Aiding the cause of a healthy lifestyle

The South Asian Heart Center, backed by volunteers, leaders, donors – and scientific evidence – raises $348,000 for its work

Ritu Jha

Meghali Singhal was 12 when her father underwent an open-heart surgery. But the impact that indelible memory had on her drives her even now, at 16, to volunteer to teach people a heart-healthy lifestyle at the South Asian Heart Center (SAHC) in El Camino Hospital, California.

March 17, during the annual gala to benefit SAHC, the fundraising event that raised more than $348,000 to support the center’s work, Singhal told indica about her experiences and how the center’s STOP-D program has got young high schoolers to join and benefit from the program.

Meghali Singhal (R) with Eshaa Gajrawala.

Speaking about the surgery of her father, then in his forties, Singhal said, “It was shocking. I was old enough to understand what was happening [but] people were trying to [comfort me]. I was aware what was happening. The hardest thing was seeing my dad recover and it hit me and this was life-changing surgery.” Singhal, 23, who earned an undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, goes off to the University of Pittsburgh this July to study medicine.

For now, Singhal coaches five people every day through a newly adopted program called “STOP-D: Stop Diabetes before it starts.”

STOP-D has been shown to reduce the incidence of diabetes by 58 percent and is aimed at helping South Asians who are pre-diabetic and at imminent risk of developing the disease.

“The mission of the center is something never dies down and has propelled me and how these statistics of diabetes and heart disease continue to grow and it’s growing at such exponential rate among South Asian population and I feel so passionate about,” Singhal said, adding that SAHC definitely prepared her for a career in medicine while also helping her strengthen her resolve and ability to interact with people.

Singhal said that while her work is challenging because she could not compel anyone to follow her evidence-based advice, she still desperately wanted them to appreciate heart-healthy behavior, and use the advantage of a 10-minute after-dinner walk, adding a few extra vegetables to their diet, or getting some extra sleep.

Ashish Mathur, co-founder and executive director of the South Asian Heart Center.

“We are trying to think outside the box and work with the participants to find those areas they can improve upon – making them aware of the little pockets that they weren’t aware of,” Singhal said.

She said in the past five years, more young people – those in their 20s and 30s – were on the rise, thanks to their reputation being passed on through word of mouth, with some noting that the fact that some family members got the disease made them appreciate that there was a possible genetic component.

But the challenges include the case of, say, Eshaa Gajrawala’s father, who last year suffered a heart attack but is still reluctant to join the program.

Gajrawala, 18, also a volunteer at SAHC and who is pursuing a career in public health, told indica she got interested because of the huge problem of diabetes in the South Asian community.

“The change comes when the whole family is involved,” she said and went on to describe her father’s struggle with the issue.

“He is not a part of the program yet and still considering it. That’s because it’s difficult for him to realize that he really needs to make a change. He has no rasmalai or gulab jamun for two weeks and then he eats deep fried food. He is aware [of what he needs to do] but doesn’t want to,” Gajrawala said, adding that she hoped he will someday.

She says that some people come in to enroll in the program not because they believe in it but it was among their doctor’s recommendations.

Entrepreneur Munjal Shah, a keynote speaker at the gala, quizzed the attendees on how much they knew about aspects of a healthy lifestyle.

“We tell them, the doctors have been telling but have you followed [their advice] and made changes, and most people come up short. Through our program, we don’t just make you realize there is a problem, but that we are providing accountability…” According to the volunteers, many of those who sign up start reluctantly but most of them like the fact that the center provides them with an individualized plan instead of a standard regimen.

That is helpful, given that a recent study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University suggests that diabetes may actually be the third leading cause of death in the US.

Since 2006, the center has enrolled more than 7,800 participants in its culturally appropriate AIM to Prevent (addressing both heart disease and diabetes) and STOP-D programs. It has reached out to more than 3,000 physicians and 80,000 community members and published its findings in peer-reviewed journals. It has satellite offices in Fremont and Los Gatos in California.

Sujatha Suresh, 52, an SAHC board member, herself a diabetic, told indica that her father died of diabetes. She joined the center because she decided that a healthy lifestyle mattered.

“It has changed my life and now I work out every day and eat healthy food and it makes a difference. It creates a confidence and you feel you own the world,” said Suresh who joined the center 14 years ago and added, “I think diabetes is the gateway to heart disease and that is why they started the STOP- D program.”

“We were more focused on cardiovascular health and thought that is important but I think stop-D is what’s going to stop,” Suresh believes.

Ashish Mathur, co-founder and executive director of the South Asian Heart Center at El Camino Hospital, however, now have decided to reach South Asian by knocking the corporate doors. He announced of partnering with Bristlecone, a San Jose based IT company told indica, “We always have worked with the community and one on one [with people]; we have recently started corporate outreach with 100 employees.”

This effort, he said, is not just focused on South Asians but to create awareness all over.

“But we want to target companies that have a large South Asian employee base,” said Mathur.

The center offers aid on the phone or over Skype, no matter in which US state you reside.

Also present at the gala was California Assemblymember Ash Kalra and Congressman Ro Khanna. Vivek H Murthy, the 19th surgeon general of the United States, sent a commendation letter and congratulatory message in a video along with a letter of commendation.

Kalra and Khanna honored Mathur with certificates of recognition for outstanding work in reducing heart disease and diabetes among South Asians.

In a brief speech, Khanna said that a bi-partisan bill introduced by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, if passed, would help the National Institute of Health to fund research addressing heart disease and its prevention in South Asians.

He said he is working with Jayapal on this bill because, in his words, “South Asian Heart Center is a model of what the country needs to do.”


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