Students from UMass Dartmouth and the Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School volunteered on Feb. 9 as part of the “Love Your Heart” event. The New Bedford Wellness Initiative has operated this program for the past five years.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 edition of Senior Scope. Article and photo by Seth Thomas.

On Feb. 9, dozens of volunteers stationed throughout New Bedford didn’t miss a beat.

About 500 people received blood pressure checks during the fifth annual “Love Your Heart” event, a project of the New Bedford Wellness Initiative. Health care professionals set up tables at seven locations throughout the City, which ranged from grocery stores to churches, and offered free blood pressure readings that morning.

In addition to having their blood pressure checked, visitors could receive educational handouts and a list of community resources should they need to access health care.

Dr. Michael Rocha, a cardiologist based at Hawthorn Medical Associates who founded the Wellness Initiative, said the event was designed to inspire people to consider their health during American Heart Month.

“This is an opportunity for outreach and to talk about what leads to heart disease,” said Rocha at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater New Bedford. “There are a lot of people who don’t know they have high blood pressure.”

The National Institutes of Health recommends that you have your blood pressure checked at least once a year. If you have consistently high blood pressure readings, your health care provider may diagnose you with high blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension.

While some risk factors for high blood pressure are related to genetics, some risk factors – like smoking and a sedentary lifestyle – can be changed. As many of the health care professionals volunteering at the event noted: simply knowing your blood pressure is half the battle.

Maryellen Brisbois, an assistant professor of community nursing at UMass Dartmouth, said hypertension is one of the most common undiagnosed chronic illnesses.

“A lot of people walk around without knowing that they have hypertension, and it can lead to chronic illnesses and early death,” said Brisbois.

She said people may sometimes experience symptoms related to high blood pressure, such as experiencing dizziness or feeling flushed. Oftentimes, there are no symptoms at all, which is why it’s important to monitor your heart.

“There are a lot of opportunities to check your blood pressure – at the grocery store and at pharmacies. So access is fairly easy,” she said. “But I think the most important thing is the follow-through. If someone’s prescribed medication or a follow-up check, it’s important to follow through with those instructions.”

Members of the UMass Dartmouth student club, the Global Health Collaborative, and students from the Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School paired together to check blood pressures at the Boys & Girls Club that morning.

With a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff in hand, UMass Dartmouth student Gina DeBalsi listed off various steps one can take to lower their blood pressure: eating a diet low in sodium, keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum, quitting smoking and exercising.

Should you be diagnosed with hypertension, your doctor will develop a treatment plan incorporating these lifestyle changes and, if necessary, medication to lower your blood pressure.

“Patient education is the biggest thing they teach us at school,” said DeBalsi. “If you can’t educate your patient, you’re not going to be able to help them.”

To learn more about the New Bedford Wellness Initiative, including information about the free fitness classes they offer at the Boys & Girls Club, visit their Facebook page at: or visit the Boys & Girls Club of Greater New Bedford on Sunday mornings between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.


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