One Sunday a month, a line leads into a partitioned basement area of Liberty Baptist Church where congregation members can focus on their physical health as much as their spiritual health. Men and women roll up their sleeves to have their blood pressure measured by church and medical volunteers. The activities are part of the Changing Hearts initiative of the Rockford Health Council, which celebrated its one-year anniversary this summer. Changing Hearts targets two issues: cardiovascular health and health disparities among minorities.
One Sunday a month, a line leads into a partitioned basement area of Liberty Baptist Church where congregation members can focus on their physical health as much as their spiritual health.
Men and women roll up their sleeves to have their blood pressure measured by church and medical volunteers. The activities are part of the Changing Hearts initiative of the Rockford Health Council, which celebrated its one-year anniversary this summer.
Changing Hearts targets two issues: cardiovascular health and health disparities among minorities. You’ll find those same priorities at the top of the list for national health-care reform.
The project also aims to educate people about their lifestyle choices, improve access to care and encourage residents to take charge of their health.
“All of us are different in how we reach a solution, so this is something really exciting for the community in a nontraditional way to provide access,” said Becky Cook Kendall, executive director of the Rockford Health Council. “This is a grass-roots effort to improve health.”
A supportive team
Changing Hearts is rooted in the results of the 2005 Winnebago County Minority Health Survey, which offered nuggets like a quarter of blacks avoid medical care because of lack of trust in the health system, and diabetes rates are elevated for blacks ages 45 to 64 in Winnebago County.
Liberty Baptist was a natural fit for Changing Hearts because its predominately black congregation already had a health ministry team and a supportive leader.
The Rev. Herbert Johnson Jr. sees the health struggles of fellow clergy members and his congregation.
“People are being receptive to education about health care, and that’s a very good thing,” he said.
First Hispanic Church of God was involved in Changing Hearts for about six months, but the growing church ended its participation because officials were too busy with other projects, Cook Kendall said.
David Kendall, leader of the Liberty Baptist’s health ministry team, said people initially were resistant to change.
“At the end of the day, it does come down to the individual. The doctor can’t do it, and the pharmacist can’t do it,” Kendall said.
Changing Hearts aimed to reduce 80 percent of blood pressures in hypertensive participants and have 40 percent reach their goal of being below 140/90. A normal blood pressure reading is 120 or less/80 or less.
Dr. Steve Lidvall, chief medical officer at Crusader Community Health and chairman of the Changing Hearts Leadership Team, said 63 percent of participants dropped their blood pressures and 22 percent reached their goals after 11 months in the program.
The project enrolled 227 people; 99 of them were hypertensive or had regular readings of higher than 140/90.
“We set aggressive goals, and I think those are numbers we can be proud of,” Lidvall said.
Kendall said participants were good about keeping track of their blood pressure cards — nicknamed “my personal life savings account” — distributed as part of Changing Hearts. The cards have a definition of systolic and diastolic blood pressures and spots for the date of blood pressure check, and pulse and blood pressure numbers.
Church members can take their cards to their doctors to show the most recent history of blood pressure checks. The cards have codes to identify people to protect their confidentiality.
Kendall said the cards can help doctors better diagnose their patients. Volunteers help participants follow up after their blood pressure checks by calling to make doctor appointments or referring church members to providers if they didn’t previously have a primary-care doctor.
Making it personal
Church member Michael Leach said Changing Hearts has encouraged him and his family to make changes in their diet and exercise routines, which is especially important because his wife, Vadelia Brown, recently had triple-bypass surgery.
“It opened my eyes to what we do and how it affects our health,” he said. “We’re more conscious of our choices and trying to change our habits.”
Diane Wyatt cut regular pop from her diet and started eating better and exercising more. She said her blood pressure fell about 40 points.
“It was about doing a little bit at a time. I wasn’t doing four hours of exercise every day, but more like four hours every week,” she said “I still eat what I want, but I’m better at controlling portions.”
A combination of church members and volunteers from health systems helped with the screenings each month at Liberty Baptist. Cook Kendall said it’s more encouraging and comforting for congregation members to see their own people checking blood pressures and teaching them about change.
“It makes the process embedded as part of the church,” she said. “Going forward, the lessons are that this has to be an assessment by the church, and they need to own it from the beginning.”
Leonora Hudson, a member of Liberty Baptist for 18 months, saw the health ministry team as a natural fit for her. She spent about 20 years working in nursing and health records.
“I was truly energized by their efforts, and I think it’s wonderful,” she said.
‘A table we all sit at’
Signs of success might tempt the group to replicate the Changing Hearts model all around town. But Dr. Bill Gorski, president and CEO of SwedishAmerican Health System, said officials know they need to find the right church or the right community groups with the best support in place.
“We need to be the driver of creating a model, and we need a sense of true outcomes, not just activities,” said Gorski, who also is chairman of the Rockford Health Council’s board of directors.
Mark Hunter, black male health coordinator at the Winnebago County Health Department, agreed.
“It’s important that we follow the same model that we have followed so far, and the key element in that model is time,” Hunter said. “It takes time. It would do the community and it would do the project a disservice if we said ‘this is going so well, we want to have it in 10 more churches by the same time this next year.’”
Part of the barrier to expanding the program is cost, though officials say Changing Hearts has flourished without a big budget.
Cook Kendall said $5,000 has been spent on the project over two years, which covered blood pressure cards, program pamphlets, stipends for interns and similar costs.
Leadership team members are discussing ways to improve the project and vetting another Hispanic church. Saint Anthony College of Nursing and the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford have signed on to integrate Changing Hearts as part of their curriculums for students.
Gorski said the collaboration between educational institutions, health systems, community groups and businesses is a unique and important part of the project’s success:
“It’s not a specific self-serving goal. It’s a table we all sit at.”
Melissa Westphal can be reached at (815) 987-1341 or email@example.com.