Holy, Healing and Heart Healthy

Red Dress Sunday at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland

by Mary Boland

Heart disease often flies under the radar of self-diagnosis. A slew of other health problems easily could cause shortness of breath, back pain, nausea and jaw pain. Maybe you took those stairs a little too quickly. Maybe you pulled a muscle at the gym. Maybe stress at work has you clenching your jaw. Or maybe you have heart disease.

Few of us think of heart disease first, but more of us should.

The idea of a man clutching his left arm and sinking to the ground has long been the image associated with a heart attack, but that image is just one in a collage. Despite what the male image implies, heart disease is the number one killer of women as well as men. But that does not have to be the case. More and more movements are happening to bring awareness about the dangers of heart disease into the heart of communities and the heart of congregations.

Red Dress Sunday is one such movement. Started by St. Agnes Hospital of Baltimore, Maryland, in 2004, Red Dress Sunday raises awareness about heart disease through a collaborative event at various congregations in the larger Baltimore area. The event is geared toward women, because it’s a little known fact that one out of three women is affected by heart disease, with African-American women suffering disproportionally from the disease. In the case of the community of southwest Baltimore, rates of premature death from coronary disease are higher than in any other area of the city. Red Dress Sunday was born as a partnership between St. Agnes and three churches that devoted part of their service to heart disease, as well as encouraging the congregants to wear red. Today, over 180 churches located throughout Maryland, Delaware, Florida, Minnesota and Colorado, participate in Red Dress Sunday.

Dr. Sharon Winakur, the medical director of the Women’s Heart Center, has been a part of St. Agnes’s staff since May of 2011. She first spoke at Red Dress Sunday in 2012 and has continued heart health awareness initiatives throughout the year. “Based on the success of Red Dress Sunday, one of our goals became keeping the spirit of the event and the critical messages shared alive all year, not just for one day in February,” she said. This goal led to the creation of the Women’s Heart Center at St. Agnes, which offers women a personalized look at their heart health. Education and regular screenings help not only to treat heart disease but prevent it. While Red Dress Sunday focuses primarily on women’s health, it’s important for men to pay attention, too. The need for having a healthy heart is universal.

The continuing effort to spread the word about preventive measures manifests in the partnership between St. Agnes and the 180 faith communities that participate in Red Dress Sunday. “There are several benefits to this partnership,” Dr. Winakur said. “We know how important faith-based communities are in African-American populations, so we feel that reaching out to churches is an important way to educate and empower women with knowledge about heart disease.” Churches have grown to take individualized ownership of Red Dress Sunday, with each integrating the message in its service with words and music. Congregational life may include health fairs and screenings. While every congregation has a different approach to the service, the overall structure encourages everyone to wear red and devote a part of the service to heart disease.

Each year, the event seems to grow and reach more people, showcasing the true impact that Red Dress Sunday carries. Faith communities are an integral part of so many people’s lives, and as Dr. Winakur noted, “Physical health is so connected with emotional and spiritual health, so integrating these areas [faith and health] makes overall health all the more possible.”

Awareness about heart disease is a worthy mission for any congregation, and any church wishing to join the fight against heart disease and get their own tradition of Red Dress Sunday going can find a number of resources readily available online at RedDressSunday.com.

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