By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
The Bosnian woman with dark hair and penetrating eyes showed up several times in the ER with chest pain and was desperate for help.
She was referred to cardiology clinic, but the puzzling part was that the chest pain didn’t seem like a heart problem. Finally, after a determined effort working through a translator, Emelia Benjamin, M.D., came to understand that the woman had been tortured.
She didn’t know many details beyond that, but it was enough to get the woman help. Afterward, the woman grabbed Benjamin by the shoulders, looked her in the eye and conveyed a deep gratitude, as if to say, “You heard me.” She knew she’d made a difference.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” said Benjamin, attending cardiologist and assistant provost for faculty development at Boston University Medical Campus, and vice chair for faculty development and diversity in the Department of Medicine.
While the story illustrates her commitment to helping patients, Benjamin is also well-known for helping her colleagues in their efforts to help other patients. In June she received a Gold Heart award from the American Heart Association for her passion in helping early-career researchers.
Benjamin has developed a remarkable international and ethnically diverse talent pool of young investigators, whose work is critical for the future of research. In fact she fully funds the association’s Young Investigator Award, and colleagues say that her dedication to diversity takes an incredible amount of effort that she never shies from.
Benjamin is finishing a 12-year stint as associate editor for the AHA’s scientific journal Circulation and chairs the association’s Heart Disease and Stroke Statistical Update. Her career in cardiovascular genetic epidemiology has spanned several decades. She has held a number of roles with the Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948 and is the oldest running research study to identify genetic and environmental factors influencing the development of heart disease.
Benjamin, 59, grew up on a sheep farm in Eugene, Oregon. In seventh grade, she decided she’d be a scientist who would work with people. “That was my north star — being a doctor,” she said. “I wanted to do something that all the other girls were not going to do.”
She didn’t let the fact that she flunked her first exam at medical school deter her. “Some people are naturals at academic medicine,” she said. “I was an elbow-grease type of person.”
The appeal of one of medicine’s most ubiquitous devices led her to cardiology, while her zeal for public health and prevention drew her to epidemiology.
“I loved the fact that you could use your stethoscope to make a diagnosis,” she said. “A lot of cardiology is taking a good history and really listening to patients.”
She added: “A cardiovascular epidemiologist is someone who studies cardiovascular disease in the community. How common is it? What is the prognosis? What are the risk factors? If you understand the prevalence of any condition, then you can start thinking more about how you can prevent it.”
She’s passionate about persuading people to do the right thing, but, more importantly, understanding why they don’t always don’t do the right thing.
“There are a lot of complicated reasons people end up with heart disease,” Benjamin said.
Weight gain and other health issues can be caused by a “complicated stew of social and environmental determinants” she said.
For example, a patient might need a diuretic for a medical condition, yet in reality that may not be the best solution.
“It could be complicated if the person is homeless and doesn’t have access to a bathroom,” Benjamin said. “I try to understand the person in front of me and work with them in those confines.”
For many people in less urgent situations, just staying healthier is often difficult. For those people, she advises concentrating on the small steps.
“If someone is completely sedentary, I don’t want them to run the Boston Marathon. Sometimes we create such an unattainable goal, people feel like they can’t start,” she said. “You don’t get that much more bang from the buck from moderate to vigorous exercise. The real gain is from going to couch potato to exercising 30 minutes a day.”
Benjamin discussed the association’s goal to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans 20 percent by 2020, while reducing deaths from heart disease and stroke by 20 percent.
“In the past most heart specialists have focused on the second half of the equation. But what is really beautiful about this goal is that it also focuses on how we can improve the health of all Americans,” she said.