Franklin Park woman advocates for women’s heart health via National Wear Red Day

Via Peters

The pin on Kim Leo’s outfit is a sparkling accessory. It’s there to make a statement – but not a fashion statement. She wears it to send a heartfelt message.

The shiny piece of red jewelry in the shape of a dress represents the symbol for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women National Wear Red Day, a time to create awareness for women’s heart health.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. — about 1 in every 5 female deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts say the effects of covid-19 are likely to influence cardiovascular health and mortality rates.

“Heart disease is humbling,” said Leo, who had a heart attack 10 years ago this May and works for a local cardiac medical device company. “It doesn’t discriminate.”

The Franklin Park resident recalled arriving at her office in Harrisburg around 7 a.m., where she worked for Capital BlueCross at the time. Nothing was out of the ordinary that Monday morning until she reached her desk. She felt extreme nausea and a tingling in her chest. She began to sweat.

She called her husband Ron, who worked for the same company. He alerted one of the first responders on site. One of her arteries was 99% blocked. There was a blood clot. She was prepped for emergency open-heart surgery.

She was 46 years old. She didn’t smoke. She had a good diet.

She was on medication for hypertension. There is a family history of heart disease.

Doctors told her husband she had a 50-50 chance of survival.

That’s why on Friday, she will be wearing her red-dress pin for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. This year’s theme is “Reclaim Your Rhythm” to raise awareness about the prevalence of heart disease in women.

The past two years have significantly affected women’s health, said Dr. Katie Berlacher, UPMC cardiologist and medical director of the Magee-Womens Heart Program. Many female-owned businesses closed and 2.5 million women lost their jobs or left the workforce, Berlacher said.

“The pandemic has had a brutal impact on women who have had to take on more responsibility in the home,” Berlacher said. “There is a lot of added stress when caring for others, which has increased cardiac episodes. Their level of anxiety has increased.”

When Berlacher lectures to second-year cardiology students, she finishes the talk with one assignment.

“I plead with them to call their mom or grandmother or sister or aunt or daughter and urge them to get their blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol checked,” she said. “It’s a grass-roots effort. We don’t have NFL players wearing red gloves and cleats in the Super Bowl, like they wear pink for breast cancer awareness month (in October). Let’s do everything we can to get the word out. Let’s shout it from the rooftops.”

Getting the message across is important, agreed Dr. Aryan Aiyer, a UPMC Cardiologist. He said the pandemic has women taking even greater care of everyone else.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being vaccinated,” Aiyer said. “We have observed in the hospital, patients who are vaccinated suffer less (with covid-19). It’s not too late to get vaccinated.”

The pandemic has women putting off checkups. They might be fearful of coming into a doctor’s office or hospital because of covid-19. Many are working from home and helping children with distance learning.

“It is important to make those appointments,” he said. “We can check everything and re-evaluate any risk factors.”

Berlacher has been reaching out to patients to do a telemedicine visit or at minimum a phone call or email to discuss how they are feeling.

“Don’t ignore any symptoms,” Leo said.

Courtesy of Kim Leo

Franklin Park resident Kim Leo’s granddaughters (left to right) Bowen, Blakely and Chloe wear red dresses to support their grandmother, who had a heart attack and required open-heart surgery in 2012.


Her experience put life in perspective. Family is everything: her husband, her mother and stepfather, Ethel Marie Johnson and Terry Johnson; and her daughter Rachel and her husband Ricky Kaiser, and their children Chloe, Blakely and Max; and her daughter Rebecca and her husband Rich Franceschi, and their children Bowen and Theo.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” said Leo, who had months of cardiac rehabilitation. “When I left my house that day for work, I never in a million years thought I wouldn’t come home that night because of a heart attack. I listened to my body and took action. There were so many emotions from shock and disbelief to anger and depression to I can’t believe this happened to me. I told myself when I got done with the rehab that I was going to advocate for women’s heart health.”


Courtesy of Kim Leo

Franklin Park resident Kim Leo’s daughters Rebecca Franceschi (left) and Rachel Kaiser on their way to the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women luncheon to support their mother, who had a heart attack and open-heartsurgery in May 2012.


She contacted the Harrisburg American Heart Association, which connected her with the Pittsburgh location when she moved here five years ago.

“I love wearing the red dress pin,” said Leo, whose operation was at UPMC Pinnacle in Harrisburg. “I have the one with rhinestones on it. To me, it’s the power of that little red dress. It represents the determination from all of the women around me. I have a strong line of women who embody the message of that red dress pin. The women in my family are the rocks of the family. They take care of everyone else. Being part of Go Red for Women is about paying it forward.”

Women’s health includes addressing issues of those uninsured or under-insured, Berlacher said. She said women will tell her they only take half a dose of a medication so it lasts longer. Pregnant women are also a population that needs attention because hypertension can cause harm to moms and babies.

Women have so much on their plate right now, Berlacher said. Sometimes their symptoms are dismissed as anxiety. Changes in exercise routines because of the pandemic can also contribute to health issues, said Aiyer.

“Wearing red sends a message we are all in this together,” he said. “It’s a small symbol that can have a big impact.”

Just like Leo’s red dress pin.

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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