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NO NORMAL VOLUNTEER

Laine Berry is no normal volunteer. Indeed, she could more accurately be called a crusader, according to the employees of the American Heart Association. "Laine is the kind of powerful and passionate crusader that very rarely comes along for us," says Barbara Kumpe, Advocacy Director for the Arkansas American Heart Association. "In fact," Kumpe says, "we often have to remind ourselves that Laine is a volunteer, and not a paid employee." The reason for the confusion may in fact be Berry's lengthy service record with the Association. For the last eight years Berry has dedicated the better part of her time and efforts to improving the heart health of women across the state and nation.

How this Conway Arkansas resident became such an important member of the American Heart Association team isn't glamorous at all, but rather, literally heartbreaking. "In 1998 my precious mother, Cheryl Hatfield, started having strange symptoms, ranging from migraine headaches to exhaustion," Berry says "she had always been a ball of energy, but by the end of 1999 she was unable to walk across the room without feeling exhausted." For eighteen months Berry accompanied her mother and father as they tried to find an answer to the question "what is wrong?" Doctor after doctor diagnosed Hatfield with a variety of illnesses, from depression to high blood pressure, but none even suspected Hatfield's heart was the underlying cause of the now multitude of symptoms. "We had doctor after doctor tell us that it was not her heart," Berry said "we were told that women rarely died from heart disease, and pre-menopausal women never did. That was a blatant falsehood, but what makes it even more terrifying is that at the time, that was the belief of the entire medical community. It is a belief we are still combating eight years later." The truth is that almost half a million American women die from heart disease every year, and Hatfield was almost part of that statistic. Thankfully, as the year of 2000 progressed, Hatfield and her family were able to convince a family practitioner to run one final test. After an arteriogram the family was told that Hatfield was suffering from 90% blockages in three of her major arteries, and needed to undergo surgery right away to save her life. "It was a horrifying time," Berry says "not only was the surgery performed almost in an emergency manor, after the surgery her pancreas shut down. We had to wait by her bedside for three days, while she was kept sedated and her stomach was evacuated by pump. We had to rely on our faith to get us through. We literally begged God to kick start her pancreas. As you probably know, there is nothing that current medicine can do if the pancreas ceases to function." Thankfully, Hatfield pulled through and has made a full recovery. Ironically, in that same summer Berry herself was diagnosed with a life threatening heart condition. Throughout her life Berry had suffered from bouts of irregular heart rhythm, which had often landed her in the emergency room. "I spent many nights in the emergency room with my heart rhythm issue, but again, doctors felt it was primarily causes by hormone fluctuations or even nerves," Berry said. However, in 2000, the spells became more common, and began causing Berry to lose consciousness. Berry recalls "We finally got in with a cardiologist who realized that even though I was a woman, and only 27, I could have a serious condition." After a series of tests Berry was diagnosed with Wolf-Parkinson-White syndrome. It causes arrhythmia (irregular rhythm) of the heart beat. Electrical signals from the brain are not accurately interpreted by the heart. The condition can be fatal. There are two options for treatment-a surgery which disconnects the faulty wiring, or chemical treatment for a lifetime. "The risks of the surgery were simply too much for me," Berry says "I have opted for medicinal therapy, and have had great success with it". The condition is something Berry will have forever. "Sometimes mom and I both comment that we feel we have ticking time bombs in our chests, but it is just something you have to live with."

It was at that time that Berry took action. "I realized that no one was talking about women and heart disease. I had a good friend working on some research at the University of North Carolina. She was working on a study of Prodromal (symptoms most commonly associated with a disease) symptoms in women." Berry says "she let me read her study, and I was both stunned and terrified. I knew I had to start telling women that the greatest danger they faced was from heart disease." Berry discovered that women's' symptoms varied greatly from the symptoms experienced by men, and that 100,000 more women die every year from heart disease than men.

In late 2000, Berry founded "Taking Wellness to Heart", a 501(c) 3 dedicated initially to heart disease education and awareness. That year, she hosted her first "Heartstrong Women" conference. Along with sponsors including Astra-Zenica and Conway Regional Medical Center, Berry hosted a day of heart health. There were over 200 women in attendance, all of whom were offered free blood pressure, cholesterol and blood pressure screenings. The American Heart Association was also involved. "Laine was the key note speaker that day," Says Amanda Smith, former Central Arkansas Heart Walk director with the AHA "I was blown away by her speaking ability, and the comprehensive and educated message. She opened a lot of eyes that day." And, it seems, endeared herself to the American Heart Association. She was asked on the spot to serve as a state spokesperson. "We started using Laine across the state immediately," Smith says "We had her working from one end of the state to the other, at events every weekend and during the week as well. She never, ever, told us no."

Her enthusiasm and her particular knowledge of women's heart health issues led to an even bigger role with a now national movement. "We had been watching Laine's incredible efforts with her non-profit on behalf of women," says Stephanie Hecke, former central Arkansas Heart Walk Chair" and knew she'd have a great deal to interject into a new project the AHA was working on." That project turned out to be one of the most widely recognized programs the AHA has ever created, "Go Red for Women." "We asked Laine to be part of the early brain storming sessions in both Topeka and Dallas. Her input was really instrumental in helping those of us in the Heartland Affiliate have great input in the process of creation." Hecke says. Berry then went on to chair the movement in Arkansas for the first two years of its existence, and was asked to introduce the movement to the members of the Arkansas Legislature at the first ever "Go Red Day" at the Arkansas State Capitol.

In 2003 Berry's involvement with the American Heart Association went to an even higher level; lobbyist. "Laine had served as state spokesperson for us for several years, and had traveled nationally to speak at Go Red," said Missy Lewis, former metro executive director for the AHA. "Laine also served yearly as the emcee for the Heart Walk each year." In 2003 emceeing that heart walk put her in contact with the Advocacy Director (lobbyist leader) for the region, Barbie Kumpe. "After hearing her speak at the Heart Walk I asked Laine to come address the House of Representatives and the Congress in our first Go Red day at the state capitol," says Kumpe. "She is such a powerful speaker, but also an empathetic personality. She appeals to many demographics, which is imperative for someone working at the legislative level." Since 2003 Berry has served as a Lobbyist for the American Heart Association. "It is really an unbelievable feeling to be, as a lay person, sitting in a room of elected officials working on the verbiage for a life saving bill," Berry says. "I really just want to be a servant, both to the AHA and to the people of the state and nation." And serve she has. Over the past five years Berry has worked tirelessly as a lobbyist, helping to author and argue for the passage of the BMI bill of '03, the 2005 Clean indoor air act, and most recently the AED act of 2007 which requires life saving defibrillators be placed in all public schools. Currently, Berry is involved with the South Central Affiliate of the AHA in the passage of the "Heart for Women Act" at the national level. "This bill would require the disparity in treatment of women and men to be addressed, and will really being to change the way that our health care system views women and their heart health," Berry says.

When asked how valuable Berry is to the AHA Kumpe replied, "Honestly, I cannot express how valuable she is in our work. Her dedication is unparalleled." Kumpe says. "She is a very gifted and giving young woman, and one I'm hoping to see run for office someday." When asked if that was in her plans for the future, Berry replied "I'll do whatever I can to make the world a healthier place. You never know what path God might have in store for me."



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