Last week, we lost a woman who has had a greater impact on women’s heart health in Israel than any doctor around – but most Israelis do not know her name. Mrs. Irene Pollin passed away in Amherst, Massachusetts at the age of 96, leaving behind a remarkable legacy of advocacy and support for women’s cardiovascular wellness in Israel and the United States.
“The most important thing you wrote,” remarked Mrs. Pollin in a phone call from Bethesda, “was on page 27.” My eyebrows went up. I was pretty sure that the only one who read every word of those 50-page reports was my father. “You noted that you were having trouble reaching working women. I want you to reach the working woman.” That was in 2016.
And so a new program was born. In partnership with Naamat, the Pollin Center at Hadassah started training mid-level human resource managers in how to promote health and wellness in the workplace. Since 2016, more than 35,000 workers in Israel have been directly affected by this program, with only healthy food served at office meetings, physical activity programs held at work, smoking cessation programs given during work-time, and more. All of these were inspired by and financially supported by Irene Pollin.
Mrs. Pollin, who passed away last week, was a pioneer, activist and revolutionary with a conservative demeanor, a philanthropist, a Washington real estate magnate, a co-owner with her husband Abe Pollin of championship sports teams (the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics,) and all with a practical down-to-earth manner that just got things done. Devastated by the loss of two children to heart disease, Pollin channeled her personal experience with grief into a new career as a psychotherapist, and published two books on groundbreaking approaches to grief counseling and chronic illness. She then transformed her personal anguish into a lifelong mission to prevent heart disease, saying over and over: “if you were born with a healthy heart, keep it that way.”
“I was on this national committee working on breast cancer” she told me, (not mentioning that she was a Presidential appointee to the National Cancer Advisory Board of the National Institute of Health) “when I suddenly realized that many more women die of heart disease every year than breast cancer. Why is no one working on that?” Mrs. Pollin paid a visit to Dr. Elizabeth Nadel, then director of the American National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Shortly afterward, in 2002, the Red Dress – Heart Truth campaign was launched in the US to raise heart awareness in women through unprecedented industry partnerships. Thanks to that campaign, awareness of heart disease in women has significantly increased, and physicians no longer dismiss women who complain of chest pain.
That wasn’t enough to satisfy the activist spirit of Pollin, and she founded Sister to Sister, the first advocacy group to promote women’s heart health. Pollin organized mass screening events in cities throughout the United States, checking blood pressure, measuring blood sugar levels, and counseling more than 100,000 women across America. She also founded programs that promoted heart health in women at Harvard, UCLA, and Johns Hopkins.
Her close personal friendship with Yitzhak and Leah Rabin, forged when Rabin was ambassador in Washington, inspired her to pursue her mission in Israel as well, and her friendship with Sally Oren led her to make an extraordinary donation to Hadassah Women. In 2013 she founded the Linda Joy Pollin Cardiovascular Wellness Center for Women at Hadassah Hospital, named after her daughter who died after open-heart surgery at age 16.
“I want you to work on wellness and well-being, not just preventing disease.” Mrs. Pollin directed us as we formulated our mission statement. The psychotherapist-turned-activist pushed us to aim higher and higher. She treasured each and every program that the Hadassah Pollin Center initiated: the elementary and high school programs; patient empowerment workshops; the intensive lifestyle interventions in Arab women in East Jerusalem, and the unique cultural adaptations that we made for community programs in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods.
Mrs. Pollin even had distinct opinions on the center’s website. At age 89, she explained to me how it ought to look. “Someone coming to the website should feel like they’re coming into a warm and welcoming home. It should be clean and bright and convey our message.”
It has been a great privilege to work for the last seven years with perhaps that rarest type of leader: a pragmatic visionary. Everything she imagined seemed impossible at the time, but her determination, distinctive clarity of vision, and unassailable commitment led to her accomplish everything that she set out to do. In Israel, the Pollin Center awareness campaigns have informed tens of thousands of Israeli women about the signs and symptoms of heart disease in women and how and when to get help. She has been the inspiration behind innovative individual and group programs targeting heart-healthy behavior change, and a web-tool that helps women identify and advocate for the health care screening that they need. Mrs. Pollin leaves a truly remarkable and transformative legacy in the United States and in Israel. I will miss her piercing questions, her skeptical enthusiasm, and most of all her vitality. May she be remembered for the powerhouse of blessing that she was.
PS: In her memory and honor, please sign up for a heart health check-up today. Get your blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol checked- you can prevent heart disease!