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31 August 2023

Wendy Westoby with partner Colin Hankey

This is Know Your Numbers! week, in which the charity Blood Pressure UK aims to raise awareness of high blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and stroke.

Health Innovation North West Coast has played its part in delivering that message: in 2022, we created a team of volunteer Heart Heroes whose role is to deliver blood pressure and pulse tests in the community.

We spoke to Heart Hero Wendy Westoby, who has good cause to commit herself to the campaign.

At the age of 69 Wendy Westoby had a devastating stroke which left her in hospital for a month and restricted her mobility.

Some 14 years on she is a Heart Hero, a volunteer dedicated to raising awareness of high blood pressure by testing members of the public.

And she is convinced her dedication to the cause is helping to save lives. “We did a lot of testing at a library recently. One gentleman came in and when we tested him his blood pressure reading was very high. The librarian offered him a cup of coffee which I refused on his behalf!

“I tested him three times, with five-minute breaks in between and they were all very high. I gave him a letter and I understand he went straight to the doctor and the doctor sent him straight to hospital.

“There’s a good chance I saved his life or at least prevented a heart attack or stroke. I’ve taken a lot of satisfaction from that.”

Wendy, now aged 83, suffered the stroke while shopping at a garden centre. When she woke up she was in hospital in Warrington where, three weeks later, her clinical team discovered she had atrial fibrillation, or AF, an irregular heartbeat associated with coronary heart disease.

During her rehabilitation she volunteered for the Stroke Association and was given the chance to join the Innovation Agency’s AF Ambassadors, a team of volunteers who tested people’s pulses in the community using a hand-held Kardia device.

“I’m told I tested about 2,150 people for AF in about four and a half years and if five per cent of those had AF – which seems to be the general figure – I’m hoping I’ve prevented strokes in around 50 to 100 people.

“That’s really important to me. I’m delighted. There was no warning for me about what was going to happen with my stroke. If there had been something like an early warning I might have been able to do something about it.

“That’s why it’s really crucial for me to try to get the word out there.”

Health Innovation North West Coast’s AF project won an award for collaboration in the HSJ Awards in 2021 and, while the project eventually closed, the team behind it wanted to maintain its momentum and created Heart Heroes.

The team of around 50 volunteers in the North West Coast now combine pulse testing with blood pressure testing.

They receive training and test blood pressure with readily available machines. Organised by the Innovation Agency’s Patient and Public Involvement team, they carry out screening at mosques, temples, supermarkets, libraries, vaccination centres and sporting fixtures.

Screening focuses on areas of highest deprivation and where there are communities from ethnic minorities and those experiencing social exclusion, as highlighted in the NHS England Core20Plus5 approach to tackling health inequalities.

“Since the beginning of 2022 I must have tested hundreds of people. Sometimes it’s just a handful, other times it’s great queues of people,” says Wendy, who lives with her partner Colin Hankey in Leigh, Greater Manchester.

“It’s so important to know your numbers – I know mine! – because you need to know what’s going on in your own body. Your blood pressure should be neither too high, nor too low, and people should get to know what’s the average for them.

“I like to think I’m contributing. When you have a stroke you lose everything in the blink of an eye. It’s very, very demoralising. I can’t drive, I can’t cook as well as I could, I can’t garden, but what I can do is sit down and test people to prevent them having a stroke.

“I get a great deal of satisfaction from it.”

Wendy and Colin are both active members of the Innovation Agency’s Patient and Public Involvement team. If you would like to volunteer to become a Heart Hero, contact the Innovation Agency’s Public Involvement Lead Debbie Parkinson: Debbie.Parkinson@innovationagencynwc.nhs.uk

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