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Olympian helps get word out about hypertension


Nine years ago high blood pressure killed Barbara McKinney's parents. Four years ago, it took her sister.

Now the 41-year-old Lexington Terrace resident is suffering from hypertension, or high blood pressure, a disease that afflicts many in her West Baltimore community. Like others, she finds it DTC difficult to control her illness, which untreated can lead to heart disease and strokes.

"We'd like to be on a nutritious diet but that's not feasible on a fixed income," said Ms. McKinney, whose high blood pressure was diagnosed four years ago. Despite her doctor's orders to reduce salt and fat intake, she continues her regimen of eggs and bacon, fried chicken and seasoned salt. She says, for now, she hopes the medication her doctor gives her will be enough to control her blood pressure.

For doctors, Ms. McKinney's situation is equally frustrating. That's why the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the state health department are collaborating on an effort to "Strike Out Stroke" in West Baltimore neighborhoods.

Yesterday the university invited three-time Olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith-Joyner to speak to youth at Lexington Terrace Elementary School on using fitness as a way to prevent heart disease. Later the track star gave a talk at a physicians' conference on ways to deal with people who don't understand how or why to avoid hypertension.

"My main purpose is prevention -- to inspire as many Americans as we can to eat healthy," said Ms. Griffith-Joyner to an audience of 50 doctors who practice in the West Baltimore area. "The problem in the African-American community is that the information is not getting into the community."

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer in Maryland, according to recent surveys by the state health department, which is giving the university $250,000 to study and combat the disease in West Baltimore.

"If you look at Baltimore City and compare it with other counties in the state, it leads in cardiovascular disease and the bad outcomes" that result, said Dr. David Stewart, director of the university's initiative.

Through a series of interviews in a five zip-code area, the group has attempted to examine why the city has higher rates of hypertension and its complications, using West Baltimore as a research site. A picture is emerging of a community in which few can afford medical insurance. As a result, many only see doctors on an emergency basis.

The community is also predominantly black, and research has shown that African-Americans are more likely to suffer from hypertension and its fatal complications.

"There is a big gap between what they do know and what they do," said Dr. Stewart, referring to the fact that people often do not respond to doctors' warnings.

"I had a patient yesterday who has hypertension, who smokes two packs a day, is obese and drinks lots of coffee. But she says she feels good," recounted Dr. Vimala Philipose, a nurse practitioner at Open Gates Health Center, 920 Washington Blvd. "But hypertension is a silent killer. We have to teach them that even if they feel good, even young people have strokes."

Dr. Elijah Saunders, head of the medical school's hypertension division, said doctors must understand "some of the ethnic and cultural differences if their background is not of the people they are treating."

To help patients change their "ingrained ethnic diets," he said, doctors should offer creative substitutes. "We believe there are some diets and menus that can eliminate fat and that keep within tastes," he said.

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