Faces of Public Health: Irene Pollin

Nov 21, 2012, 11:00 AM

file Irene Pollin, Sister to Sister

What’s the right age to be an advocate for better health? “It’s never too late but the younger you start the longer you have,” says Irene Pollin, MSW, PhD (Hon), who has done so all her life and runs Sister to Sister, the organization she founded in memory of her daughter, Linda Joy, who died at age 16 of a heart condition. Pollin, who together with her husband, Abe, owned sports teams including the Washington Wizards basketball team and the Washington Capitals hockey team, aims to increase women’s awareness of heart disease, provide free cardiac screenings, and empower women to take charge of their health. As the nation’s largest provider of free heart disease screenings for women, Sister to Sister has traveled to nearly 20 U.S. cities and screened over 100,000 women since its start in 1999.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Irene Pollin recently about her work, heart disease, the success of the foundation, and its message that although heart disease takes the lives of one in three women, it is preventable and even reversible.

NewPublicHealth: Would you tell us about Sister to Sister?

Irene Pollin: We started more than 12 years ago, and at the time, I was working in the area of chronic illness. I’m a psychiatric social worker and had been doing that for 25 years so I really was a specialist in all chronic illnesses. When I was speaking to a health PR firm, I learned that heart disease was the number one killer of women. I didn’t know that, and I couldn’t believe it. So I thought ‘If I don’t know it, who else doesn’t know it?’ The person who informed me of this fact challenged me and asked if I would be interested in doing the work with her to get the word out. So I accepted the challenge and established Sister to Sister.

NPH: How does your training as a psychiatric social worker impact your work? 

Irene Pollin: Someone said to me recently that I’ve been able to push Sister to Sister forward because I’m a philanthropist. I said, ‘If I were just a philanthropist this never would have happened,’ because our whole emphasis is not just on awareness but on actually helping women change their behavior. Women generally think of heart disease as a man’s disease. They really weren’t thinking of themselves as being so susceptible to it; especially younger women in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. That was very much a part of my creating the five-step model for how we screen. It wouldn’t have happened without my background and expertise in behavioral change. We have screened and educated more than 100,000 women since 2000. One of the key things we’ve learned is that a woman really is the heart of the family. So when you screen a woman and she becomes aware of her risk and what can be done to reduce it, she is going to start really thinking about diet, exercise, and passing this on to her family.

NPH: Who are your critical partners?

Irene Pollin: I have always felt it’s really important that the community be involved. We always involved all the local, political and business communities, but what is really terrific is the number of hospitals that became involved with us. A number of hospitals around the country have provided screenings, and their nursing and counseling staffs have been terrific. And the business community has invited us to do screenings on their premises. It really takes a very long time for this information to really penetrate into peoples’ psyches. One of the things I really like about working with heart disease is that it’s preventable and even reversible, which you can’t say about most chronic illnesses. So there is a lot of good that can be done and room for improvement without taking drastic measures. I focus on that.

NPH: You just expanded Sister to Sister globally. Tell us about that.

Irene Pollin: One of the good things about being in Washington is that we were really able to do work globally, even from here. Seven or eight years ago we started doing screenings in some of the embassies here in Washington, and last month we held screenings at the Pan American Health Organization and the World Bank. We also had two major events for the female employees and wives for the embassies here in Washington at the Verizon Center. Thousands of women came. And the idea at that time was based on the notion of that the people who are screened here can take our message back home. And they do.

But just last month, we formed a new partnership with Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. This new partnership marks the first time Sister to Sister has literally gained foothold in another country. Through the newly established Linda Joy Pollin Institute, which will be a part of Hadassah Medical Center, women of all backgrounds will be educated and empowered to get heart smart. Imagine that. Women of all backgrounds rallying together against a common enemy that knows no racial or political boundaries. That’s what I envision.

NPH: What is your secret to staying healthy? Do you think being in the sports atmosphere has taught you about staying healthy and active?

Irene Pollin: One of the things that I have learned that is certainly extremely helpful to me is what stress can do if you don’t do something to calm yourself through, for example, calming exercises or yoga. And I have done a number of these things and I do think that ongoing stress can be really devastating. So I am very sensitive to that. I think it’s also important to get to know your body. What I mean by that is when you are feeling body tension, to be aware of it; stretching, getting enough sleep, things like that, exercise, are all things that you can do. It’s not necessarily about going to a gym, but it’s important to do things you can do under your normal circumstances, so that they can become good habits.

I would like to see this message really get out to women all around the world that working toward preventing heart disease is a mindset that can become automatic if you’re willing to put in a little work. You know, being mindful and learning to say to yourself ‘I am going to the grocery store to look for what is fresh for my family for dinner tonight, and is it heart healthy?’ Maybe that’s the social worker in me. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.