Donna Arnett, Ph.D., last month received the Gold Heart award from the American Heart Association. (Photo by Tim Sharp)

Donna Arnett, Ph.D., last month received the Gold Heart award from the American Heart Association. (Photo by Tim Sharp)

As a child, Donna Arnett was glued to TV shows like Marcus Welby, M.D., her heart already firmly set on a medical career. She was drawn by the science, lured by the idea of helping people.

Her early devotion showed while shopping for a lunchbox with her mom in the first grade. Arnett quickly narrowed the choices: one with a picture of a nurse on it, the other showing a doctor. Her mom didn’t want her daughter taking a “boy” lunchbox to school, so the nurse lunchbox won out.

After high school, she faced the same decision, but it was more serious: Should she seek a career as a doctor or a nurse? The nurse option won again, this time because her hard-working parents worried about the cost of medical school.

“My dream was to be a doctor. I think my path is the right one, but I did have to let go of that dream along the way,” said Arnett, who received the Gold Heart award from the American Heart Association in June for her distinguished service as a volunteer for the organization. “In hindsight, I think God was looking out for me. I really like research and academics, and as an M.D., it would’ve been hard to do both.”

The decision has worked out well.

Arnett, an AHA volunteer for more than 25 years, is now the dean and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She has served the AHA in many ways, including a term as the organization’s president in 2012-13.

She also helped create the organization’s definition of “ideal cardiovascular health” to focus the AHA’s goal of vastly improving the nation’s health by 2020. And she has contributed to the organization’s research and scientific publishing efforts.

Arnett was born in London, Kentucky, where times were often tough. Her earliest lessons of hard work and resiliency began in Middlesboro, Kentucky, in the heart of the Cumberland Gap National Park.

Her family moved to Florida with no money but hopes of finding work when she was 1. Her dad went to work at a grocery store, bagging groceries for tips only, before landing a job as a potato chip salesman.

“He had an amazing work ethic,” she said. “He would we get up at 3:30 in the morning and was out of the house at 4:15 every day.”

Meanwhile, Arnett continued to delve into science all the way through high school. She went on to earn degrees in nursing and public health from the University of South Florida and started working in the NICU in the early 1980s. She worked in epidemiology, cardiology and research.

Just as her career in medicine and research was taking off, she was forced into a difficult new chapter of life. She became a patient herself.

It began after an exploratory surgery when she was 27. A few days after the surgery, when she tried to call the dog inside the house, her words were garbled. She went to work, but by 10:30 a.m. couldn’t stop drooling and couldn’t speak. She had had a stroke.

After being released from the hospital, she faced the challenges of rehabilitation. Everyday tasks were difficult. She had to relearn simple things like putting patients on the treadmill and reading a calendar.

“It was amazing the pieces that were just gone,” Arnett said.

Normally happy, she dealt with bouts of sadness and didn’t feel like herself for a year.

But, she continued to work hard on her rehabilitation.

“I’ve always been resilient; I just became more determined,” she said.

That resilience and dedication have stayed with her throughout her career and her time as an AHA volunteer. And the entire experience gave her a deeper understanding of what stroke patients are going through — an understanding that deeply strengthens her commitment to helping others.

“Not everyone has that innate resilience, so I have incredible sympathy for people who go through stroke and the loss of identity from who they were to who they are now,” she said.