The sea of red swayed. Hands stretched up and out. Feet moved that for the moment had kicked themselves free of heels high and colorful. Music throbbed and women laughed.
Despite appearances, this was serious business. More than 300 women, mostly African-American, arrived in church buses, car pools or alone from around the Tampa Bay area to learn how to save lives — their own and others in the community.
At the end of last weekend's session, they learned that as black women, they are at a high risk for cardiovascular disease and death. Higher than white women. And they would have left with plenty of information to help them lessen that risk.
Saturday's gathering at the Hilton at Carillon Park in St. Petersburg was the fifth organized by the American Heart Association, the American Stroke Association and local black nurses.
The program is designed to tap into the spirituality of those who attend and get them to associate biblical teachings with the care of their bodies. This year's gathering was the largest yet for the annual Heart and Spirit of a Woman Conference. That's because more people were invited to get involved this year, said Evelyn C. Gardner, recently retired as chair of nursing at P-Tech in St. Petersburg.
"The approach we used was to go across the bridge,'' she said, referring to the joint effort incorporating the St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay and Clearwater-Largo chapters of the National Black Nurses Association.
Gardner is an evangelist of sorts, spreading news about prevention of cardiovascular disease and trying to get men and women to address risk factors such as smoking, obesity and diabetes.
"Forty percent of African-American women aged 20 and over have some form of cardiovascular disease, but the good news is it can be prevented,'' she said. "I'm out there almost every weekend of the month doing health fairs throughout the community. We recognize that we have not put a dent in any of these risk factors. I don't know what it's going to take, but we will not stop trying.''
Saturday morning, other professionals like Gardner shared their knowledge about medicines, exercise and nutrition with the hundreds of women filling the hotel ballroom. Almost everyone sported something red, the color of the American Heart Association's campaign to encourage women to reduce their risk of heart disease.
Janie McGrew, a nurse at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, was there as an unpaid "stroke ambassador.'' She set up a table with information about strokes and grabbed anyone who glanced her way. Her father had a debilitating stroke, she said, one of the reasons she is committed to her mission. "I just believe in it so much,'' she said. "I take it to the churches. I do it at family reunions. I do a lot at my hospital. This has been one of the most rewarding things I've done.''
Natasha Walker, a certified personal trainer, dispensed advice about exercise and nutrition.
"You can break the cycle. We set the tone with what is served in our homes,'' she told the women before urging them out of their chairs for a spot of exercise.
Gardner is hopeful that everyone returned home with a new resolve.
"I hope that they will be proactive in their own health care, take the message back to their different chapters and their communities and their churches, their neighborhoods and talk about how we can help decrease the devastating disease of heart disease and stroke,'' she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.