Letting women help themselves

The Baltimore Sun

Connie Hewitt was surprised to learn that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States.

For the past five years, Hewitt has been a volunteer for a women's health conference held by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. After learning that she had nine of 10 common risk factors for heart disease at last year's conference, she lost 45 pounds and started exercising regularly and eating a more healthful diet.

Yesterday, Hewitt -- along with nearly 1,000 other women -- attended "A Woman's Journey," Hopkins' 13th annual conference focusing on women's health issues.

The event, which was held at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, featured 32 hourlong seminars on women's health topics, including breast cancer, bladder control and depression. The seminars were led by Hopkins faculty members.

"It really has touched a need," said Harriet Legum, one of the symposium's co-chairwomen. "It allows the public to come in and talk to these Hopkins doctors."

Women from 14 states, Bermuda and Canada came to Baltimore for the convention, Legum said.

"They're all here for one reason -- to gain knowledge," she said.

Legum, whose interest helped create "A Woman's Journey," said she wanted to start the program after she was diagnosed with breast cancer more than 20 years ago and didn't know what kinds of questions to ask her doctors.

"I did a lot of research, and there wasn't really anything in the community," Legum said.

Hewitt said she hadn't paid close attention to many aspects of her own health until learning that she was at risk of heart disease last year.

"I was always worried about the cancers," she said.

"It's been such a turnaround for me, both physically and mentally," said Hewitt, 62.

Dr. Richard A. Lange, chief of clinical cardiology at the Hopkins medical school, said one reason he enjoys presenting the seminar on women and heart disease is because the illness is often inadequately recognized and treated in women.

"I think it's important to pass that information along to women," Lange said. "They're becoming more proactive about the lifestyle changes."

Legum said although some topics, such as heart disease and memory loss, are popular every year, organizers look for new issues, which is why this year they added a seminar on restless leg syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by pain and involuntary leg movements.

This year's convention also included speakers such as Miss Maryland 2006 Brittany Lietz, who talked about her successful fight against skin cancer, with which she was diagnosed at age 20. Lietz, 22, was the youngest person to ever speak at the convention, organizers said.

Keynote speaker Leslie Mancuso, chief executive officer of JHPIEGO, an international health organization and Johns Hopkins affiliate, spoke about her travels abroad to help improve health care for women around the world. She talked about several trips, including one she took to Indonesia to speak with the country's leaders about improving health services for mothers of newborns.

"To get this many women together to talk about our health and the health of others is a powerful, powerful story," Mancuso said in her speech.

"We're on a journey to let people know we're capable."

Attendees said they enjoy coming to the convention every year because few other events like it exist for women.

"I think it's absolutely wonderful," said Kate Pinson, 46, of Alexandria, Va. This year's convention was the third she's attended.

"It's a sort of rare event. I just keep coming back because there are always new things to choose from," said Pinson, who attended a seminar on global climate change and how it affects women's health. "It's almost an annual fix for me."

Courtenay Hoag, 64, of Baltimore said this was her sixth year attending.

"There's just such a wealth of information," Hoag said. "I think it's the only time you can spend an hour and 15 minutes with a doctor on a particular subject."

Hewitt said one of the best things about the conference is the opportunity it offers for women to think about their own health issues. "Women take their health, lots of times, for granted," Hewitt said.


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