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by Gemma Handy

It took a diabetes diagnosis – followed by a stroke which initially left him unable to speak – for famed local fashion designer Calvin Southwell to pay attention to his health.

Just over a year on from the devastating day when he collapsed and was rushed to hospital by ambulance, Southwell is urging others to stay alert to the dangers of heart disease and avoid falling victim to one of the country’s biggest killers.

Today – February 3 – marks 12 months since the national Heart and Stroke Foundation launched under the tagline ‘Mind Your Heart’.

And as the coronavirus pandemic continues to pose an unprecedented risk to residents’ health, Foundation members say that risk is being exacerbated by an upsurge in cases of hypertension, otherwise known as high blood pressure.

Hypertension, which Southwell has, is one of the prime causes of heart disease and stroke.

Southwell says he didn’t even know he was diabetic until he began to feel unwell a few years ago and finally paid a visit to his physician. Even then, he admits he was lax with taking the medication he was prescribed.

“I only used to take my tablets when I felt sick. As guys we always think we’ll be fine,” he says.

“I had been working a lot last year and one day I just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me.”

It was Southwell’s wife Cassandra who noticed that his mouth was twisted and told him he was having a stroke.

“But I kept saying I was just tired and needed to lie down. Eventually an ambulance was called and by the time I reached the hospital I couldn’t speak,” he recalls.

The earth-shattering diagnosis preceded months of learning to talk again.

“I never thought something like that could happen to me,” says Southwell, head designer with the Beautiful People Carnival troupe and national director for the Miss World franchise.

“As men, we avoid going to the doctor but getting regular blood pressure and other health checks can be the difference between life and death.

“I remember my doctor saying to me, do you want to have a young pretty wife and be dead? My speaking isn’t what it used to be but I am just grateful to be alive,” Southwell adds.

For consultant cardiologist and Foundation president Dr Georgette Meade, it’s an all too familiar story.

“I have found an increase in patients being diagnosed with hypertension but they don’t take it seriously. One reason for that is because it doesn’t cause pain; that’s why we call it the silent killer,” she explains.

“We only know our blood pressure when it’s checked – so hypertension is going unrecognised, endangering the heart and damaging the kidneys too.”

There are currently more than 100 people in Antigua and Barbuda undergoing kidney dialysis – and more on a waiting list with some forced to travel overseas for it. Many of the cases are as a result of hypertension which could have been avoided.

“Culturally people look for a headache or pain in the neck, but by then the blood pressure has already been elevated for some time,” Dr Meade warns.

“I recommend annual routine check-ups, but once diagnosed with any medical illness, reviews should be done based on your physician’s guidance.”

Medication can help reduce hypertension.

“It’s important to tell your doctor if you have any side effects as doses can be adjusted. Don’t ever just stop taking the tablets,” Dr Meade says.

February is Heart Health Month – and this year’s theme is ‘self-care’.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation is appealing to residents to take action to protect their heart.

“Reducing our salt intake is key; we tend to use a lot of it to season our meat in the Caribbean.

“Exercise is very important too; aim for moderate intensity exercise – swimming, cycling, or walking at a brisk pace for 150 minutes a week, or 30 minutes a day, five days a week,” Dr Meade continues.

“Not smoking, watching our cholesterol, getting adequate rest, and ensuring diabetes control are crucial, while yoga and other relaxation techniques can also help with stress.”

Following a healthy diet means filling half the plate with fruit and veg, and swapping fried foods for wholegrains, along with fresh fish and lean meats, peas and beans.

“When taking care of yourself you must take care of your heart too,” Dr Meade adds. “Just like you check the engine on your vehicle, the heart is the engine of the body.”