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Barbers Join the Fight Against Hypertension

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Take a seat in one of the 18 barber chairs at Barbershop II in southwest Atlanta, and you'll not only get a cut and shave but a health screening that could save your life --- a blood pressure reading.

Come out of Sunday services at Rice Memorial Presbyterian Church and you'll get another service and sermon --- the squeeze of a blood pressure cuff and an admonishment to lay off the barbecued ribs.

At barbershops, beauty parlors, places of worship, even bus stops, foot soldiers of the Association of Black Cardiologists are out and about on a mission to stop a killer in its tracks: hypertension.

It is the leading risk factor in heart attacks, stroke, cardiovascular disease and kidney failure, and its rate among African-Americans in the South is one of the highest in the world, according to the American Heart Association.

And in light of the recent news about rates of high blood pressure increasing, the program is gearing up to expand nationally. Novartis, the pharmaceutical company, has awarded the Association of Black Cardiologists a $1.5 million grant over five years to expand the program to five other states.

About 4,000 people --- or 100 a month --- have been screened since the program started locally three years ago.

Just last week, coordinator of the outreach volunteers, barber Eddie Render, 62, learned one of his friends died of cardiovascular disease attributed to high blood pressure.

"Every which way I turn, somebody's dying of this," he says, pumping up his ever-present blue cuff on Eloise Daniel, 72, dressed in her Sunday best for the weekend service at Rice Memorial Presbyterian in southwest Atlanta. "At least I know I'm doing what I can to get the word out and help folks."

Render is one of about 60 volunteer barbers, beauty shop operators and church leaders trained in the outreach program. It aims to bring blood pressure screenings and heart disease awareness to residents of Atlanta's Empowerment Zone, which encompasses many low-income neighborhoods surrounding downtown. They may have inadequate access to health care, lack health insurance or like many people, simply avoid going to doctors.

"My main objective is to try and educate my community about cardiovascular disease and to preach to people about doing something about it," says Render, who also checks up on his "regulars' " blood pressure as he cuts their hair at his tiny one-chair shop, "Eddie's Place," on Mary Street. "Sometimes I might just stop on the street and take someone's blood pressure."

Another trained volunteer, Mary Woods, owner of Barbershop II in the Mall West End, says customers like the cuff and cut service. "When I get my blood pressure cuff out to take one person's measurement, people notice," she says. "I can be there for four hours taking one person after another."

Customers' blood pressure readings are kept in a confidential chart, then reviewed by medical staff of the cardiologists' group. People with dangerously high blood pressure are told they should go to the nearest clinic.

"Of course, we can't make them go to a doctor," Woods says. "But we can make them aware that they're just minutes away from a stroke or heart attack. And I think awareness is better than anything." 'Silent killers'

If high blood pressure set off warning lights and sirens, there would be no need for community screeners like Render and Woods. But it is one of those "silent killers." Slowly and quietly over the years, it damages arteries and organs because of the stress of pumping blood so forcefully throughout the body. People often have no symptoms. But the longer hypertension goes undetected and untreated, the greater the damage and chances of death, doctors say.

"Our biggest issue is identifying people with high blood pressure," says Dr. Winston Gandy of the Atlanta Cardiologists Group at St. Joseph's Hospital. "Men do not go as often to doctors as women do. Often, hypertension is present early in life but by the time men show up in my office, they're 60 or 65 with a stroke or heart attack and it's very difficult to treat that end stage of the disease."

Blacks, overall, also have almost twice the risk of suffering a stroke compared with whites, and many medical experts point to hypertension as the reason.

Another sobering statistic relays the importance of reaching younger African-American men, Gandy notes. Black men, ages 35 to 54, are four times at risk of dying of stroke than white men of the same age group, national statistics show.

"Black men, they're not really taking care of themselves," says Woods, who's often the only woman in Barbershop II, a place buzzing with manly barbers, mostly manly customers and manly talk. Next to the mini barber pole outside her shop is a sign advertising "Blood Pressure Screenings Inside." Supported by CDC

The barbershop initiative started in Baltimore in 1986 by Waine Kong, who now heads the Association of Black Cardiologists. It was relaunched in Atlanta in 2000.

The program is co-sponsored by the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness, which also leads other health promotion efforts in the Empowerment Zone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funds the program's $76,000 annual budget. It is one of about 30 nutritional, exercise and cardiovascular programs and other wellness initiatives the CDC supports around the country in an effort to close health disparities among minority and ethnic groups.

Further training barbershop and church health promotion specialists to screen for cholesterol and diabetes could be the next step for the cardiologist groups.

"I often characterize the barbershop program as taking a giant step backward because barbers used to be involved in community health," Kong says. "Men usually have a relationship with their barber and they trust him. I believe communication is most important to really get at health disparities. And when men sit in barbershops, they are a captive audience."

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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