Donning a dark red suit accented with black polka dots, Verbar McKnight headed to the basement of Gillis Memorial Christian Community Church in West Baltimore following the morning service Feb. 13.

The 54 year old was on a mission – to take advantage of blood pressure screenings and track her risk for heart disease. “This is very important. I always get my blood pressure checked,” she said.

Her mother suffers from a severe heart condition, spurred on from years of high blood pressure, and although McKnight says she hasn’t experienced serious health woes, yet, she wants to get screened at least three times a month.

“I just want to be safe,” she said, standing in line to see a nurse from St. Agnes hospital, who was administering the checks.

Dozens of McKnight’s fellow congregants – all sporting red attire – filtered in and out of the church’s basement while hundreds of parishioners swarmed other places of worship around the state for similar screenings in celebration of Red Dress Sunday, a St. Agnes Hospital-sponsored event that brings awareness to the devastating effects of heart disease.

Last year, over 100 churches led health forums or shared heart-related literature during Red Dress Sunday and St. Agnes officials anticipated a similar turnout this year.

Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in East Baltimore hosted the largest gathering this year, a full-out health fair featuring fitness experts, health vendors and free screenings testing lung functions, glucose levels and blood pressure. “We want to educate women, primarily African-American women that this can be a preventable disease by taking proactive steps,” said St. Agnes spokeswoman Shareese Deleaver. She said church participation ballooned from three congregations to over 100 since the annual event started in 2005. “The event has caught on and grown and I think it has a lot to do with a desire to be educated.”

The 50 or so variations of heart disease – the most common being blockage of the coronary arteries – are the No. 1 causes of death in America, chiefly among African-American women.

Prevention steps include a vegetable-rich diet, frequent exercise and other oft-stressed elements that characterize a healthy lifestyle, including smoking cessation.

“But you can’t do anything about heredity,” said Marcy Hunt, one of the nurses conducting blood pressure checks at Gillis Memorial. She said some people are born with heart disease, including many from within the African American or Asian Pacific Islander communities.

It is best for individuals who are highly susceptible to heart conditions to know their family history and manage their health, she noted.

Regular blood pressure checks are vital since high blood pressure commonly leads to heart disease, stroke and kidney failure, according to the American Heart Association.

The Rev. Theodore C. Jackson Sr., head pastor at Gillis Memorial, said he wants to ensure his congregants understand the risks of heart disease. He’d just recovered from a stroke, exacerbated by hypertension, two days prior to the Red Dress Sunday event. “I used to check my blood pressure once a month, now I check it every day,” he said.

“It’s not just about a diet,” added Barbara White, one of the church’s event organizers. “We only have one heart and we need to treat it well.”

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO