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Heart health is focus of Cox program

Monday, October 19, 2009

Identifying youngsters who are at-risk for heart disease is the guiding purpose of Cox Monett Hospital's Cardiac Kids program.

Each fall and spring, the hospital partners with schools in the bi-county area to educate fifth graders about heart health. The program also includes the opportunity for students to be screened at no cost.

The hospital launched Cardiac Kids in the fall of 2003, beginning the pilot program with the Monett School District. The program used by Cox Monett was developed by Dr. William Neal, a pediatric cardiologist with the West Virginia University School of Medicine, and adapted to the local community.

In its first year, the program reached 158 fifth graders in one school district, and by its sixth year, Cox Monett had expanded Cardiac Kids to 12 school districts and 781 students.

This fall, the hospital has already completed the program at Monett, Exeter, Pierce City, Verona, St. Lawrence, Sarcoxie and Aurora schools with plans to visit Mt. Vernon, Shell Knob, Purdy, Miller and Marionville this winter.

"The schools look forward to us coming back every year," said Lauren Holland, Cox Monett Hospital's wellness educator. "We try to accommodate the schools in everything we do."

The CARDIAC in Cardiac Kids stands for Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Area Children. The program, a first of its kind in Missouri, focuses on identifying early risk factors in children and their families through a series of school-based activities.

The program targets fifth graders, because students in the 10-year-old range are old enough to understand the risks of heart disease and young enough to make eating and exercise decisions that can change those risks.

"Heart disease can start at a young age," said Nancy Ridgley, Cox Monett Hospital's community wellness director. "Either we can prevent it, reduce the risk or build upon it every year. We teach kids you don't have to live with high cholesterol, you can improve it."

Based on statistics compiled during Cardiac Kids' six-year history, an average of 41 percent of children who undergo cholesterol screenings through the program are identified as being at risk for being overweight. Of that group, around 23 percent are overweight.

"Based on these numbers, you can see this is a big concern," said Holland. "Cardiac Kids is trying to address that concern."

The program begins with a fifth grade school assembly held at each participating school. This 30- to 45-minute assembly is led by Holland.

"I talk to the fifth graders about how to keep a healthy heart, and I ask them questions about the heart," said Holland. "We also talk about nutrition, physical activity and tobacco use. Then we talk about cholesterol. It's very interactive."

Following the assembly, students are offered the opportunity to participate in a free cardiovascular disease risk factor screening, which is conducted before school. Children are screened for high blood pressure, body mass index, cholesterol, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Cox College of Nursing students assist with the screening.

Children participate in the screening only if their parents return a signed permission slip to the school. After the screening, results are sent to the parents and their physician for follow-up as needed.

A third component of the Cardiac program is an evening Cardiac Fun session that involves students and their parents. Participation in the two-hour session is voluntarily, and Holland says her classes range in size from 15 to 30.

This hand-on session focuses on healthy food preparation and physical activity participation. Children and their parents make a healthy meal together under the direction of a registered dietitian while learning about heart healthy meals and portion sizes.

In addition to nutrition education, the student and their parents also learn about opportunities for increased physical education. This segment of the session involves participating in a physical activity together as a group. Participants are also given free pedometers to help them keep track of their physical activity as they practice what they learned at home.

Missouri Southern State University wellness students and Missouri State University dietetic students assist with Cardiac Fun night.

"It's a real blast," said Holland. "Families like it, and the kids love it."

The Cardiac Kids program is provided free of charge to participating schools. The program is funded through the Children's Miracle Network. This year, the Cox Monett Hospital Auxiliary also assisted with the program by donating money so that every fifth grader who goes through the cardiovascular screening receives a $5 Walmart gift card.

Hospital officials would like to see the program expand into additional school districts, but that growth will depend on increased funding.

"There's definitely funding opportunities for this program," said Ridgley. "We'd love to go to more schools, but we are limited by our funding."

Cardiac Kids does not end in the fifth grade. The hospital attempts to follow up with sixth graders who had out-of-range lab results when they were tested the year before.

"We send letters home and try to get them to come back for another cholesterol screening, which is free," said Holland. "We do our best to keep track of these students, because it's so important."

It is in the re-testing where program results are being seen. Last year, 86 percent of the students who were re-tested showed improved screening results.

"These statistics show our program is working," said Holland.

Individuals or school districts who are interested in learning more about Cox Monett Hospital's Cardiac Kids program can contact Holland directly at 236-2596.

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