A Haven for Healthy Hearts

The Karen Yontz Women’s Cardiac Awareness Center is home to healthy-heart resources.

From left to right: The Karen Yontz Women’s Cardiac Awareness Center’s dietician Heather Klug, Marge Hendrickson, and the 
center’s community nurse educator, Julie O’Neill


When Marge Hendrickson and Julie O’Neill first crossed paths, Hendrickson was working as a parish nurse for Aurora Health Care and O’Neill as a Community nurse educator at the The Karen Yontz Women’s Cardiac Awareness Center in Auroras St. Luke’s Medical Center. Little did they know then that both Hendrickson and her husband would become patients in St. Luke’s cardiac unit. And that O’Neill and The Karen Yontz Center would become trusted resources for Hendrickson on a very personal level.

More than a decade ago, Hendrickson experienced persistent shortness of breath. She knew something wasn’t right, but she wasn’t sure what. “I had patients who had atrial fibrillation,” she says of her eventual diagnosis, “but I really didn’t think that I had it, because my only symptom was shortness of breath. I did not have the palpitations in my heart where I would feel it. It was a surprise to me.”

Eat Your Way To A Healthy Heart
By Heather Klug, MEd, RD, CD

Food plays a significant role in maintaining the health of your heart without medication. Making healthy choices can reduce your risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease. A healthy diet also helps control or prevent Type 2 diabetes, regulates cholesterol, and helps manage high blood pressure and weight — all important factors in keeping your heart happy.

For a heart-healthy diet, you should limit:

• Harmful fats — Saturated fat and trans fat can raise your LDL cholesterol (that’s the harmful cholesterol) in your blood. Trans fats lower your healthy cholesterol too. Avoid or eliminate fatty meats like beef, bacon and high-fat dairy products, plus processed and fried foods.

• Sodium — Salt in your blood causes water retention, which raises blood pressure and strains the heart. It’s more than passing on the salt shaker. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of sodium comes from processed foods and dining out.

• Added sugars — It sure tastes good, but added sugar in your diet increases LDL cholesterol, decreases HDL cholesterol, increases blood pressure, contributes to developing Type 2 diabetes and can lead to weight gain. 
The primary culprits? Sugary beverages like soda, juice 
drinks and flavored coffees, and baked goods like candy, cake and donuts.

A heart healthy diet isn’t just about saying no. To help your heart, say yes to these types of food:

• Low-fat dairy — Dairy products can be a great source of healthy (unsaturated) fat. Just opt for low-fat or fat-free milk and low-fat cheese, whenever possible.

• Fruits and vegetables — Produce is low in calories and high in fiber, and is filling as well. Aim to eat a fruit or vegetable at each meal, and five or more servings a day.

• Whole grains — Whole wheat, oats and oatmeal, brown and wild rice, and plain popcorn help improve cholesterol levels and lower risk of heart disease. It’s not a grain, but quinoa is a good choice too.

• Dietary fiber — Soluble fiber is best at lowering bad cholesterol, which also lowers risk of heart disease. Beans and other legumes are the most reliable sources, along with certain fruits and vegetables.

• Healthy fats — Extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and nut butters, avocados and olives contain monounsaturated fat that helps lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol.

Dietitian Heather Klug, MEd, RD,CD, is a registered dietitian at The Karen Yontz Women’s Cardiac Awareness Center at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee.


Hendrickson sought the advice of her primary care doctor and began an oral medication regimen, shifting to cardioversion when her condition didn’t improve and eventually undergoing ablation surgery performed by internationally renowned cardiologist Dr. Jasbir Sra. Though the surgery is both common and usually successful, to Hendrickson’s disappointment it did not work for her. “People come from all over the country to have this done by [Sra],” Hendrickson explains, “but for me, it just didn’t work because the atria were too large, and there was actually too much space that he had to cover. So then I waited. I was just taking medication for several years.” On Sra’s recommendation, Hendrickson finally agreed to a pacemaker, which has since alleviated her symptoms.

Though the statistics are alarming — heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in America — “most heart disease is preventable,” O’Neill says. “An estimated 80 percent is. Family history, you can’t do anything about. Race, age — can’t do anything about it. We’re all aging. But there are six preventable risk factors that we can change: smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, sedentary lifestyle, obesity and diabetes.” As fate would have it, Hendrickson’s own husband had also struggled with shortness of breath and underwent bypass surgery at St. Luke’s. She and O’Neill agree that his heart health issues were likely linked to diabetes.

“[Diet and exercise] are the biggies,” O’Neill stresses of the best ways to prevent or curtail heart disease. “If I don’t say that over and over, I wouldn’t be doing my job.” O’Neill and The Karen Yontz Center staff also encourage people to become familiar with their overall health — including their body mass index and cholesterol, A1C (the rate that checks glucose levels and alerts patients of diabetes) and blood sugar levels — and, most importantly, their blood pressure. “Blood pressure is a primary risk factor for heart disease, also known as ‘the silent killer,’ because people don’t feel any different when they have high blood pressure,”
O’Neill explains.

Partnering For Prevention

O’Neill and Hendrickson first met when O’Neill came to the church where Hendrickson worked to give a talk about heart disease in women. And though Hendrickson retired last March, she and O’Neill continue to work together, traveling into the community to give talks on heart disease and offer blood pressure screenings, raising awareness not just of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, but of  The Karen Yontz Center and the plethora of resources offered there to anyone who may need them.

“Marge really helped me connect with the community because of the nature of her job,” O’Neill says. “We did programs together, but she was also a really good advocate for us. … [We] try to connect with people that may not have those resources at their fingertips. Yes, this resource center is focused on women, prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of heart disease. But we use a lot of touchpoints to connect with families, spouses and, of course, men too.”

Including Hendrickson’s husband, who, in addition to his bypass surgery, also came to St. Luke’s for cardiac rehab, which included dietary advice from the center’s dietician, Heather Klug. “So we’re kinda tied to this place,” says Hendrickson, smiling.

In addition to a relaxing environment and a plethora of invaluable resources, The Karen Yontz Center displays a beautiful and educational timeline mural of women’s heart health and innovations.

The center also offers a twice-yearly program called Living Well Weight Management Program, led by Klug and O’Neill, that focuses on easily integrated components of a healthy lifestyle, including exercise regimens and cooking tasty, heart-healthy meals. “It’s a research-based program,” O’Neill explains. “Each week, it is topic driven. We not only focus on eating and exercise; we focus on behavior too. And we get our employee-assistance professionals brought in to talk about how to change behavior and what it looks like and giving you tips.”

The Karen Yontz Women’s Cardiac Awareness Center also offers strength and conditioning classes, a “couch to 5K” program,” cooking and nutrition classes, blood pressure screenings, a lending library of cookbooks and exercise videos and, perhaps most importantly, a friendly and well-educated staff ready to answer any questions and offer support and reassurance that heart disease is not a death sentence. The center also manages an active Facebook page to continuously share information.

“The Karen Yontz Center is a place that I feel is a real peaceful place, because there are many times when I’ll be in the hospital and I’ll just stop in to say hi,” says Hendrickson. “You can just feel the peace here.”

The Karen Yontz Women’s Cardiac Awareness Center will host an open house Feb. 1 in honor of Go Red For Women, the American Heart Association’s national day to support women’s heart health. This year’s event is ’80’s themed and offers games, giveaways and more, as well as plenty of information. MKE