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South Asian Heart Center gives cultural connection to heart health

Courtesy of El Camino Hospital
The South Asian Heart Center’s recent fundraising gala, “Scarlet Masquerade,” drew a celebratory crowd to Mountain Winery in Saratoga. The event generated more than $300,000, enabling doctors to better examine the cadiovascular health of the South Asian population.

El Camino Hospital’s South Asian Heart Center did something a bit different for its “Scarlet Masquerade” fundraiser March 22.

The 11-year-old community health center switched the annual event, often held at the Santa Clara Convention Center, to Saratoga’s Mountain Winery this year. It was the center’s way of celebrating the community it serves.

“We bucked the trend and held our gala at a smaller venue,” said Ashish Mathur, executive director of the South Asian Heart Center. “We raised our goal, and the energy that we saw was very heartwarming. People have really taken to this organization and made a point to donate to this cause.”

The “Scarlet Masquerade” raised more than $304,000 for the heart center, enabling doctors to better examine the cardiovascular health of people from South Asia (defined as Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal). The South Asian population includes the large diaspora living in the Bay Area, many of whom are either first- or second-generation Americans.

“There are two ways we serve the community,” Mathur said. “The center was created not as a medical management center, but as a lifetime-oriented center, which means reducing risk through lifetime interventions and having the science of lifestyle be the primary focus of the center.”

The center promotes a healthy lifestyle of exercise and lighter fare. As Mathur noted, it does so within the South Asian cultural context.

“When you are dealing with this population, you want to deal with the lifetime nuances,” he said. “For example, you want to have a dietitian who understands South Asian foods very well.”

Addressing a ‘big problem’

Cesar Molina, M.D., a cardiologist at the South Asian Heart Center, described why the program launched in 2006.

“We were presented with a problem, a very big problem,” he said. “We were seeing an inordinate number of young South Asian engineers brought into our emergency room with heart attacks. We looked into it further and understood it as an epidemic.”

Molina said he and his colleagues began looking into how to make inroads into the Bay Area’s large South Asian community.

“We established resources within the community and provided tools that were not in the community,” he said.

According to Mathur, this meant providing scientific backing to old methods and working with volunteers who understood the people they wanted to help.

“We have incorporated the ancient medicine of India, which is very much based on lifestyle, and incorporated it in a science-based fashion,” he said. “We help people manage their behavioral risk factors and provide them with trained volunteers to help them change their behavior.”

The approach, Mathur said, comes down to common sense: “More sleep, more exercise, more vegetables.”

Molina said the South Asian population is at a higher risk of heart disease.

“The reality is Indians are more susceptible than people of European ancestry or African-American ancestry,” he said.

Mathur continued this line of logic.

“There are about 350,000 South Asians in the Bay Area,” he said. “What we have done to make them aware of this issue is participating with the community – our outreach happens at places where the community gathers. At temples on the weekends, we do free biometrics for individuals and start educating them about their risks starting there.”

He added that they visit companies that hire many Indians to come work in the United States.

“We also have education seminars we put together at corporations: Cisco, Nvidia, places like that,” Mathur said. “We talk about our work, the unique aspects of health disparity and the unique ways we address that.”

Research included

The South Asian Heart Center is looking at lowering incidences of heart disease, but experts are still not sure why South Asians are particularly susceptible to cardiovascular issues. That is why, with their patients’ permission, they are also conducting research on the community.

“We actually have now the largest group of individuals under observation,” Molina said. “Over 20,000 South Asians are part of our database. We have permission from the Institutional Review Board as well as the participants to monitor them and better understand the factors that are contributing to the epidemic.”

Molina said this is a rare opportunity to conduct research on an age-diverse population within the reach of cutting-edge medical tools.

“We are now a research organization with a fantastic opportunity to examine a very large data set of individuals under observation,” he noted.

That does not take away from their primary focus – to serve as the region’s center for the heart health in one of it’s largest populations.

Mathur likens the South Asian Heart Center to a neighborhood drugstore.

“In a way, you can look at the South Asian Heart Center as the pharmacy for the lifestyle health,” he said. “We are the resource to create these structures in a culturally appropriate way.”

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