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Thursday May 28, 2020
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February 2007 - Volume 3 - Issue 8

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Kathleen DuCasse Leads Florida Heart Research Institute with a Vision for Stopping Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people every year than all other causes of death combined. On an average day, 3,000 Americans will die of cardiovascular disease – more than the total number who died in the World Trade Center attack and approximately the same number as all the servicemen who have died in the Iraqi war. Within the next fifteen years, cardiovascular disease is expected to become the leading cause of death throughout the world.

However, if Kathleen DuCasse has her way, that will not happen. Cardiovascular disease is mostly preventable and she believes that it is possible to reverse these trends and even to eradicate most heart disease worldwide. For DuCasse, the elimination of preventable heart disease is a mission and a personal passion, and at the Florida Heart Research Institute (FHRI), where she is Chief Executive Officer, DuCasse and her colleagues are working diligently to make it a reality.

FHRI is a world renowned institution that has been at the forefront of the fight against cardiovascular disease for sixty-plus years, through innovative, cutting edge research. Founded in 1944 as the Miami Heart Institute, it was the first heart hospital and research center in the world. Following a re-organization in 1993 that resulted in the sale of the hospital, FHRI became a non-affiliated, non-profit organization that utilizes select strategic partnerships to fulfill its mission of research, education and prevention. The organization’s free-standing status facilitates pure research, free of biases, influences and commercial agendas. DuCasse became the chief financial officer for MHI in 1988 and then chief executive officer in the early 90’s, when, in conjunction with the Board of trustees, she brokered the sale of the hospital to Columbia HCA. Under her direction, MHI underwent a transformation and today is known as FHRI.

DuCasse is a former CPA who began her career doing audits and financial planning for Price Waterhouse. Her journey to the leadership of one of the world’s preeminent cardiovascular research and education institutions has been an unexpected but gratifying one. DuCasse was providing financial consultation to health care organizations when she began to recognize both her own affinity for helping others and the potential in health care to make a significant difference.

"I was providing financial and strategic planning for South Broward Hospital District, a wonderful organization, when I was offered the opportunity to go to Miami Heart Institute, as it was then known," DuCasse says. "It was a fascinating place, with a unique combination of research, care and education. I was impressed with how MHI was helping those who might not otherwise be helped, by making research findings available to them."

"Kathy DuCasse had a unique and dramatic vision for this organization," says Paul Kurlansky, M.D., a cardiovascular surgeon and researcher who is the Director of Research for FHRI. "After the sale of the hospital, she convinced the board to create a new model that would enable us to continue conducting research in partnership with credible institutions that had strong infrastructures. She developed our partnerships with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Miami; the restructuring was entirely her brainchild.

"Kathy has taken us from a well-kept secret to a place of prominence in the community. She thinks out of the box and is a dynamic leader with broad vision. Our free screening and prevention programs, our relationships with providers and our proprietary license plate program are all examples of Kathy’s innovative leadership."

The license plate program is a Florida state initiative that utilizes funds raised from the sale of Stop Heart Disease specialty license plate for research, education and prevention. DuCasse speaks animatedly about this and other cardiovascular disease prevention programs. "Prevention is the primary goal and it’s really so simple. February is National Heart Health Month, a time to make people aware and to encourage them to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. Everyone can tell you what their car’s odometer reading is, but they should be just as aware of what their heart numbers are: blood pressure, cholesterol level, triglycerides, HDL and LDL levels, weight and BMI. You have to know the risk factors for heart disease, identify which ones you have, and then learn to reduce or manage them."

The key, she believes, is moderation. "We’re a nation of people with heart disease, or at risk for it. Currently, 63% of Americans are overweight. We didn’t get this way overnight, so it’s unrealistic to make drastic changes. Moderate changes work. There are many resources that can help you with weight loss, smoking cessation, exercise and stress management. We know that stress has a devastating impact on heart health, but we can learn to deal with it."

FHRI has a number of innovative prevention programs. Working with area churches, health departments and federally-qualified health clinics, FHRI identifies people who need treatment but lack a provider or a medical home. "Miami-Dade has high numbers of uninsured and working poor and by helping them get access to treatment, we keep them from misusing the overburdened emergency rooms," says DuCasse. "Through Mission to Health, FHRI offers prevention services to this population. We’re proud that Mission to Health has been selected by the National Football League as one of their Healthy Initiatives and will have their promotional support. Another program, called Working to Health, helps corporations and small businesses launch wellness programs in the workplace."

"It’s exciting to realize that we actually can eradicate heart disease," DuCasse says. "This is possible. In the past, research concentrated on treatment of heart disease, but there is a huge paradigm shift taking place and prevention is moving to the forefront. Treatment is essential and the treatments of today are the result of the research of twenty years ago. But treatment is after-the-fact, once disease has developed. Preventing heart disease in the first place is far more productive. There is a saying that research protects our future, and prevention protects our present."

"At FHRI, we’ve made enormous progress in the past ten years," says Ducasse. We’ve learned so much and we will turn that knowledge into prevention, diagnosis and treatment. We know where we want to go and we will get there."

Kathleen DuCasse can be reached via email at KTD@floridaheart.org. To learn more about the Florida Heart Research Institute and cardiovascular disease prevention, visit www.floridaheart.org.
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