Meg O’Connell

Living with Heartfelt Intent

By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alice G. Patterson

Every action taken by Allyn Foundation executive director Meg O’Connell is intentional.

In raising three daughters, now ages 20, 23 and 25, she made purposeful decisions to teach them healthy habits and lifestyles. In her decades working in the nonprofit sector, Meg’s deliberate choices have impacted people across Central New York. In her own life, she makes conscious commitments to not only live a heathy life, but continue to set positive examples for her daughters and those around her.

Taking the role of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign chairwoman was an intentional choice as well. Since its inception in 2003, these efforts by the AHA have saved more than 670,000 women’s lives across the country, according to recent data released by the organization.

Before getting involved with Go Red, Meg didn’t know heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States.

But when she met and worked with past chairwoman Gwen Webber-McLeod, and learned her story, Meg thought, “Wow. This is really real for women.”

“I knew about cancer,” Meg said. “There’s so much awareness. But then you think about [the fact that] heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, and we just don’t hear about it.”

So — like all aspects of life and causes important to Meg — she made an effort to be informed, and help spread education and awareness.

Moving upstream

Meg, originally from Rockville, Md., describes her college self as a “traditional liberal arts student.” She majored in religion, with a minor in women’s studies — “as most people would say, the most impractical thing,” she joked in retrospect. At one point, she considered earning a doctorate in divinity studies, but realized she thrived in more of a hands-on environment.

“I realized that I’m more of a doer of a person,” Meg said, “and I’ve always really liked more of the human sector and the social services side of things.”

Having spent decades in the nonprofit sector, including work at a battered women’s shelter in Virginia, Planned Parenthood locally, and many years in her current position at the foundation, Meg prefers the administrative side of the social service equation, she said.

She’s worked in crisis services before, constantly pulling people out from circumstances that pushed them downstream. But now, she opts to view the bigger picture, and examine the roots of the issues.

“At some point in your career,” Meg said, “you step back and look up the river and say, ‘What’s pushing people into the river? What’s making these circumstances?’”

Getting involved in Go Red

Working with the Allyn Foundation — and also with the American Heart Association — has given Meg the opportunity to address some of those “upstream” issues affecting the community.

“I got involved with the American Heart Association,” Meg paused, smiled and chuckled. “I kind of blame two, maybe three people.”

For years, Meg’s office was housed at Welch Allyn headquarters, and overseeing the company’s charitable giving fell within her job responsibilities.

When the father of Welch Allyn colleague Tim Callahan passed away from heart disease, Tim got involved with the American Heart Association. After Tim suggested Meg attend the Go Red for Women’s inaugural luncheon in 2003, she became dedicated to the cause.

Meg also credits past Welch Allyn employee Kathleen Garofalo, the AHA’s current board chair, for influencing her interest in the cause, along with Welch Allyn employee and past Go Red luncheon Passion Speaker Terry Major.

Terry never had the chance to meet her grandmother, who died from a heart attack at age 50. When Terry was 21 years old and her mother 46 years old, her mother suffered a heart attack as well. Her mother survived, and is alive and well now, but the experience was a wakeup call for Terry to focus on a healthy lifestyle.

But when Terry was 49 years old, she got sick. Meg remembers passing Terry in the halls of Welch Allyn and noticing something wasn’t right.

After lots of testing and a lucky check of new blood pressure equipment at work, which coincidentally happened to catch Terry’s heart rate at its lowest point, Terry was diagnosed with sick sinus syndrome and had a pacemaker put in.

When Meg saw her friend go through the experience, it really drove home one of Go Red’s key mantras: “Know your numbers.” The AHA lists five numbers women should know to stay heart-healthy: total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass index.

“I have great faith in the medical system, but it’s also something where women just have to know,” Meg said. “The whole concept of knowing your numbers — I didn’t even know that, and here I was, still pretty healthy.”

Community prosperity

Seeing the Go Red for Women campaign grow, Meg developed deep admiration for the previous chairwomen and their work.

It all boils down to grassroots and community efforts, Meg explained, similar to those she’s familiar with through her work to decrease poverty in the area. She’s aiming for more “community prosperity,” she said.

A long-time supporter of community colleges, Meg served as interim president of Onondaga Community College in 2011, before current president Dr. Casey Crabill took office. Community colleges serve as a stepping stone, Meg explained.

“If you get somebody to go to community college for two years, you’re moving them a step out of poverty,” she said, pointing out the opportunity it could afford the potential student.

Despite socio-economic standing, many women still fall prey to the trap of putting their own health last. Although it might be counterintuitive, Meg said, it’s important to take care of yourself first. She compares it to airplane safety; put on your own mask, and then when you’re capable, help the person beside you.

While she admits that’s antithetical to her instincts, she’s learned to adjust, and taught her daughters by example the importance of making your own health a priority.

But not everyone has that luxury.

“I worry tremendously about women who are in circumstances where their own health takes their lowest priority,” Meg said. “How can we try to get [them] more opportunities and more awareness of why it’s so critical?”

The Go Red campaign has made efforts on that front. According to recent AHA stats, the rate of awareness for women’s heart health has increased 30 percent since 1997. Go Red for Women registration has exceeded 1.1 million people. There have been more than 1.9 million Go Red heart checkups. Women no longer pay higher premiums than men for the same health insurance coverage. Finally, the CDC Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention’s WISEWOMAN — an acronym for “Well-Integrated Screening and Evaluation for Women Across the Nation” — program for low-income women exists in 20 states.

The campaign’s victories in Syracuse are noteworthy as well, Meg said, pointing out that Go Red is one of the most mobilized forces in the area, and in turn, one of the most successful campaigns in the country. Go Red in Syracuse has also become much more diverse since that first luncheon in 2003, Meg remarked.

For all that success, Meg credits past chairwomen.

“I think [the campaign leaders have] really built a true movement to think about these issues,” she said. “It’s such an awareness. It’s amazing to me.”

A turn with the Red baton

Throughout the years, Meg stayed involved with the AHA through ties with Welch Allyn and connections to past leaders.

Then one day, two past chairwomen, Aminy Audi and Anne Messenger, asked Meg if she could meet with them.

“I have a favor to ask you,” Aminy said.

Although Meg is deeply involved with other local efforts, not to mention running the foundation, she couldn’t turn down the position of chair.

“[Aminy] is a woman I truly could never have said no to, not that I wouldn’t have done the Go Red [chairwomanship], because I was really passionate about it,” Meg said.

Following in the footsteps of Aminy, Anne and many other strong, community-minded professional women in the area, Meg knew it was her turn to lead Go Red and raise awareness and a call to action for women to take control of their own health.

One of Meg’s main goals for the campaign is to continue the work already set in motion by the AHA, and keep up the thriving momentum of Go Red. Some of Syracuse’s larger employers offer programs aimed at educating women of the importance of heart health, and Meg aims to keep those active.

Furthermore, Meg hopes to include more out-of-reach locations and women in Go Red. People who work at locations like Upstate are relatively easily exposed to the campaign; but stay-at-home mothers or small business owners don’t always have the same opportunities for connections.

She also hopes to bring more Go Red efforts to Cayuga County and rural areas that aren’t as inundated with health education as larger cities.

Meg anticipates a lot of the work in the coming year will overlap with her community prosperity efforts. Preventative efforts for heart health include a healthy diet and lifestyle. Something as simple — yet crucial — as fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t as accessible to some people as they are to others.

Food deserts — an issue the AHA’s Community Action Committee has addressed in the past — are areas with a poverty rate of more than 20 percent and no full-service grocery stores. There are several on the south and west sides of Syracuse.

Meg has been involved in the past with a mobile market, an effort to give people a grocery alternative to corner markets.

“Those are all good things for our community, because food deserts are huge issues for underrepresented areas,” Meg explained. “So I think that’s really key for this as well.”

The heart of the matter

Meg’s hopes to make Syracuse a healthier place start at home. The cornerstone of a healthy life is intentional choices.

A mother, dedicated professional and involved community member, Meg stressed that as a working parent, it’s important to engage your children. When her girls were growing up, the family went on walks. They played sports. They made the winter bearable with snowshoes and skis. But until a few years ago, Meg didn’t always remember to schedule her own regular checkups — a crucial tool when it comes to knowing your numbers.

“I was horrible with that,” she said. “Again, what do you prioritize?”

In 2009, Meg read an article that suggested the best birthday present: schedule yourself an annual exam. Every year since, she’s treated herself.

On a day-to-day basis, Meg exercises, eats well and makes sure to get eight hours of sleep every night. Keeping to those intentional health decisions isn’t always convenient, but it’s necessary.

“If it’s important to you, you have to try to figure out how to make it work,” Meg said. SWM

To learn more about the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign, visit goredforwomen.org. For more on the AHA, visit heart.org. The AHA’s Syracuse Heart Walk is slated for Saturday, April 1 at the SRC Arena at Onondaga Community College.

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