The pastor kept repeating a biblical phrase: "Above all else, guard your heart." But, seated with the congregation, the mother of Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps knew how easy it was to lose focus on the maintenance of her own beating heart.

Raising Michael and her two daughters, directing an education foundation, writing a book — Debbie Phelps' life has been rich with meaningful pursuits.

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But, like many women attending "Red Dress Sunday" heart disease awareness events at scores of area churches, Phelps said she was prone to making poor health decisions in the swirl of myriad career and family obligations.

"I knew that for years and years I had taken care of my three children and I always put myself on the back burner," Phelps, 63, said in an interview. "I needed to stop and take a look at who I was, and I was borderline in so many [health] categories that I thought, 'Wait a minute, I need to stand back and take a look at how I'm exercising, how I'm eating and what I'm doing.'"

Red Dress Sunday is an annual, faith-based collaboration of 180 churches that was started 11 years ago by St. Agnes Hospital. Its purpose is to educate women about the risk of heart disease, which, according to the hospital, kills more women in the city than all forms of cancer combined.

"The goal was to figure out a way to reach the masses," said Tracy Fitzgerald, Red Dress Sunday's project manager. "Heart disease is more prevalent in the African-American community. So we said, 'Let's go out to the churches.'"

On the national level, the American Heart Association staged its own "National Wear Red Day" on Friday, promoting healthy diets and exercise. February is American Heart Month.

On Sunday, women at area churches wore red dresses, hats, pants, jackets, sweaters and high-heels. Some men also wore red jackets.

Wanda Williams, 56, a St. Agnes medical assistant, wore a red dress to Mount Olive Holy Evangelist Church in West Baltimore. She said women are often so busy tending to others that they neglect themselves. "We keep going and going — we absorb like sponges — but we fail to protect ourselves," she said.

After the service was over, many women participated in a health fair in a Mount Olive meeting room to get information about heart disease. Among those attending was congregant Denise Johnson, 50, who got her blood pressure checked on the spot.

The York, Pa., resident said she has been diagnosed as being at risk for diabetes and is "very much on board" with the day's message of encouraging health awareness.

Phelps wore a bright-red jacket to the Mount Olive service, which was also attended by U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and other elected officials.

Phelps, the director of the Education Foundation, which provides funds for Baltimore County public schools, said she began to pay closer attention to her dietary choices in 2012.

She participated that year in a fashion event in New York designed to promote heart health. She walked down a runway in a long red dress, leaning down to kiss Michael, who was in the audience.

"Women really focus on breast cancer, and that's a very important part of our lives. But when you talk about heart health and stroke, that is No. 1. We need to do things for us in order for us to get back to our kids and our grandchildren later on," she said.

Phelps has been promoting a 60-minute program at the Women's Heart Center at St. Agnes that costs $60 and includes lab work, an electrocardiogram and a consultation.

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She said she is fortunate to be healthy today.

So is Wanda Payton, 50, a social services case manager for the city who suffered a massive heart attack in December and had a stent inserted to keep a coronary artery open.

The whole experience, she told the Mount Olive congregation, was marked by disbelief.

"I'm only 50 years old," she remembered thinking. "I'm not supposed to have a heart attack. Through the grace of God, I survived this. I'm not taking my life for granted anymore."

Payton said she had attended Red Dress Day events in past years but didn't connect the message to her own health.

She was wearing a brand-new red dress on Sunday. She said that she has lost weight since her heart attack because she is paying closer attention to her diet.

"I'm eating healthy now so I had to get a new size," she said with a broad smile on her face.

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