Queen Latifah accepted the Woman of Distinction Award at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions on Sunday.

Queen Latifah accepted the Woman of Distinction Award at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions on Sunday.

ANAHEIM, California – When Rita Owens was diagnosed with heart failure, her family rallied together.

They attended doctor’s appointments and learned all they could about the condition. They took pictures of which pills to take at different times of day to use as a visual checklist. Because her diet had to change, they changed theirs, too, as a show of solidarity and a step toward prevention.

Then her daughter was asked to share the family’s story. Having long been in the public eye, the daughter preferred to keep this private.

“But my mother said, ‘I’m all for anything I can do to prevent someone from going through what I’ve had to go through,’” entertainer Queen Latifah said. “My mother is that type of person – she wants to help people. I’m the mini-her, so I’m doing my job.”

Since Owens’ urging more than two years ago, Latifah has been the face of Rise Above Heart Failure, the American Heart Association’s awareness campaign about treating and preventing heart failure. On Sunday, AHA CEO Nancy Brown honored Latifah’s work by presenting her the Woman of Distinction Award at the organization’s top science gathering, Scientific Sessions.

“She is helping others understand the signs and symptoms of the condition and providing support so they can live a full life,” Brown said. “She is truly an inspiration.”

Latifah gave a brief acceptance speech then went right back to spreading the word about heart failure. From the main stage, she crossed the Anaheim Conference Center to another stage where she joined Dr. Clyde Yancy, a former AHA president, for a Facebook Live discussion.

“There are so many things we can do now than before,” said Yancy, a heart failure expert and chief of cardiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Evanston, Illinois. “We have more drugs, devices, technologies. We can make a difference.”

Heart failure is what happens when a heart is no longer able to efficiently pump blood to the rest of the body. This inefficiency causes problems in the parts of the body that fail to receive enough oxygen-rich blood.

Heart failure is chronic and progressive. More than 6.5 million Americans are living with HF and more than 308,000 people die from it each year. One in five people will have heart failure in their lifetime with nearly a million new cases diagnosed each year.

But heart failure is manageable, especially if diagnosed early. That’s where Latifah, Rise Above Heart Failure and events like the Facebook Live chat come into play, teaching the signs and symptoms and encouraging people to get checked out by a doctor.

“What we don’t want is for people to be hospitalized,” Latifah said. “We want people to be home with their family enjoying life, not in a hospital trying to fight for it or get it back together, when so much of this can be prevented.”

Owens’ diagnosis came about 12 years ago after she passed out at the school where she was a teacher. She’s been in and out of the hospital ever since, with Latifah and a cousin sharing the duties of primary caregiver. Because her career often keeps her on the road, Latifah sometimes checks in via FaceTime. She’ll even ask to see her mom’s ankles to make sure she’s not retaining fluid.

“It’s brought us closer as a family,” Latifah said.

As they discussed strategies for treatment and, better yet, prevention, Yancy said the focus shouldn’t be on heart failure.

“It’s about heart success,” he said.

“I love that!” Latifah said. “Heart success.”

And as the Facebook Live event ended, she smiled and pumped her arm as she turned the phrase into a chant: “Heart suc-cess! Heart suc-cess!”

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