By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In October 1994, at age 47, Claire Blocker suffered a stroke and lost the use of her right side for a year. Four years later, in the hospital recovering from surgery on her left hand after she was bitten by a dog, she had a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery.
She was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, a combination of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes. Typically the result of genetic inheritance and lifestyle, the syndrome can take years to develop, and stress can raise a marker in the blood that shows the arteries and blood are inflamed.
Blocker, who had raised three children as a single mother since her divorce at age 23, had handled logistics for large events at which big national corporations introduced new products.
“I believe the stress of raising three children as a single mom, plus my job, did that to me,” she says.
To try to give people at risk of the syndrome access to resources to help manage it, Blocker in 2003 launched the HeartBright Foundation.
Initially serving 53 women through South Tryon Community Church, the nonprofit now operates with an annual budget of $450,000 and serves 6,300 patients a year.
It generates all its funds through contributions from corporations, foundations and individuals, and also receives $550,000 worth of donated services from clinicians and donated goods such as medicine from pharmaceutical companies.
HeartBright, which sees participants by appointment only, employs four people and provides preventive care through education, and a free clinic staffed by 24 volunteer physicians.
Blocker, who serves as president on a volunteer basis, says anyone who has either cardiovascular disease, hypertension or diabetes is “likely to get the other two if you live long enough.”
In North Carolina, one in three women over age 20 has cardiovascular disease, she says.
To help uninsured and underinsured adults and children cope with the disease, HeartBright serves patients at its free clinic and provides free preventive services, including education about healthy eating and exercise.
And it helps fill a gap in services for patients by helping them get access to medicines they need but cannot afford by working with pharmaceutical companies to donate medicines. The group’s work has been paying off, Blocker says.
In a study in partnership with the Charlotte chapter of the American Heart Association and Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, 120 people with severe hypertension who participated in a 16-week HeartBright program reduced their blood pressure to a normal range, she says.
HeartBright, which counts on contributions from Hendrick Automotive Group, Manheim, Hearst Service Center and Enterprise Corporation, holds two big fundraising events each fall, including a celebrity golf tournament at The Ballentyne Hotel & Lodge that this year netted $48,000, and a party and wine auction at Bonterra Dining & Wine Room that netted $289,000.
And with 20 to 30 new patients referred to it each week by local hospitals, health departments and other agencies, Blocker says, HeartBright is working to generate all the support it can find.
“A lot of people think the components of metabolic syndrome are something that can be fixed,” she says. “They’re not. They can be managed. And that’s what we do.”
The problem, she says, is that people with the disease often lack the resources they need.
“We help them have hope and access to things if they want to,” she says. “We can help you if you want to help yourself, but we can’t do it for you.”