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Fighting heart disease, one patient at a time

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

MUSC dietitian Amy Mendez fights heart disease one honest conversation at a time.

She sat down with a recent patient, a diabetic man weighing the most in his life at 290 pounds, and talked for an hour. He spoke about the missed meals that make him ravenous after work, the eight to 10 Diet Cokes he drinks each day and the treadmill that sits dormant in his living room.

“Talking about eating habits can be awkward,” Mendez said after their appointment. “Making friends is part of that relationship building. I think it’s important to establish that level of trust.” 

              Beverly and Walter Seinsheimer

Mendez specializes in combating heart disease as a part of the Seinsheimer Cardiovascular Health Program team but, as a dietitian, she must rely on her patients to fight alongside her. She sets reasonable goals and expects, in return, that patients remain honest with their progress. For this particular patient, she asked that he cut his soda intake in half and substitute clear sodas without added phosphoric acid, due to his kidney disease. She suggested that he use timers to remind him to eat controlled portions during meal times and that he track his calories, even if it means declining invitations to the soul food restaurant from the guys at work.

A gift from Beverly and Walter Seinsheimer in 2008 established this program, which Mrs. Seinsheimer calls “one-stop shopping” for heart health: access to a cardiologist, a lipid specialist and a nutritionist in a single location. The couple’s gift supported salaries for Mendez and Clinical Lipid Specialist Kellie McLain, plus training and awareness campaigns.  

MUSC Cardiology business administrator Steve Vinciguerra said the services provided by the Seinsheimer Cardiovascular Health Program cover a side of health care that gets little government funding and often leaves patients with the bill.

“No one likes to pay for wellness,” he said. “The Seinsheimers’ gift helped expand access, because it’s a service and type of care that’s almost unfunded.”

Beverly Seinsheimer, a former cardiovascular nurse, first became acquainted with wellness programs while serving on MUSC’s Heart and Vascular Board nearly a decade ago. She met MUSC cardiologist Dr. Pam Morris at a board meeting, where Dr. Morris spoke about heart health.

“I was so blown away by her talk,” Mrs. Seinsheimer remembered. “It had never ever occurred to me that if even you don’t have a heart problem, you still should go see a cardiologist. There was so much of this that I didn’t know, and I was a health care professional.”

The Seinsheimers launched a women’s heart health symposium a year later and then decided to make a legacy gift that would help prevent heart disease in their community. They occasionally receive notes from patients, thanking them for a life-changing program.

Rick Kidd prepares to teach Body Pump class. He wear pink camouflage in honor of breast cancer awareness.

 Rick Kidd, a nurse at the MUSC cardiac catheterization lab, began thinking about food differently after hearing McLain, the Seinsheimer program’s lipid specialist, speak in his Doctor of Nursing Practice class.

Kidd listened to the lecture on personalized dietary plans and thought about his own high cholesterol, despite conscientious eating habits and regular workouts at the gym. A registered nurse for more than 20 years, he never had considered the sugar content in “healthy” cereals, the hidden salt in drinks and the empty calories in late-night snacks.     

“I thought, ‘This is what I need. She’s talking about things I had never looked at,’” Kidd remembered. “I literally emailed her from the lecture.”

McLain connected Kidd with her colleague, Amy Mendez, who then helped him to develop a personal nutrition plan and food journal.

“I would see internet diets or diet programs at the gym, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of any of them,” Kidd said. “I didn’t want to have a fad attached to it. With Amy, we basically negotiated a diet.”

Within a few months, he lost 19 pounds, and his good cholesterol rose 50 percent -- despite his picky palate. With better workouts and more energy to show for his dietary changes, he said recently, “I can’t imagine the luck of falling into a program like this.”