already a very active woman, Brown took the recommendations of UW Health's Preventive Cardiology program seriously and altered her diet and lifestyle significantly. Once an avid fan of cheeseburgers, she hasn't had one for three years. She keeps her saturated fat intake low, uses her lunch hour to exercise and lives a very active life.

That's one reason why she and her husband are moving to Florida upon her retirement from the UW Transportation Services Department in October – there, they will be able to golf, swim and be active year round.

"I can't imagine retiring and staying active here, and both of us have motivation to stay healthy," said Brown, referring to her husband's near-heart attack last year. Fortunately, the doctors were able to locate the arterial blockage and place stents in time before he had a heart attack.
Speaking Out About Heart Health
Among the things Brown looks forward to in retirement is volunteering her time to help spread the word about women's heart health. She began doing public outreach in 2006 after she attended the annual Science and Leadership Symposium for Women Heart Patients, a conference co-sponsored by the Mayo Clinic and Women Heart, the national coalition for women with heart disease.

Brown was among 60 women chosen from across the nation to participate in the symposium, based on her application, personal experiences and letter of recommendation from Vonda Shaw, UW Health exercise physiologist.

"People of all ages are genuinely interested in learning how they can take better care of themselves," commented Brown, "and it's an easy subject for me to speak about because I have my own story to tell and am interested in the subject."

During the symposium, participants learned about taking their story out into the community to help others learn about heart health and what they can do to make changes in their own lives. One of the conditions of attending the symposium was that participants had to return to their own communities and perform 25 – 30 hours of community service. Brown estimates she's done around 55 hours, if not more, speaking to various groups about heart health. One of the most interesting was when she participated in a lecture to a group of 200 University of Wisconsin medical students.

"The doctor was talking about catheterization and using actual footage from my cath procedure," she explained. "So there we were in this lecture hall with my actual beating heart on this large screen. The doctor spoke about the procedure and asked me to comment from the patient's perspective. It was fascinating."

Becoming an Advocate
This summer, Brown had the opportunity to take the lessons of the first symposium to the next level by attending the 2008 Advocacy Institute in Washington D.C., sponsored by Women Heart. There, roughly 50 participants from across the nation, all of whom were graduates of the Science and Leadership Symposium, learned to advocate for women's heart health.

"Instead of just getting our story out on a personal level, like we did after the Mayo symposium, it's now about getting the voice out at this entirely new level – people who can incorporate things into legislation," Brown said.

During the three-day Institute, participants heard lectures from a variety of individuals who regularly advocate for policies at the federal level. They also learned what they need to do to get the message across to legislators.

"These are people with a lot competing for their time and attention," Brown said. "We learned how to be succinct and give them exactly what they want. They love to have people come visit them but they don't have a lot of time."

During the event, attendees also had a chance to experience the life of a freshman legislator first hand through a computer simulation. Each team was given an identity and state. Over the course of three and and a half hours they had to make a series of decisions. Each decision was entered into a computer. At the end, the computer calculated whether they were re-elected to office or not.

"We only had minutes to make decisions and with each decision, we had to take all of these issues into consideration – who did we promise something to, who would be upset by our decision, how would it affect our home state," she explained. "It really sensitized us to what legislators have to deal with and why they can’t just say 'sure I’ll support that' when asked."

Putting Policy into Practice
The last day of the Institute, the attendees actually visited with legislators at the Capitol, including the office of Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Steve Kagen. Although in most cases, they visited with the aides, Brown and the other two women from Wisconsin were able to share their personal stories and seek support for the Heart for Women Act.

Representative Baldwin is actually a co-sponsor of the Act, which seeks, among other things, to raise awareness about heart disease among women and health care providers. As a result of their visit with Representative Kagen, he agreed to support the bill.

"It helped that one of the women in the group was from Green Bay and knew him personally," commented Brown. "And he also had personal experience with heart disease affecting members of his family. But it was very cool to meet with him and have him agree to support the bill as a result of our visit."

Brown went on to explain that in addition to keeping their stories succinct, they learned that it's also important to know the financial impact of the policies being promoted.

"One Representative we met with said, 'I'd need to know the fiscal impact and how you'd propose we'd come up with the money to do this.' They're not going to say yes to anything they can't pay for and support financially," she said.

Getting the Message Out
While she's wrapping up her 34 years of state service, Brown said she probably won't be able to put the lessons into practice until she's retired and settled into her new Florida home. But she certainly plans to put the lessons into place as soon as she is able.

"From the talks I've given to different community groups, I've actually had people call and say they were inspired by what I said and they made some changes in their lifestyle. That really keeps you going," Brown said. "And now, it will be exciting to put the message in front of the people who can actually affect legislation.”

Writing letters, going to see people, and getting her voice out there are among the ways that Brown will try to make a difference. And, she knows how important it is to be patient.

"The fact is things take a long time to get done in government work. So while our efforts may not always get immediate results, getting our voice out there and raising awareness can make a tremendous difference," she concluded.
Picture above: Diane Brown with Wisconsin Rep. Steve Kagen

Date Published: 07/31/2008

News tag(s):  heart patientsgo redheartpatients

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