by Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization fighting cardiovascular diseases, including stroke.
In the South Central area of Los Angeles, the Harvard Park neighborhood has long had a reputation as one of the toughest neighborhoods in LA County.
But things are changing. In September, the Los Angeles Police Department placed about 10 more officers in the park itself as an expansion of its Community Safety Partnership. The goal is for their presence alone to help make a difference, with the chance for residents to trust them even more once they get to know them.
My organization, the American Heart Association, got involved, too. We set up a pilot program with the LAPD and the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks that encourages officers and residents to walk together on Saturday mornings, giving them another way to bond. The second and fourth Saturday of each month also include health screenings.
Marcus Whitehead is one of the LAPD officers assigned to Harvard Park. He had so much fun at the inaugural AHA event that he was excited to return the next time. He wandered over to the health screening area and, just for the heck of it, strapped a blood pressure cuff around his arm.
At 34, Whitehead still looked like a guy who’d played college football, even if the uniform might now be a bit snug.
Long shifts and a long commute often resulted in Whitehead eating what he could, when he could. Fried food became a staple in his diet. He drank at least one soda per day. He tried avoiding other sweets, though, because diabetes runs in his family.
Whitehead was a semi-regular at the gym. On good weeks, he went twice, putting in 2.5 miles on a treadmill each time.
He had a physical exam each year and never had a problem with his blood pressure. He had no family history of BP problems, either, but whenever he was at the pharmacy and nobody was using the machine, he liked to check his number. They were always good.
But on this Saturday morning in Harvard Park, the nurse said his BP was 160/130 – well into the danger zone.
It was so out of whack that she waited a few minutes and took it again.
The numbers came out even higher.
The nurse gave Whitehead a quick lesson about the dangers of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, explaining that it ups his risk of heart disease and stroke.
She recommended he watch his diet and get more exercise. Most of all, she recommended he see a doctor.
About 10 days later, Whitehead hadn’t gotten around to a checkup when he felt a mild headache at work. This had been happening from time to time over the past few months and he always figured it was because of the stress at his job. He never thought much of it because medicine always helped.
Only this time, the headache began to pound. He became nauseous and light-headed. He thought he might pass out.
“Then I started to put things together,” he said. “I realized this hypertension thing was probably why my head was always hurting. It all made sense.”
Whitehead went straight to a doctor.