Empowering women to educate themselves about heart disease

Sep 12, 2017
Empowering women to educate themselves about heart disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the U.S.1 Until that statistic is widely known, we need greater education and public awareness, says patient advocacy organization WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease.

This statistic underpins WomenHeart’s efforts to offer women with heart disease social and emotional support while empowering them to share their stories. Created in 1999 by three heart attack survivors – Nancy Loving, Jackie Markham and Judy Mingram – WomenHeart strives to improve patient education, raise public awareness and advocate for better healthcare for women living with or at risk of heart disease.

Creating WomenHeart Champions

Now in its 18th year, WomenHeart has grown its membership to more than 20,000 across the country. This includes women with and at risk of heart disease in addition to its partnerships with hospitals, healthcare providers and other important community members.

Its extensive list of initiatives includes:

  • WomenHeart at Work – an outreach initiative to raise awareness about heart health in the place where people spend most of their waking hours: work.
  • Heart Scarves – a program in which people from around the country knit scarves and personally deliver them to women newly diagnosed with heart disease.
  • Sister Match – a program to connect those newly diagnosed with heart disease to survivors
  • Support Networks – WomenHeart Champions host support group meetings on a monthly basis in 46 states across America. The organization also offers virtual support meetings for those who can’t come in person. These support groups focus on psychosocial support and secondary prevention.

WomenHeart’s biggest and upcoming annual event is its Science & Leadership Symposium at the Mayo Clinic, which offers an opportunity to bring women heart disease survivors across the country together to learn about the power of storytelling. In addition to social and emotional support from women who have been through the same thing, the Symposium offers scientific education on heart disease, advocacy training and media coaching.

“There’s no other organization or program that I’m aware of that focuses solely on providing the social and emotional support women heart patients need,” says Mary McGowan, WomenHeart CEO. “Our Science & Leadership Symposium builds leaders and mentors in women heart disease survivors to help each other thrive with heart disease.”

Once women complete the training, they earn the title WomenHeart Champion, which signifies their commitment to advocating for improving women’s heart health, public education, providing support to their fellow heart sisters and outreach in their community.

Improving care and diagnoses for women with heart disease

The program is part of WomenHeart’s National Hospital Alliance (NHA) – a rapidly growing network of 40 U.S. hospitals committed to improving women’s heart health. WomenHeart’s Scientific Advisory Council works to keep clinicians up to date on the latest science about women’s heart health.

“Women’s heart health impacts far more than just the heart – its implications are far-reaching and affect the overall general health of a woman,” says McGowan. “For example, a lot of women who have pre-diabetes or high blood pressure during pregnancy may go on to develop heart disease later in life.”2

With more than 48 million women living with or at risk of heart disease3, the stakes are too high not to educate, support and empower women heart disease survivors to be leaders in their community by raising public awareness about the number one killer of women and advocate for better care for women everywhere.

Helping women thrive

One of the ultimate goals of WomenHeart’s Science & Leadership Symposium is to raise the profile of the patient voice in order to improve awareness among women – something McGowan believes is a powerful tool for patient advocacy organizations.

“There’s no way to express the comradery, mutual respect and shared sense of wanting to give back that women experience at our Symposium,” says McGowan. “One woman’s powerful heart disease story is the therapy another might need to understand right then and there – perhaps for the first time since her diagnosis – to truly understand that she is not alone,” says McGowan.

In this way, WomenHeart can profoundly affect audiences and the general public, instilling awareness via its powerful patient advocate network.

At the same time, the process of becoming a WomenHeart Champion provides a wonderful opportunity for women to give back and change the narrative, explains McGowan, “because this network of support not only saves lives, it helps those living with the disease to thrive.”

Now in its 16th year, the Symposium has seen more than 800 women graduate so far, and WomenHeart is determined to keep that number growing.

To find out more about WomenHeart and the Science & Leadership Symposium, please view last year’s 15th anniversary S&L celebration video and visit WomenHeart’s website for more information.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017). Heart Disease Facts. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm (accessed September 2017)
  2. Park K, Wei J, Minissian M, Bairey Merz CN, Pepine CJ. Adverse Pregnancy Conditions, Infertility, and Future Cardiovascular Risk: Implications for Mother and Child. Cardiovasc Drugs Ther 2015; 29:391-401.
  3. Benjamin EH, et al. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2017 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulation 2017; 135:e146-e603.
Empowering women to educate themselves about heart disease


With over 35 years of non-profit management experience, Mary McGowan currently serves as Chief Executive Officer of WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. As the primary representative and spokesperson for this national 35,000 member patient advocacy organization serving women living with and at risk for heart disease, McGowan ensures successful implementation of the strategic direction and increases WomenHeart’s visibility and brand recognition among key audiences nationally.

McGowan joined WomenHeart in September of 2010 as Chief Operating Officer to ensure the organization’s long term growth and sustainability. McGowan provided leadership and day-to-day oversight of WomenHeart’s main components including fundraising, resource development, communications, marketing, programs and public policy. She created and implemented WomenHeart’s National Hospital Alliance, comprised of hospitals committed to advancing women’s heart health – a partnership with hospitals nationwide that seeks to ensure that women heart disease patients in every community have access to information, education and patient support services.

Prior to joining WomenHeart, Mary served as Executive Director of the Allergy & Asthma Network, the leading nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating suffering and death due to asthma, allergies and related conditions. She held various positions with the American Academy of Pediatrics during her service of 18 years.  

McGowan earned a Masters Degree in Human Resources Development from the George Washington University and a B.A. from Trinity University. She has a congenital heart disorder, a patent foramen ovale (PFO), also known as a hole in her heart, causing a minor stroke in 2010.

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