Member Spotlight: The Heart Foundation of Jamaica

The dream of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica began over fifty years ago, driven by a desire to help people suffering from heart disease. The visionaries were Professor Mike Woo Ming and Doctors Junior Wong, Bernard Benjamin and Peter Bangerter, all members of the Health and Welfare Committee of the Lions Club of Kingston. This club was formed in 1965 and was the first Lions Club in Jamaica. At the outset, the visionaries were over-ambitious and began negotiations with other Caribbean countries to form a Caribbean Heart Foundation. However, this was not to be. The business of getting the Heart Foundation on sound footing prior to an official launch continued to be the responsibility of the Health and Welfare Committee of the Lions Club.

After several fundraising efforts and under the leadership of Peter Bangerter, President of the Lions Club and affectionately called the “Democratic Dictator”, the Heart Foundation of Jamaica (HFJ) was launched at the Sheraton Kingston on November 1968.

The Foundation was incorporated in Jamaica in 1970 as a voluntary organization, sponsored by the Lions Club of Kingston, and became a registered non-profit organization in 1971.

“Our beginning in 1971 was not easy, we had all the medical talents to guide us, but we had little or no experience on how to implement them. We lost many talented board members due to migration but we tried to make the best with what we had. Raising funds was not easy for a new organization but we stuck to it with the assistance of our founding organization, the Lions Club of Kingston.”
Peter Bangerter

The aim of the Foundation was to concentrate on raising funds to purchase urgently needed diagnostic, surgical and intensive care equipment for the treatment of heart patients. The Foundation soon became a member of the National Society and Federation of Cardiology in Geneva. With their help and guidelines the first employee, a part-time secretary, was hired.

Over the years, The Foundation started to concentrate on prevention and control of cardiovascular disease. This new focus was aimed at helping to reduce patient load at hospitals and more importantly, to establish screening programmes and educate the public on the essentials of a healthy lifestyle. In 1976, the Foundation joined the International Society and Federation of Cardiology, known today as the World Heart Federation.

In 1978, directors Vic Higqs and Keith Shervington proposed an annual health run as a major fundraiser. Vic Higgs, having suffered a series of heart attacks, was engaged in a rehabilitation programme, which included walking. In those days walking was a solitary exercise – boring at times. The two directors were successful in identifying space for “Heart” walkers. This led to the formation of a Heart Health Club to disseminate the benefits of walking to strengthen the heart to the wider public.

Vic Higgs envisaged the formation of an annual health run as a mean of getting people together to enjoy physical activity, and also to raise funds for the Foundation to carry out its programmes. He worked tirelessly to make the Annual Health Fund Run a major fundraiser for the Foundation. Although renamed and the format changed in later years, this event has remained a vital fundraising event for the Foundation and is now known as the Run for Your Heart 5k.

The Vision to promote a healthy lifestyle leading to the prevention of cardiovascular disease through health education and health promotion, and by offering accessible and affordable screening and treatment services in a professional and welcoming environment, is what underpins the work of The Heart Foundation of Jamaica today.

In 2019, The Heart Foundation of Jamaica grew to an organization that has around 70 employees and it’s led by Executive Director Deborah Chen. The focus of the Foundation today is Screening and Advanced Cardiac Services, training and certification, health promotion and advocacy, and our membership programme.

Screening and Advanced Cardiac Services
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Jamaica and the HFJ, through its public education programmes and specialized screening services, aims to reduce the incidence of premature cardiovascular death and disability in all forms.

We offer basic screening tests such as ECGs, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol tests to the more advanced tests including echocardiograms, stress echocardiograms, and Holter monitors.

Our year-round programme to screen for heart disease is also available island-wide with our Mobile Screening team by providing basic tests at a subsidized cost at health and community centres, churches, schools and companies.

Training and Certification
The HFJ offers training and American Heart Association (AHA) certification programmes for laypersons, allied and healthcare professionals. The courses offered are designed for non-health people and professionals with the Friends and Family CPR, to health professionals doing courses such as the Advanced Cardiac Life Support.

Health Promotion and Advocacy
A major component of the Foundation today is Health Promotion and Advocacy. Advocating for policies that promote heart health is a key component of the HFJ’s mission. The HFJ is a founding member and secretariat for the Jamaica Coalition for Tobacco Control (JCTC) and also the National Resuscitation Council of Jamaica (NRC). The Health Education and Promotion initiative has already reached 12 schools to promote a healthy lifestyle to children from ages as young as 4 upwards to 15 years old at the high school level.

Additionally, the Obesity Prevention Project advocates for the prevention and reduction of obesity in adults and children in Jamaica. Obesity is a global epidemic and a major risk factor linked to the growing global burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). This campaign has been very successful in building awareness about the benefits of drinking water and the ill effects of sugary sweetened beverages on our population, especially children.

The Membership programme at the HFJ is open to anyone who has an interest in the impactful work of the Foundation and in promoting heart health in Jamaica. All members are invited to the annual general meeting (AGM) and quarterly members’ meetings throughout the year. There are different types of membership available and several benefits that members specifically enjoy such as unlimited free blood pressure checks, discounts on specific tests annually, discounts on prescription drugs at the HFJ pharmacy and discounts on nutritionists visits.

As part of our advocacy project on Obesity Prevention, a teacher for one of our healthy heart clubs was so moved by the notion of obesity prevention and getting the message out that he wrote a jingle for school kids to perform at one of our events. These school kids who perform the jingle and the jingle itself are now featuring an awareness campaign being promoted across the island.

In 2021, The Heart Foundation of Jamaica will celebrate its 50th Anniversary. There will be major activities in recognition of the 50th as well as continue to build upon the four main pillars, Screening and Advanced Cardiac Services, Training and Certification, Health Promotion and Advocacy and Membership on which the Foundation is based.