After leaving the doctors office a number of times with only a prescription of breathing techniques to remedy her symptoms, Jaemie Harley woke up one night barely breathing. Next thing she remembered was entering an OR to receive an angiogram. Soon after the surprise surgery, Harley was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Harley was one of many Black women sporting all red at the Eighth Annual Wear Red Day and Photoshoot hosted by The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness last Saturday at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. FFBWW Ambassador Harley and others shared stories with common themes of having their symptoms overlooked or downplayed by health care professionals here in Dane County.  

“We know when our bodies are not operating as they should, we know when they don’t feel right and I want [women] to take action,” said FFBWW Founder and President Lisa Peyton-Caire.

“When you feel anything that doesn’t feel right, go to the doctor. It could make the difference between life and death, literally.”

This annual event is a local commemoration of the American Heart Association’s National Wear Red Day in support of women’s heart health, but with a sharp focus on Black women.

“[Heart health] is specifically important for the African American community because there’s a huge disparity between African American females and Caucasian females in Wisconsin, specifically in Dane county it’s very high– we’re dying at a fast rate,” said FFBWW organizer April Kigeya.

According to a recent report by the Healthy Dane Collaborative, between 1990 and 2009, Wisconsin was the only state where the life expectancy gap between Black and White communities widened–leaving the life expectancy gap between Black women and white women to grow from nearly 5 years to 6.4 years.

The awareness event had refreshments and community vendors lining the walls of the church’s Fellowship Hall. Attendees mingled, shopped and walked the red carpet to take photos underneath the Black Women’s Wellness banner in their red outfits.

“It’s like a family reunion when you have everyone come together, not only do they come together to fellowship and network but we educate ourselves on heart health from a cultural perspective,” said FFBWW Board Member Carola Gaines.

“There’s Go Red, of course, at the American Heart Association, they partner with us, but when you go to those larger events it’s predominantly white–this event concentrates on us…for us, by us, to us,” she said.

Once the annual large group photo was taken, the sea of red flowed into the main sanctuary to be greeted by 77th District Representative Shelia Stubbs and hear from a panelist of heart disease survivors, health care professionals, and a fitness expert.

Dr. Adrienne Hampton of UW-Health was one of the panelists who listened to concerns as women shared cautionary tales regarding their health. Hampton offered useful tips to the audience and urged women to be vigilant in monitoring their own health. Following a number of testimonials, Fitness coach Shannon Johnson gave diet suggestions and got the entire audience to participate in a “flash fitness” exercise to close out the panel.

“I think this year there was a lot more intimacy. We spent more time listening and allowing those stories to come forth. And we had a lot more audience engagement,” Peyton-Caire said.

“Women from around the state are beginning to pay attention to what we’re doing,” she said noting that women traveled from Beloit and Milwaukee to attend Saturday’s event. “I see us taking on a more statewide presence as our next evolution and it’s wonderful to see that growth happening.”

“To be in a position to continuously engage with black women and to educate in a way that I know is having an impact on improving our health as a community. So I am always blessed and fortunate that women continue to come back and to bring more women into this movement we’ve created.”

The 11th Annual Black Women’s Wellness Day will be held this September. In the meantime, the foundation hosts a weekly walk at the State Capitol and monthly yoga sessions for anyone looking to engage in more wellness activities.