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Uniontown's annual walk for heart health draws hundreds, raises thousands

| Monday, Oct. 8, 2012, 12:02 a.m.
Penn State Fayette, the Eberly Campus, hosted the American Heart Association Annual 5K Heart Walk on Saturday morning battling the damp conditions. Harley (left) and Austin Ritz of Uniontown listen to opening speeches as their 1-year-old boxer, Dixie, sports her matching T-shirt. Lori C. Padilla | For the Daily Courier oct 2012
Four-year-old Wyatt Fee gets ready to cut the ribbon to kick off the American Heart Association's Annual Heart Walk on Saturday at Penn State Fayette, the Eberly Campus. With him are his cousin Hannah Albrecht (behind him) and his mother Molly Fee (right) holding his 1-year-old brother Marshall. The Fees are the spokes family for the local American Heart Association branch. Marshall was born the same day as the 2011 Heart Walk with a heart defect which required surgery the following day. Lori C. Padilla | For the Daily Courier oct 2012

Dr. Muhammed Raza, interventional cardiologist at the Uniontown Hospital, wants to educate the Fayette County community about the alarming rate of cardiovascular disease and what steps can be taken to prevent it.

That's why he agreed to serve as chairman of the American Heart Association's Heart Walk held Saturday at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, in North Union Township, where approximately 350 people attended and an estimated $40,000 was raised to fund critical research and educational programs.

“We believe that improving cardiovascular health in Fayette County is one of the hospital's goals,” Raza said just moments before the walk began. “Over the years, the Uniontown Hospital has developed a great affiliation with the American Heart Association. We work together to jointly provide services and education to county residents.”

Fayette County has one of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in Pennsylvania, according to Raza.

“To maintain cardiovascular health, we want people to know that they need to exercise and eat a healthy diet,” he said. “We encourage people to walk because physical activity is the way to stay healthy.”

Agreeing was Karen Colbert, director of communications for the American Heart Association's Great Rivers Affiliate in Pittsburgh.

“Studies have shown that walking 30 minutes a day adds two hours to your life,” Colbert said. “Walking is the easiest form of exercise and has the lowest dropout rate. You can walk anywhere and you don't need to buy expensive equipment.”

Raza said it's important for Uniontown Hospital and the American Heart Association to continue to work together to raise awareness in the community.

The risk factors of heart disease include obesity, smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, lack of physical activity and poor diet, according to Raza.

Sandy Thorpe, assistant vice president of nursing at the Uniontown Hospital, said about 16 teams from the hospital participated in the Heart Walk. Each one of those teams had about 10 members. Uniontown Hospital and Jamieson Family Markets are the two corporate sponsors of the event.

“The teams are made up of friends and family members of hospital employees,” Thorpe said. “Uniontown Hospital has a large presence at the Heart Walk every year.”

Sheila Mechling, president of the American Heart Association's Fayette County Division, said she is very active in the nonprofit organization because she realizes the importance of raising money to fight heart disease. Her personal life has been touched by the tragedy of heart disease on many occasions.

“My mother passed away of congestive heart failure four years ago,” Mechling said. “My sister underwent open heart surgery twice. All eight of my brothers and sisters died of heart attacks. My husband, Russ Mechling, underwent heart bypass surgery around the same time my mother died.”

Longtime heart association board member Leda Gismondi, whose husband died of heart disease, encouraged Russ and Sheila Mechling to become involved.

“After that, I was hooked,” Mechling said. “I'm going to serve as the Heart Ball chair again this year. Fayette County has one of the highest cardiovascular disease rates in the state. We want to get the word out. We're here to spread information. We want people to change their lifestyles.”

Marshall Fee, who just celebrated his first birthday, served as the 2012 Fayette County Heart Walk spokesperson.

His mother, Molly Fee, a Colorado native who now lives in Smock, said Marshall was born with congenital heart disease.

“Marshall was born with half of a heart,” Molly Fee said. “He underwent two heart surgeries by the time he was 3 months old. We didn't find out until he was born. We had no awareness of congenital heart disease.”

Fee said she feels very honored to have an opportunity to tell the story about her baby's disease and to help spread the word about the importance of the American Heart Association.

“Babies like Marshall might not have survived without the fundraising efforts of the American Heart Association,” Colbert said.

Cindy Ekas is a freelance writer.

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