(In photo: Simone Barton)
by NADIA ARANDJELOVIC
When Simone Barton imagined her career path in her 40s, she never saw herself running a local non-profit. A former wealth manager, she was planning to transition into the reinsurance sector as it was “where the big bucks were”. However, after a recruiter saw her potential to thrive in the field of philanthropy, she decided to take a risk by managing and growing the Bermuda Heart Foundation (BHF), a then-fledgling charity.
Mrs Barton has now served as the Foundation’s CEO since 2008. Founded by cardiologist Dr Shane Marshall and internist Dr Marion Watlington, the Bermuda Heart Foundation’s mission is to reduce heartrelated illnesses in Bermuda by ‘advocating, supporting and promoting cardiovascular health’ through education and awareness initiatives.
“When I first started working with the charity, it had a bank account and a name. That was it,” Mrs Barton said. “I knew I could get the Foundation up and running because of my years as an entrepreneur. I had started several successful businesses before going into banking. My plan was to put in a lot of hard work for two years and then go back to the corporate world. I saw it as an opportunity to give back to Bermuda. I had no idea this would become my passion and mission.”
In the early days of the charity, Mrs Barton’s team would go out into the community to perform various health tests and screenings for blood pressure and blood sugar issues. She quickly saw that people were dying from preventable illnesses; this was largely due to a lack of understanding about what it actually meant to be healthy.
“It started to bother me because if we could just help someone to take their medicine, manage their blood pressure and practice lifestyle modification, they could live longer and be happy,” she explained.
“Frequently, it’s a lack of understanding or fear of change that prevents people from getting healthy.”
The BHF decided to get ahead of heart disease by establishing CORE, a cardiac prevention and rehabilitation programme. Mrs Barton dedicated a year to learning everything she could about heart health and disease management – this included traveling from New York to the UK to review various cardiac programmes elsewhere.
Back in Bermuda, she told anyone who would listen about her grand vision for a cardiac awareness and support centre. New York Presbyterian Hospital was the first international body that bought into the vision. “Many people told me I was crazy and that prevention programmes would never work,” Mrs Barton said.
“I thought that here, on this small, 21-square-mile long island, we have an opportunity to demonstrate that prevention works and we could serve as a petri dish of sort for the rest of the world.”
In October 2009, she made a pitch to local insurance companies, citing research that showed how every dollar spent on prevention could yield a $13 return on investment. They, along with others, supported the idea – much to her astonishment.
In less than six months, she was able to raise more than $750,000, find a location and completely gut and rebuild it with all of the medical software and supplies needed to adequately service those at risk for health issues, including heart conditions.
CORE had its soft opening in September 2010, allowing the BHF team to beta test the concept and see if they could truly turn the tide on heart disease in Bermuda. “The results were amazing from the start,” Mrs Barton explained. “What we discovered is that people want to know how to live a healthier lifestyle, but you can’t share that information from the pulpit by preaching at or vilifying them. You must do so from a caring, nurturing, and loving place that says, ‘I hear you. I notice you. I get you and this is how we’re going to get healthy together.’”
After seeing hundreds of people work to improve their health over the years, the BHF team encourage people to strive for progression, not perfection.
“People believe that if they don’t eat healthy all the time, they won’t be able to live or enjoy their lives,” she said. “We teach people the 80/20 rule, which states that they should do what they need to do 80 percent of the time.” They eat well and exercise regularly. The remaining 20 percent are free to do whatever they want. If they want three pieces of chicken and a biscuit, they can have that as long as it isn’t on a regular basis.”
Local insurance companies cover up to 23 visits to CORE for policyholders. Through its charitable efforts, BHF can provide patients with an additional nine visits – this ensures those who walk through their doors truly ‘get it’. The process starts with CORE’s team of professionals getting to know each individual patient, then establishing an exercise and diet programme – one that begins small and gradually progresses to get the person to where they need to be health-wise.
They’ve witnessed numerous success stories over the years. People not only improve their physical strength and endurance, but many are able to stop or reduce their medication intake. “We provide a jumpstart to a healthier lifestyle, which we all require from time to time,” Mrs Barton said.
“People believe that because health is all over the news, TV and social media, we automatically know what to do to take care of our bodies. That, however, is not the case. We’ve been able to keep patients healthy, lower hospitalisation rates and assist people in living longer, happier lives by providing a trusted resource that is free of judgment and delivered in a nurturing environment.”
One of the stories that stands out for Mrs Barton over the years is that of a young woman who lost her father unexpectedly due to a heart attack. A month later, the daughter enrolled her mother in the CORE programme in an attempt to prevent the same thing from happening again.
“It was discovered through the programme’s risk stratification process that the mother was on the verge of having a heart attack,” Mrs Barton said.
“This young woman would have lost both her mother and father within months of each other, but we were able to get the mother the help she needed. She was taken to New York Presbyterian Hospital for a stent (a short, wire-mesh tube that plays a role in treating heart disease) and is still doing well eight years later.”
BHF’s community outreach is the organisation’s other facet. Through youth exercise programme, Jump 2B Fit, children and teens learn to enjoy exercise. The programme has seen young competitors travel all over the world to compete.
In addition to hosting ‘Lunch and Learns’ and free health screenings, they also offer medical professional development seminars. “This work has been the most difficult and rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Mrs Barton explained. “It was a mission that grew into my passion, allowing me to live a life of service to others. As a result, the two years I promised them has turned into more than twelve. I can’t think of anything more meaningful or fulfilling than advocating for preventive healthcare.”
For more information about BHF, visit www.bermudaheartfoundation.com