By Katrina Forrest

February is National Heart Month and with heart disease still serving as the leading cause of death for both men and women nationally, it is important to know the factors associated with the disease and take the necessary precautions to get screened, eat healthy and live an active lifestyle. 

Each year about 600,000 Americans (1 in 4) die from heart disease.  High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol and smoking are the key risk factors and surprisingly, about half (49%), of Americans have at least one of the three risk factors. Other factors that lead to an increased risk for heart disease include diabetes, obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use.

Here in the District, we face a startling reality when it comes to heart health related deaths and emergency response.  In a report published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2013, D.C. residents died at a higher rate from preventable heart attacks than any other jurisdiction in the country.  The CDC report found that, in the District, the rate of avoidable deaths from heart disease, stroke and hypertensive disease was 99.6% per 100,000 population.  The most affected demographic was African-American males ranging in age from 65-74.

Given the severity of this problem in the District, it would seem that emergency responders would have the requisite training to identify and understand the importance of swift action in exigent circumstances.   Unfortunately, this has not been the case. 

The District has a history of unresponsiveness from emergency service professionals entrusted with upholding the highest standards of care and response. In 1999, a 21-year old woman, Julia Rusinek collapsed on a busy street corner. A bystander saw her on the ground and ran to the firehouse less than a block from where she fell. Firefighters said another engine was on the way and that their ambulance crew was going off duty. She was declared dead at a hospital less than a mile from where she fell.  Last year on New Year’s Day, a 71-year old resident died of a heart attack when he had to wait 40 minutes for emergency responders on a day when one-third of D.C.’s firefighters called out sick.  D.C.’s Fire and EMS Department is in the news once again as yet another elderly man, age 77, collapsed and later died from a heart attack suffered on January 25, 2014. This latest incident elicited public outrage as the collapsed man lay dying in front of a N.E. fire station, while a firefighter stood idle, refusing to provide assistance until someone called 911.  

District residents are experiencing heart related deaths at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country and this problem should not be exacerbated by institutional policies that have led to a failure to act.   These deaths are preventable if residents have access to information on risk factors, quality health centers and free screenings, but when it comes to matters of the heart, we must also ensure that our emergency medical service providers are acting out of compassion and not a callous adherence to questionable policies.  Addressing these deficiencies is paramount to correcting this troubling problem in the District.

*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso.