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In the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, a woman in a red dress and a sash was making rounds. She was greeting patients at the door. She was handing out pens. And she was posing for many a camera-phone picture.

Jillian Pirtle, Miss Black Pennsylvania 2011, visited Penn Medicine’s Heart and Vascular Center Friday for National Wear Red Day, a part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women campaign designed to empower women to take charge of their own heart health.

“Every minute of the day, a woman has a heart attack,” said Pirtle, 28, after touring the facility and speaking with doctors. According to the American Medical Association, heart disease takes more women’s lives annually than breast cancer and is the number-one cause of death in the United States. “This day means life and awareness,” Pirtle said.

Helene Glassberg, a Penn Medicine assistant professor, welcomed Pirtle’s efforts to raise awareness about heart health, especially among black females. Coupled with women’s genetic predisposition for heart disease, “awareness is limited in African American communities,” Glassberg said. What is more, “females are treated less aggressively” than men, according to Glassberg, since “the concept is that men are more likely to get heart disease.”

Clara Moderski, patient service representative at the Center, also hailed Pirtle’s visit. “She speaks nicely, she’s young, and she wants to get involved,” Moderski said. She appreciated Pirtle’s efforts to get the word out about heart health, since “heart disease in women is very sneaky.”

Pirtle, who attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, encouraged young people to eat healthier, avoid smoking, exercise more and relax in order to reduce potential risk factors for heart disease, citing increasing numbers of young people with heart-related issues. Glassberg confirmed this notion, saying, “For sure, we’ve seen an increase in risk factors [in patients] earlier on than ever.”

Pirtle’s visit also served as preparation for the Miss Black USA competition, whose platform is women’s heart health. The Miss Black USA competition is an annual program founded in 1986 to promote educational and leadership opportunities for young black women. Pirtle chose to visit Penn before the August 2011 national competition because she considered its medical facilities a “leading force for preventing heart disease across the nation … The doctors are visionaries in protecting the lives and hearts of women.”

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