Making the case for better health in public housing

By American Heart Association News

Marcella Roberts, whose efforts to build heart-healthy public housing won her the American Heart Association's Louis B. Russell Jr. award in June. (Photo by Tim Sharp for AHA)
Heart disease became personal when Marcella Roberts was diagnosed with high blood pressure. Her efforts to build heart-healthy public housing won her the American Heart Association's Louis B. Russell Jr. Award in June. (Photo by Tim Sharp for AHA)

As an attorney and vice president of a real estate firm, Marcella Roberts makes decisions based on data — cold, hard facts. But the stats about heart disease in women didn’t become real for her until it became personal.

Two years ago, while attending the American Heart Association’s flagship meeting, Scientific Sessions, Roberts had her blood pressure taken. It read an alarming 195/110. (Put in perspective, blood pressure under 120/80 is considered normal.)

“The lady at the booth said, ‘Something must be wrong.’ So, I put my arm in it again and it said the same thing,” Roberts said.

Sitting and resting, and then relaxing with a chair massage, didn’t change the results. Roberts ended up in the emergency room — a trip that would ultimately change her lifestyle and galvanize her efforts to help communities get healthier in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

Roberts was honored last month with the AHA’s Louis B. Russell, Jr. award for her outstanding service to minority and underserved populations. The award’s namesake was an African-American man and the 34th person to undergo a heart transplant, surviving more than six years — a world record in the 1970s.

After Roberts’ ER trip, she started taking blood pressure medication, hit the gym and cleared her cupboards of junk food, dropping 30 pounds in 90 days. She also started volunteering for the AHA’s awareness movement for women’s heart and brain health, Go Red For Women.

Even before her risk for heart disease skyrocketed because of high blood pressure, Roberts was no stranger to this devastating disease.

She had witnessed the deaths of three friends younger than 50 from heart attack and heart failure. It’s no coincidence that they were all black because, as Roberts now knows, 48 percent of black women 20 and older have heart disease. Over 50,000 die annually of cardiovascular conditions.

“I am even more determined to educate African-American women, my own family and the community at large about heart disease and how it can be prevented,” said Roberts, whose father died of congestive heart failure.

Roberts, whose firm specializes in affordable housing, knows that factors such as housing, transportation, food access, street safety and proximity to medical care impact heart disease, the leading cause of death in the world.

Those factors, collectively known as “social determinants of health,” have not traditionally been thought of by many as heart-health issues. But Roberts knows addressing them is important to help people live in healthier environments.

“I structure deals that prioritize and redevelop public housing and create quality, decent, affordable housing for low- to moderate-income families,” she said. “Most of these families live in food deserts with no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Many are smokers, have uncontrolled hypertension, have not seen a doctor in years and don’t exercise.”

As chair of the Greater Southeast Affiliate Multicultural Committee, she led a pilot program focused on affordable housing. Nearly 1,000 residents have received health education and almost 300 housing units are smoke-free, while community gardens are springing up.

“It touches my heart when they realize the impact smoking has on their children and when they understand they really can cook healthy meals on a limited budget,” Roberts said.

“I’m doing what I was called to do,” she said. “My purpose is to empower people to overcome obstacles. My only regret is that I didn’t start this journey sooner."

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