Congenital heart defects

48 years later, UK heart patient continues to thrive

Sonja Embry

Childhood photo of Sonja Embry

Sonja Embry was born with a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot. It’s a condition known as “Blue Baby Syndrome,” because valve defects and holes in the heart cause oxygen-poor blood to pump into the body, giving kids and infants with the condition blue-tinged skin.

Embry’s condition prevented her from having a normal childhood. She was often so tired that neighbors carried her to her one-room school every day.

At the time of Embry’s birth, most children with the condition did not survive to adulthood because no surgical procedure existed to repair the defects.

But Sonja did survive, and in 1969 at the age of 24, she underwent a new surgical procedure at the University of Kentucky to repair her heart defects. She went on to secretarial school and enjoyed a long career with the Department of the Navy in Washington D.C. and Memphis. At 71, she leads an active life and still drives to and from her home in Memphis to Western Kentucky to visit family and friends.

She is believed to be one of the oldest living patients with this defect.

Four decades of comprehensive treatment for heart defects

Now, nearly 50 years after Embry’s surgery, the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute is a leader in providing comprehensive, personalized care for adults born with congenital heart defects.

Adults born with heart defects face unique challenges. They outgrow their pediatric cardiologists, but their heart problems can be very different from cardiac conditions that begin during adulthood.

The Kentucky Adult Congenital Heart Program (KACH) at Gill is led by Dr. Andrew Leventhal and is the only such program in Central and Eastern Kentucky.

Unlike when Sonja needed treatment and follow-up care, adult patients with congenital heart defects can now turn to the KACH Program for lifelong care of their conditions.


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When Jason Conn developed a heart infection, he needed a cardiologist that could provide advanced care. So he turned to the Gill Heart & Vascular Institute.

Team of experts at UK returns heart patient to his first love: restoring vintage cars

By his 13th birthday, Jason Conn had undergone three open-heart surgeries to repair his deformed bicuspid valve.

While he was cleared to enjoy typical childhood activities like skateboarding and bike riding, he was not allowed to play organized sports.

“My biggest disappointment was when my cardiologist told me that I probably couldn’t be a race car driver,” the Ohio native says with a smile.

Conn, now 41, was declared “cured” by his cardiologist and had, by his own account, a normal young adult life with few health problems. Eventually he moved to Lexington where he is now in his 11th year as a UK employee in the College of Agriculture  and began a lifelong love affair restoring vintage cars and motorcycles.

However, Dr. Andrew Leventhal, director of the Kentucky Adult Congenital Heart Program (KACH) at the Gill Heart & Vascular Institute, cautions that no one with a congenital heart defect is technically “cured.”

“Almost all congenital heart defect repairs should be followed by a cardiologist for a lifetime,” Leventhal said.

Conn learned this the hard way.

From sick days to something more serious

In late 2015, Conn developed a cough and fatigue that persisted all winter despite multiple rounds of antibiotics. By March, he could hardly muster the energy to walk the block from his house to the shop where he works behind Commonwealth Stadium.

“I had been losing weight, but at the time I didn’t think much about it,” he said. “When I went back and looked, I realized that I had been taking a lot of sick days.”

When Conn developed chest and abdominal pain, he came to UK Good Samaritan Hospital and mentioned his prior medical history to Leesa Schwarz, the KACH nurse practitioner. Schwarz alerted Leventhal, who ordered an echocardiogram to assess the structure and function of Conn’s heart.

“The echo revealed an abscess on Jason’s aortic valve, which explained why he was still having fevers despite repeated rounds of antibiotics,” Leventhal explained.

Conn had developed endocarditis – an infection of the heart’s inner lining. People with damaged heart valves, artificial heart valves or other heart defects are prone to endocarditis, and it can have deadly consequences, including stroke, organ damage and/or heart failure. In Conn’s case, he had an infarcted spleen, brain aneurysms and emboli in his foot causing nerve damage.

Leventhal knew that Conn needed a cardiologist with a keen clinical sense and an understanding of the complexities that his condition presented. He immediately called Gill Heart and Vascular Institute colleague Dr. Hassan Reda, an experienced surgeon who specializes in the treatment of diseased aortic valves, including congenital conditions.

In a 15-hour marathon surgery, Reda removed the infected tissue from around Conn’s heart and restored aortic valve function with a donor valve.

“Jason’s condition required a complicated, multistep team approach, including a skilled neurointerventionalist to treat his infected brain aneurysms, a delicate fourth-time reconstruction of the aortic root and attentive ICU and nursing care,” Reda said. “This sort of teamwork is a routine occurrence at the Gill.”

‘I can’t imagine a better place to be’

Conn began cardiac rehabilitation immediately after discharge and was back at work by early July.

“I feel terrific,” Conn said. “I’ve gained back all the weight I lost and am strong enough to carry tires and other heavy stuff.”

According to Leventhal, adults who were born with heart defects face unique challenges.

“It wasn’t that long ago that children with heart defects didn’t survive to adulthood,” he said. “Technical advances in cardiac surgery have improved outcomes dramatically, but that presents a new issue: Patients who reach adulthood have outgrown their pediatric cardiologists and the facilities that provide treatment – typically children’s hospitals. But simply transitioning to an adult cardiologist isn’t the best fit either, since their heart problems can be very different from cardiac conditions that begin during adulthood.”

Leventhal is among an elite group of cardiologists with special training to recognize and treat the issues that affect adults who have survived with congenital heart defects. He heads a talented group of physicians and staff at Gill’s KACH Program, which draws patients from all over Kentucky and West Virginia.

“People like Jason require a lifetime of follow-up care to ensure that their defect repair is sound,” Leventhal said. “If you had heart surgery as a child, be sure your doctor knows about it, and find a cardiologist who’s trained to help in situations like these.”

Conn calls his recent experience the “ultimate medical detective story” and is grateful that Leventhal was following his case so closely.

“It’s really a miracle,” Conn said. “I get to work here, and I get the best care here. I can’t imagine a better place to be.”

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Fainting

Women who experience a fainting spell should talk with their doctor

Dr. Gretchen Wells

Written by Dr. Gretchen Wells, director of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute’s Women’s Heart Health Program.

Syncope, the medical term for fainting, is not uncommon in women. In fact, more than 40 percent of women will experience a fainting spell at some point in their life. Syncope refers to a temporary loss of consciousness and shouldn’t be confused with dizziness or feeling lightheaded.

The good news is that syncope is usually benign. Most of the time, it occurs in response to a trigger, such as standing too long, overheating or emotional stress. This is known as a vasovagal episode. Individuals with vasovagal syncope may feel lightheaded, have pale and clammy skin, be nauseated, have tunnel vision, feel warm all over, yawn, or have blurred vision before actually losing consciousness. This cause of syncope is best treated with lifestyle modification including adequate hydration.

However, it is important to consult with a physician after experiencing a fainting spell  particularly for patients who are 70 or older, as serious cardiac causes are more common in this age group.

Earlier this month, the American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association and Heart Rhythm Society released the 2017 Guidelines for the Evaluation and Management of Patients with Syncope. If you experience a fainting spell, your cardiologist will follow these updated guidelines in order to evaluate you. Your physician will perform a physical examination and obtain a detailed medical history, which can provide the most reliable information regarding the cause of syncope. An EKG may also be performed to check for problems with the electrical activity of your heart. In older women, risk factors for syncope include atrial fibrillation, heart failure, aortic stenosis and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Participation in competitive sports is generally not recommended for patients experiencing syncope until a serious underlying cause has been excluded.

If you have a serious underlying medical condition (for example, a congenital heart problem) and experience syncope, hospitalization may be necessary, especially if syncope is related to this condition.


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"Broken heart syndrome" is a real diagnosis, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy, and can be caused by a sudden loss, like the death of a loved one.

‘Broken-heart syndrome’ is a real medical diagnosis

Samy-Claude Elayi, MD

Written by Dr. Samy-Claude Elayi, a cardiologist at the UK Gill Heart Institute.

A traumatic event, such as the sudden loss of a job, divorce or the death of a loved one, can cause us to experience overwhelming emotions. The term “broken-hearted” is often used to describe these reactions, but it’s rarely thought of as life-threatening.

However, broken-heart syndrome is a real diagnosis, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The condition is fairly new to researchers, but the recent deaths of a celebrity daughter and mother just one day apart – actresses Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, respectively – has shed new light on the heart condition.

What causes a broken heart?

Broken-heart syndrome is a disruption of the heart’s normal pumping process that leads to heart muscle failure. The condition is thought to be triggered by a surge of hormones.

This surge of hormones can be caused by stressful events such as an unexpected death of a loved one, news of a serious medical diagnosis, domestic abuse, losing or winning a large amount of money, loss of a job, or even a divorce.

The most common symptoms include chest pains and shortness of breath. These symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack, and the two are difficult to tell apart based solely on symptoms.

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is cut off due to clogged coronary arteries. However, unlike a heart attack, the broken-heart syndrome is not related to clogged arteries. Instead, part of the heart temporarily enlarges and is not able to pump efficiently, putting more strain on the other parts of the heart.

Diagnosis and treatment

To determine what is causing the chest pain and shortness of breath, doctors may order a chest X-ray, electrocardiogram, blood test, coronary angiogram or an MRI. Once the chest X-ray and MRI verify the condition of the arteries, the doctor will likely ask if you have experienced any recent stressful events or life occurrences.

Women and individuals with head injuries or seizure disorders are more likely to be affected by broken-heart syndrome. There is no clear reason why, and research is still ongoing. Other risk factors include sexual activity, neurological conditions and psychiatric disorders.

Treatment for the condition is similar to that of patients experiencing a heart attack. Patients are kept in the hospital during recovery and are prescribed angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors or diuretics that reduce the workload of the heart.

Broken-heart syndrome is rarely fatal, and patients typically recover within a month. There are no long-lasting effects and although recurrence is possible, it is highly unlikely. However, if you’ve experienced a traumatic event and have noticed any of these symptoms, check in with your doctor immediately.


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Kick-start your heart health with these nutrition tips

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Kentucky and the nation, accounting for one in every four deaths. Fortunately, there are many things you can do reduce your chances of getting heart disease, starting with a heart-healthy diet.

Foods to eat

To help limit your risk for heart disease and stroke, eat these types of food:

  • Fruits and vegetables. Try to make fruits and veggies at least half of each meal.
  • Whole grains. At least half of your grains should be whole grains. Look for these ingredients: whole wheat, whole oats, oatmeal, whole-grain corn, brown rice, wild rice, whole rye, whole-grain barley, buckwheat, bulgur, millet and sorghum.
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products. These include milk, calcium-fortified soy drinks (soy milk), cheese, yogurt and other milk products.
  • Seafood, skinless poultry, lean meats, beans, eggs and unsalted nuts.

Foods to avoid

Avoid the following ingredients to improve your heart health:

  • Saturated fats. Saturated fat is usually in pizza, ice cream, fried foods, many cakes and cookies, bacon, and hamburgers. Less than 10 percent of your daily calories should be from saturated fats.
  • Trans fats. These are found mainly in commercially prepared baked goods, snack foods, fried foods and margarine. Choose foods with zero trans fat.
  • Cholesterol. Cholesterol is found in foods made from animals, such as bacon, whole milk, cheese made from whole milk, ice cream, full-fat frozen yogurt and eggs. Fruits and vegetables do not contain cholesterol. Eggs are a major source of dietary cholesterol for Americans, but studies show that eating one egg a day does not increase the risk for heart disease in healthy people. You should eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day.
  • Sodium. Sodium is found in salt, but most of the sodium we eat does not come from salt we add while cooking or at the table. Most of our sodium comes from breads and rolls, cold cuts, pizza, hot dogs, cheese, pasta dishes and condiments (like ketchup and mustard). Limit your daily sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (equal to a teaspoon), unless your doctor recommends something else.
  • Added sugars. Foods like fruit and dairy products naturally contain sugar. But you should limit foods that contain added sugars. These include sodas, sports drinks, cake, candy and ice cream.

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When Lester Walters, a 59 year-old Berea native, had a heart attack, his journey to heart transplantation began. But he first required an artificial heart.

Mechanical heart keeps Berea man living, loving as he waits for transplant

Relaxing in a recliner in the corner of his ICU room, Lester Walters is all smiles. His red hair askew, he casually jokes with his wife and the nurses who come in regularly to check on him. The 59-year-old Berea native is waiting to be listed for a heart transplant, but he’s already one step ahead of most patients on the list – as of Dec. 12, 2016, Walters no longer has a failing heart.

Instead, a special machine has replaced it: the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart, a battery-powered device that contains the same components as a real human heart and serves as a bridge to transplant.

“I feel great,” Walters said, the machine humming and pulsing like an air compressor in the background. “I feel about as good as one can.”

The first sign of heart problems

Walters’ journey toward a transplant began 17 years ago when he suffered a heart attack. Because he was adopted as a child, he had no knowledge of any heart-related medical history that may have been a risk factor. Doctors discovered Walters had atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can cause poor blood flow. He had a pacemaker and an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) installed to “shock” his heart back into a regular rhythm if he experienced a life-threatening arrhythmia.

Walters resumed his normal lifestyle. He retired from Berea College in 2013 after 31 years of service and spent time taking care of his farm in Madison County. Seven years ago, the widower met his second wife, B.J. Pittman, and the two have spent their retirement fishing, raising chickens and gardening.

But by January 2015, his heart problems began to worsen. After a stint in another local hospital and a bacterial infection, he was referred to the UK Gill Heart Institute for more serious treatment. By the time he arrived, his body was swollen from edema – fluid retention caused by poor blood flow, where pressure in the blood vessels increases and fluid is forced from the vessels into body tissues.

Dr. Maya Guglin, medical director of UK’s Mechanical Circulatory Support Program, was the first to see Walters at UK. Her initial course of treatment focused on using medications to eliminate the swelling.

“We treated him with diuretics, beta blockers and other heart-failure medications,” Guglin said. “We managed to stabilize him for many months.”

Three shocks in a row

Then in early December 2016, Walters’ ICD went off once, then twice and then a third time a short while later, which knocked him unconscious. Although Walters had been shocked before – including one memorable time where his son caught him mid-fall and received a shock himself – he’d never experienced three shocks in a row.

Pittman rushed him to UK Chandler Hospital, where he was admitted. Walters had developed ventricular tachycardia (VT), a regular but very fast heart rate caused by improper electrical activity in the heart ventricles. The VT became incessant – a “VT storm,” as Guglin describes it – and his ICD ultimately shocked him 21 times over the course of a single day. Despite two alcohol ablations to attempt to kill off the misfiring heart cells, Walters’ heart was simply too damaged and scarred for the procedure to work.

He needed a heart transplant, but he was far too sick to survive one. The team placed Walters on ECMO, a treatment that provides support for patients with extreme cardiac and respiratory failure, to stabilize his condition.

Most patients with end-stage heart failure like Walters would then receive a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), a mechanical device that helps the heart pump blood throughout the body and allows the patient the chance to recover and gain back their strength. But in Walters’ case, the LVAD wasn’t enough.

“The LVAD was not an appropriate option in this case because of the VT,” said UK cardiothoracic transplant surgeon Dr. Alexis Shafii. “It could help his circulation, but it wouldn’t stop the electrical problem with his heart.”

The solution: Go ahead and remove the heart.

A bridge to transplant

On Dec. 13, Shafii performed the surgery to install the Total Artificial Heart in Walters, making him just the fourth patient at UK to receive the device as a bridge to transplant.

After the weeks of rapid deterioration leading up to his emergency hospital visit, Walters was blunt about his expectations going into surgery.

“I expected to die,” he said.

But the surgery went well.

“He immediately had a better color,” Pittman said.

From there, it was just a matter of time and work to regain his strength. Walters spent 10 weeks in the cardiovascular ICU, carefully monitored by Shafii and ICU staff. With the Total Artificial Heart keeping his heart rate at a steady 125 beats per minute for optimal blood flow, Walters soon began walking with the rolling power supply for his Total Artificial Heart, called the Companion 2 hospital driver, and an entourage of nurses in tow.

At first, he could only make it to the door of his room before needing to return to bed. But as the weeks went on, he worked his way up to twice-daily laps around the ICU.

“Starting out, it was really tough,” Walters said. “But I got to where I could walk a little more each day.”

Taking it ‘one day at a time’

In early February, he was stable enough to be switched to the Freedom portable driver, a smaller, wearable power supply for the Total Artificial Heart. The Freedom driver can be carried in a small backpack or shoulder bag and allows the patient to leave the hospital while they wait for a donor heart. Because of his progress, Walters was moved down to the cardiovascular telemetry unit, with hopes of being both listed for a transplant and discharged soon.

Dr. Navin Rajagopalan, medical director of heart transplantation at UK, notes that Walters’ steady improvement is a testament not only to his personal strength, but that of Pittman, who has been her husband’s rock through it all.

“Mr. Walters has made tremendous progress in the weeks following surgery,” Rajagopalan said. “It’s a testament to his strong determination and courage. But his wife has also been by his side every step of the way, providing encouragement and optimism, which has helped him in his recovery.”

And on this day, when the heart is on the minds of people across the country, Walters marks it as just another day in the journey that began with his initial heart attack 17 years ago. He and Pittman try not to think too far ahead, but focus on living in the present.

“I just take it one day at a time,” he said.

Media inquiries: Allison Perry, UK Public Relations, allison.perry@uky.edu.


See Lester Walters talk about his journey toward heart transplantation.


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Dr. Gretchen Wells writes a lot of prescriptions and orders a lot of tests. But she says the most rewarding thing she dispenses is hope.

Video: Dr. Gretchen Wells talks hearts and her passion for women’s health

Dr. Gretchen Wells writes a lot of prescriptions and orders a lot of tests. But the most rewarding thing she dispenses is hope, she says. As director of the Women’s Heart Heath Program at the UK Gilll Heart & Vascular Institute, she helps Kentucky women enjoy longer, fuller lives with healthy hearts.

In Kentucky, the mortality rate from heart disease is among the nation’s highest, and Wells understands that in the fight against women’s heart issues, prevention is especially important. There are other issues to tackle as well, she says, including:

  • The biology of heart disease is different in men than in women, so new ways of detection and treatment need to be explored to address those differences.
  • More women are surviving breast cancer only to develop heart problems relatedto chemotherapy.
  • Young women with pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia are at higher risk for heart disease later in life.

All of these and more are what bring Wells to the office every day. She spends her time collaborating across campus to establish testing, identify biomarkers and explore treatments tailored specifically to the needs of women with heart disease.

But Wells says the best part of her job is developing relationships with her patients. “They teach me about family, they teach me about forgiveness and they teach me about love,” she says.

Watch the video below to see why Wells says “the best is yet to come for the women of Kentucky.”


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10 things to know about women's heart health

Top 10 things to know about women’s heart health

By Dr. Gretchen Wells, director of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute’s Women’s Heart Health Program.

Dr. Gretchen Wells

Dr. Gretchen Wells

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, but it often goes unnoticed until it’s too late. Part of that comes from the fact that women’s hearts are different from men’s in certain ways, which can affect the way women develop heart disease and experience heart attack symptoms.

People assume all heart attacks feel like a crushing in the chest, but often, and for women in particular, the symptoms of a heart attack can be quite different. That’s why it’s so important to teach women what to look for and how to take the best care of their hearts.

Check out my top 10 list of things women should know about their hearts, and be sure to listen to an interview I did recently about heart health below!

1. Know your symptoms

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
  • As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
  • If you’re having symptoms, call 911!

2. Quit smoking. Just do it. You know you should. UK HealthCare has resources to help you quit. Check them out.

3. “Waist it.” Watch what you eat! Women have an increased risk of heart attack if their waist circumference is big.

4. Move it! The Nurses’ Health Study demonstrated that women who exercise (brisk walking) 30 minutes five out of seven days a week reduce their risk of a heart attack by 50 percent.

5. Know your numbers! Know your blood glucose (sugar), cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. If these are abnormal, talk to your healthcare provider about ways to improve them.

6. Don’t be sweet! If you’re diabetic, get treatment. This is a far greater risk factor in women than in men.

7. And while we’re at it – treat your blood pressure, too.

8. Talk to your doctor about whether or not you should be taking an aspirin (or any other medications for that matter). Women over the age of 65 should take a daily aspirin for prevention. The recommendations vary in other groups.

9. Don’t worry, be happy! The type-A personality has been strongly associated with heart attacks in men, and we’re learning more about optimism and positivity in women.

10. Call your mother (that’s my mother’s suggestion). Find out from her about your family history. Heart disease runs in families. Find out exactly what type of heart disease your family has and discuss it with your doctor.


Dr. Wells was recently interviewed on Behind the Blue, the University of Kentucky’s podcast. She was joined by Gail Cohen, a patient who experienced firsthand the dangers of undetected heart disease. Listen below to hear Gail’s story as well as tips from Dr. Wells about how you can improve your heart health.


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Meet Dr. Susan Smyth, director of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute

Making the RoundsOur latest Making the Rounds interview features Dr. Susan Smyth, medical director of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute. Dr. Smyth is a researcher and physician focused on treating patients with bleeding and clotting disorders.

What do you enjoy most about being a heart doctor?

The field of cardiology is just extraordinary. It’s incredibly rewarding to be part of a field that has done so much for our society and to every day be thinking about, “How can we do this better? How can we keep people out of the hospital? How can we make them live longer? How can we make them feel better? How can we get rid of their suffering?” To be able to translate something that we observe in a clinical study to a patient and make their lives better is incredibly rewarding.

Why is research such an important part of your job?

The thing that drives me is to think about how we apply the scientific method to alleviating pain and suffering, extending life, and promoting health. How can we apply the knowledge that we have today so that we can improve tomorrow what we’re doing for folks across the United States?

What do you want patients to know about the care team at Gill?

We have a phenomenal care team at the University of Kentucky. We have staff whose entire job is to be there for the patient, for the family member and for the loved one and to support them throughout their journey.

Know that when you come here, you will be surrounded by a team that is dedicated to taking care of you.

Tell us about your interest in women’s heart health.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, and a lot of people don’t realize that. As a female cardiologist, it’s something that’s very close to my heart and a lot of my patients’ hearts, and we do have a very large focus on women’s heart health at Gill.

Another thing that I’m passionate about is trying to get more women in medicine and science in general. We do not have enough female cardiologists. Less than 15 percent of the cardiologists in the United States are female. That’s a number that needs to change. And so while we think about how we can improve heart health in women, I also want to encourage women to consider this as a career because I can’t think of a more rewarding specialty to go into.

You were born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Do you root for the Wildcats or the Tar Heels?

I am a native North Carolinian but I changed colors of blue when I moved to Kentucky. I continue to bleed blue, but it’s a little bit darker now than when I was younger. I have been in Kentucky for a little over 10 years and I cheer for the Wildcats, much to my mom’s chagrin!


Watch our video interview with Dr. Smyth, where she talks more about the types of conditions she treats and what patients can expect when they come to Gill.


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The celebration of women's heart health in Albert B. Chandler hospital featured giveaways, prizes and simple tips to make your diet more heart-healthy.

‘Gill Goes Red’ shares treats and tips in celebration of Heart Month

Kate Breeden closed her eyes as she took a bite, trying to concentrate on the flavors of the food she was sampling.

“Well, it’s definitely a brownie,” she said, “but I have no idea what the mystery ingredient is. Maybe carob instead of chocolate. Or dates? But I’m not 100 percent sure to be honest.”

Breeden was among dozens of women – and a few men – gathered on Feb. 3 to launch American Heart Month at UK with “Gill Goes Red.”

The celebration of women’s heart health in the Pavilion A atrium of Albert B. Chandler hospital featured giveaways, prizes, and simple tips and substitutions to make your diet more heart-healthy. But the most popular attraction? Free samples of tasty treats with a “secret ingredient” that made each treat more heart-friendly.

Taking baby steps to better heart health

“Every New Year, thousands of people resolve to eat healthier and lose weight, but lose their momentum within a few weeks and return to their old habits,” said Dr. Gretchen Wells, director of the Women’s Heart Health Program at the UK Gill Heart Institute, and one of the day’s speakers. “We encourage people to take baby steps to improve their diet as a long-term path to healthier eating and better heart health.”

Vanessa Oliver, a dietitian with the UK’s Health and Wellness program, shared with the audience her tips for making foods more nutrient-rich as a way to take those baby steps.

“Women’s risk of heart attack has been directly related to waist circumference,” Oliver said. “Making an effort to enhance the quality of the choices you make can be an effective way to reduce waist circumference without a sense of self-denial.”

Oliver suggested a few simple changes that can help achieve that goal, including eating brightly colored foods (usually fruits or vegetables) instead of “white” or “beige” foods, increasing dietary fiber by choosing whole grains over processed ones, and reducing sugar intake, particularly from sodas and fancy coffee drinks, which contain large amounts of “hidden” sugars.

“One of the best ways to start making those changes is to keep a food journal, either by writing it down, using an app or even taking a picture,” Oliver said. “Doing so can help you be aware of what you’re eating and identify places where you can make changes.”

The secret ingredients

At the end of the program, the secret ingredient for each treat was announced to a chorus of laughter and exclamations of surprise.

Jennifer Vissing, the nurse coordinator for the Gill’s Structural Heart Program, correctly guessed that the brownie’s secret ingredient was black beans.

“Black beans provide extra fiber and complex carbohydrates, which can improve blood cholesterol levels ” Oliver said. “The brownies are made with applesauce and blueberries as well, reducing the amount of refined sugar and adding a dash of antioxidants.”

The prize for correctly guessing that the chocolate chip “cookie dough” was actually a form of hummus went to Maria Kraemer, a postdoc in the Saha Cardiovascular Research Center.

“Chickpeas are a more complex carbohydrate than the white flour in traditional cookie dough, which makes you feel fuller longer,” Oliver said. “On top of that, the recipe is much lower in fat than the real thing, since it contains no butter or eggs.”

The granola was the true mystery treat, and no one was able to guess its secret ingredient.

“Most granolas are made with a lot of oil, which greatly increases fat content,” Oliver explained. “This granola is made with made with egg whites instead of oil.”

‘One of many ways’ to improve nutrition

Oliver reminded attendees that portion size is also important.

“You should be able to indulge every once in a while, and these are wonderful options, but even black bean brownies aren’t healthy if you eat half a pan,” she said. “Think of these as one of many ways you can improve nutrition for you and your family.”

Vissing, like many of the participants, voiced her enthusiasm for the day’s events.

“I really enjoyed learning more about how to make anything healthier, and it was fun,” she said.

Wells was pleased that attendees came away from the day with some real information to help them live healthier lives.

“We wanted to have fun, we wanted to celebrate women and we wanted to empower women to make changes in their lifestyle,” Wells said. “I think Gill Goes Red 2017 achieved all three.”

If you want to make these treats at home, the brownie recipe comes from Forks Over Knives, the granola recipe comes from Epicurious and the “Cookie Faux” hummus recipe comes from The Wannabe Chef.


Check out video footage and pictures from the event.

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