I have a warm heart for our community. As a NEPA native, I’m inspired by the ways The Wright Centers for Community Health and Graduate Medical Education and our larger community have navigated together this unprecedented and very challenging time of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a longtime, passionate primary care provider and medical educator, I am especially proud to be witnessing and experiencing the very best of what I’ve always known about the noble profession of medicine: that the people maintaining the front lines of health care delivery do so for all the right reasons, striving to serve humanity with an abundance of courage, care and compassion, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

With World Heart Day coming up on Sept. 29, it’s important to acknowledge that although we don’t know what the ongoing public health crisis still has in store for us, there is no doubt that taking care of ourselves and each other and promoting cardiovascular health are just as important as ever.

According to the World Heart Federation, cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death on our planet, and its primary causes are all too familiar to our regional community: smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, sedentary lifestyles and obesity. Heart failure — which happens when the heart fails to pump enough blood to the body and brain, resulting in symptoms like breathlessness, fatigue and swollen limbs — affects 26 million worldwide and it is the top cause of hospitalization. Most concerning at this time is that people with underlying conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, are most vulnerable to complications and death from COVID-19.

And yet one of the most troubling trends during the pandemic has been that many patients, including those with cardiovascular issues, have been avoiding routine medical care, preventative immunizations and even foregoing emergency room visits for fear of contracting the novel coronavirus within our healthcare systems.

It’s absolutely critical that we tackle the double-edged threats cardiovascular disease and COVID-19 pose through raising awareness and promoting prevention and early detection, while offering reassurance. As everyone remains vigilant about staying safe and slowing transmission of the virus by wearing face masks, washing their hands frequently and continuing social distancing, I want to make sure the message is loud and clear that your primary care and specialty doctors’ offices and hospital emergency rooms are safe.

Please keep your health care on track, including timely acute and chronic disease management visits and also vaccination and cancer screening prevention services. The risks of undertreated hypertension and diabetes and untreated heart attacks and stroke far outweigh the risks of contacting COVID-19. And in times of cardiovascular troubles like heart attacks or strokes, every second counts.

The biggest keys to fighting cardiovascular disease — education and prevention through healthy lifestyle behaviors — are at the heart of two major Wright Center innovations aimed at enhancing the quality of and lengthening the lives of people in NEPA and across the country.

One is relatively brand new. Our Lifestyle Medicine initiative launched this summer as both a focused field of study for our resident doctors and fellows, as well as a key component of our patient-centered care for all routine clinical visits.

The other initiative is celebrating its 10th anniversary: our pioneering Cardiovascular Disease Fellowship, which launched in response to NEPA’s well-documented cardiovascular health needs under the leadership of Dr. Samir Pancholy, with support from Geisinger, the Wilkes-Barre Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Commonwealth Health System.

Lifestyle Medicine encourages prevention by empowering patients to make better choices. We can look after our hearts and help to prevent cardiovascular disease by eating a healthy diet, saying no to tobacco and other risky substances, and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.

Our Cardiology Fellowship, meanwhile, trains doctors in community-based and hospital settings throughout Lackawanna and Luzerne counties. Over the course of their years in the program, fellows train one-on-one with our globally and nationally recognized, NEPA-based, board-certified cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons. Under our distinguished faculty’s guidance and on rotations through cardiac consultations, cardiac care units, cardiac catheterization and cardiovascular surgeries, our fellows acquire the knowledge and skills needed to provide state-of-the-art cardiac care, all while advancing our regional healthcare delivery system through their research projects and system improvement efforts.

The last decade of our Cardiology fellowship has produced a number of cardiac specialists who have stayed in NEPA to serve our community and to make meaningful contributions to our region’s comprehensive care opportunities.

Celebrate World Heart Day by paying worthy attention to your self care and optimizing your cardiovascular health. Learn more about Lifestyle Medicine and the Million Hearts National Campaign. Most importantly, when you need help, reach out to your doctor and stay connected to other resources within our local health care community.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health as CEO and serves as President of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

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