Heart Wars: The Red Sari Strikes Back
A look at the South Asian Cardiovascular Center's Red Sari Event
The Phantom Menac
South Asians account for nearly 25% of the global population, yet we as a community bear over 60% of the world’s heart disease burden. South Asians in the United States have been found to have a near-50% greater mortality rate from cardiovascular disease in comparison to other ethnic communities. South Asian women have a near one-third greater risk of heart disease related death than their Caucasian counterparts. Studies suggest that nearly one in four incidents of heart attacks among East Indian men occur under the age of 40; 50% of the incidents of heart attacks occur amount East Indian men under the age of 50. Nearly one third of cardiac deaths within the community occur in individuals under the age of 65.
These are the mind boggling statistics that emcee Ravi Baichwal (ABC 7 News Anchor), Dr. Shoeb J. Sitafalwalla (Medical Director of the South Asian Cardiovascular Center), and Dr. Jay Bhatt (Illinois’ Chief Health Officer) repeatedly pounded into the consciousness of those in attendance at the South Asian Cardiovascular Center’s Second Annual “A Red Sari Evening” held at Macy’s on State Street on Saturday March 7, 2015.
Rupak Parikh, who is the President-elect of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin’s Young Physicians Section describes the situation as follows: “Statistically speaking, cardiovascular disease is the single greatest health risk facing our community today. If we take a proactive approach through increased education and prevention we can significantly lower the incidence, prevalence, and severity of this epidemic. Recent census data shows that the percentage of South Asians in health care professions in the United States is greater than the percentage of South Asians in the US population as a whole. Therefore if we make heart health awareness and preventative medicine a priority amongst South Asian health professionals, we have an opportunity to get out ahead of the problem, change the percentages, and save lives.”
Use the Force
Baichwal presided over the evening as emcee, and also communicated his personal passion for battling heart disease in the South Asian community. The ABC 7 Anchor recounted his father’s bout with heart disease at a young age, and how it affected his family. Baichwal further discussed his own personal visit to the South Asian Cardiovascular Center and the thorough heart health screening process that Dr. Sitafalwalla and his staff employ.
Dr. Bhatt, who has the distinction of being the Chicago Department of Health’s first Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, and Illinois’ Department of Health’s first Chief Health Officer, further emphasized the morbid statistics that drive his work to combat heart disease through new initiatives such as SAHEB (South Asian Healthy Eating Benefits), which attempts to improve the nutritional value of south Asian cuisine available in the City of Chicago and beyond. To that end, Curry Bowl, Gaylord Fine Indian Cuisine, Mysore Woodlands and Viceroy of India have committed to reducing the amount of sodium in popular menu items over the course of the year. After the first month, Gaylord Fine Indian Cuisine and Mysore Woodlands have already met the 10-percent sodium reduction goal.
Furthermore, Patel Brothers, the largest South Asian food retailer in the country, based in Illinois has agreed to join the SAHEB initiative to raise awareness and help combat health disparities in Chicago. Patel Brothers have agreed to provide healthier packaged food items and to incorporate consumer education in the aisles of their stores nationwide. “Patel Brothers is excited to join the SAHEB initiative to provide heart healthy education and food options to one of the largest South Asian communities in the United States,” said Swetal Patel, owner/operator of Patel Brothers.
The Keynote speaker of the evening’s event was none other than Dr. Shoeb J. Sitafalwalla, who is the Medical Director of the South Asian Cardiovascular Center and the inspiration for the Center’s creation. The South Asian Cardiovascular Center at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital is the first of its kind in the Midwest to uniquely serve the needs of the South Asian community. Besides providing culturally sensitive clinical care, in both inpatient and outpatient environments, the Center’s staff has also been reaching out into neighborhoods, businesses and faith communities to educate and screen for heart disease. The Center is proudly supported by the Advocate Medical Group and the American Heart Association.
As part of the March 7th “Red Sari” event, leaders from the South Asian Cardiovascular Center, Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and the American Heart Association signed a memorandum of understanding to signify the start of a collaboration to educate and reduce the cardiovascular risk in the South Asian community. The aim is to reach the South-Asian community with life-saving health messages. Through community and media outreach, the organizations will help the South Asian community identify and reduce risk factors for heart disease and stroke, understand the warning signs and prevent the recurrence of cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Sitafalwalla’s speech was simple, elegant, and compelling. The message was unavoidable; cardiovascular disease is a serial killer, especially amongst the South Asian community. We are in the midst of an epidemic, but through education and preventative measures, we can turn the tide. What is the call to action? What can one do to fight back against this pervasive and deadly plague? 1) Start by getting a checkup. It’s never too early to start monitoring your heart health. 2) Exercise. Consult with your physician on what cardiovascular exercises might be best suited to your current condition. 3) Nutrition. Consult your physician and/or nutritionist to design, develop, and implement a heart healthy nutritional diet that is customized for your current health and dietary restrictions. We each have within us the capacity to attain a higher level of heart health, we simply need to seek out the appropriate medical guidance and put the aforementioned tools to use.
The Revenge of the Sick
Beyond the statistics and the rhetoric are the faces of those who are afflicted with heart conditions. Many of you, including myself, have direct or indirect personal experiences with the silent assassin that is a heart attack. Unsuspecting unforeseen, seemingly healthy individuals are far too often brought to their knees, and ultimately the ER by heart disease. We each can attach a face, a name, a personal experience to the cardiovascular illness epidemic. Now is our time to fight back, for ourselves, our loved ones, and future generations.
Now is the time to educate our families on how to improve and maintain good heart health. Now is the time to demand improved local and national health regulations surrounding nutrition and heart healthy dining options. Now is the time to take ownership and control of our health and recognize, that we as a community are far more at risk than any other community on earth to heart disease, and we must do something about it.
What makes us more at risk? Is it our lifestyle? Our diets? Our environment? Or perhaps, it is our genetics? While the questions remain unanswered at the moment, the likely outcome is that each of these factors, individually and collectively, contribute to our increased exposure. For example, did you know that it is common amongst South Asians to have genetically narrower arteries than members of other communities? So much so, that normal stents may not be used on certain individuals because of the genetically narrower diameters with which to work with.
As much as it is important for us as individuals and a community to take preventative measures to ward off heart disease, it is equally important for us to become more adept at recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack so that we can take swift action that could save the life of a loved one.
In that regard, one of the highlights of the “Red Sari” event was when Ravi Baichwal introduced and honored 8 year old Krishna Vyas for her swift and smart actions to save the life of her 84 year old grandfather Virji Rathod who suffered a heart attack at their suburban Des Plaines home. Krishna quickly recognized that her grandfather was seriously ill and called 9-1-1. A call that saved his life. Rathod was ultimately treated at the South Asian Cardiovascular Center, where Dr Shoeb Sitafalwalla outfitted Rathod with an emergency life vest that will shock his heart should he get sick again in these first few months of recovery. Rathod was the third South Asian heart attack victim within 36 hours at Advocate Lutheran, underscoring the epidemic of heart disease in that community. “South Asians are at an up to four to five times greater risk for heart disease. Unfortunately, they don’t realize the statistics that are behind their ethnicity,” said Dr. Sitafalwalla.
The “Red Sari Evening” and the SACC is not just about preventative care, but also about improving the circumstances of those already suffering from heart disease and educating their loved ones to better ensure swift and appropriate action should an emergency arise.
Live Long and Prosper
Yes, I know I am mixing my Star Wars and Star Trek cliches now, but if JJ Abrams can helm both franchises I’m sure the fans of each will forgive me. Especially since this message is equally important for Trekkies and Star Wars’ fans alike! We are at a crossroads. We are on a path to being ravaged by heart disease in a severely disproportionate fashion. In this scenario, we are the high risk population. Yet, we hold the keys to prevention, education, and treatment. It’s time we take control so that we may all “live long and prosper.”
The Final Frontier and A New Hope
As I was writing this piece, I learned of the passing of award winning filmmaker Prashant Bhargava. Prashant was a Chicagoan, a South Asian, an artist, and a friend. Prashant died of a heart attack Friday May 15, 2015. Shortly before his passing, Prashant moderated several film discussions at the New York Indian Film Festival. He was named one of the “10 Great South Asian Americans you Probably Haven’t Heard of, but Should.” A few months ago, Prashant had released his latest film, “Radhe Radhe.” and roughly a year ago he created “An Anthem of Us,” which celebrated the South Asian immigrant experience in the United States. That short played at the official welcoming events for PM Narendra Modi in Central Park and Madison Square Garden.
One of Prashant’s lasting legacies will be his film “Patang,” which was critically acclaimed and helped launch the career of international film superstar Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
Prashant had so much more to share with his family, his friends, and through his art. His passing was yet another reminder of the impact of cardiovascular disease in the South Asian community. Let’s hope that the tragic passing of Prashant Bhargava will inspire our community to be more proactive about our heart health so that we may live longer and fuller lives.
A few short months before his passing, Prashant celebrated his birthday. Prashant Bhargava (1973-2015) was 42.