Al Royse

Before beginning his second year as the American Heart Association’s chairman, Al Royse chatted with a woman whose pointed question still sticks with him:

“Why is there no outrage over death from preventable causes?”

As he thought about it more, the question became even more troubling for Royse – who started volunteering with the AHA after the spouse of a young co-worker had a heart attack.

“When a person dies from heart disease and stroke, why don’t we have a national outrage?” he said. “We have outrage over other deaths that are considered premature and out of the norm. Yet 80 percent of deaths from cardiovascular disease are preventable, and stroke is preventable, treatable and beatable.”

The 66-year-old retired Deloitte executive from San Francisco, California, begins his second term July 1 in the voluntary role tasked with presiding over the national board and its executive committee. And he’s doing it with the same passion that brought him to the AHA nearly two decades ago.

“An early death of a loved one can be devastating, not just on the family, but on friends, church, school, workplace and the community,” he said. “When a grandparent dies at 50, it is not just the immediate children who suffer a loss, but grandkids are deprived of love and counsel, and of the incredible role a grandparent can play.”

Royse oversees adherence to the AHA’s governance policies, giving counsel to executives, working with the CEO and the board on critical operational issues, and helping with the organization’s business affairs, public relations and fundraising.

He said he enjoys representing the AHA in meetings with volunteers, donors, survivors, staff and affiliate officers, and boards.

“I can’t think of a greater mission for an organization. We save and improve lives,” Royse said. “But I’m a business person, and one of the key reasons I became involved, and why I stay involved, is that the AHA takes seriously its responsibility in achieving its goals. It holds itself accountable and as a result, it makes an extraordinary difference.”

That passion helped fuel his first year as chairman and his top priority: a focus on research and science, on volunteerism and on meeting the AHA’s revenue goals.

“We had a number of exciting irons in the fire, and I tried to make sure all those were successfully moved forward,” Royse said.

The organization’s strategies have included aggressively investing in new resources and mission objectives, and stressing innovation.

“That strategy is reaping benefits as we have now finished the two most successful years in our history, both from a mission and a revenue perspective,” he said.

Royse is most excited by two significant research developments that took shape on his watch: The Institute for Precision Cardiovascular Medicine is seeking more precise treatments and prevention strategies for heart disease and stroke. And a project called One Brave Idea, an alliance with Verily (formerly Google Health) and Astra Zeneca, announced last fall, will award $75 million to a single team focused on curing coronary heart disease.

“Elliot Antman and Mark Creager, the past two AHA presidents, deserve great credit in working with CEO Nancy Brown in making these two transformational alliances happen,” he said. “These types of endeavors may well be the model for the new generation of heath care successes.”

Royse is also committed to continuing to raise awareness about preventing heart disease and stroke, the two leading causes of death in the world.

“Before I got involved in the American Heart Association, I had very little awareness of my family history of heart disease. I never thought about it, never inquired about it,” he said. “Once I understood that my mom’s side has a history of heart disease and that all my aunts on my mom’s side died pretty young, it was a lightbulb.”

One important way to turn that lightbulb on for others, Royse believes, is to change the many unhealthy environments people live in. That’s the thinking behind what the AHA calls “creating a culture of health,” which means helping communities get healthier by building awareness, sharing knowledge and providing tools.

“A culture of health is what you do automatically, without conscious thinking,” he said. “In the business world, I used to call it ‘commitment, not compliance.’ You exercise and eat right subconsciously as part of your daily behavior because you know it’s right, versus your mother having to tell you to eat your vegetables.”

Such a culture could help bring to life his vision of one day putting the AHA “out of business” as an organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke.

“It sounds pie in the sky, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that in the not-too-distant future, heart disease can be wiped out as one of top 10 causes of death — and that it clearly will be an outrage when anyone dies of heart disease or stroke.”