WomenHeart Champions hosts monthly meetings for Santa Barbara County women facing heart disease

After being a nurse working in cardiac rehabilitation for 30 years and a cardiac patient herself, Marsha Griggs decided to help other women facing heart disease by becoming a WomenHeart Champion. 

“Women tend to have different symptoms than men, and they’re more subtle,” Griggs said. “They are not diagnosed as easily as men; they’re misdiagnosed, or ignored. It’s in our head that heart disease is for men, but it’s not.” 

Symptoms in women include fatigue, chest pain radiating up in the shoulders, upper back pain, nausea, cold sweats, or shortness of breath, Griggs said, noting that fatigue is particularly strong in women. Other symptoms can be arm pain, jaw pain that can carry into the ears, or massive headaches. 

“Women suffering from depression have more risk of heart disease,” she added. “You have a dietary regime; exercise and medications you have to take, but you’re likely not going to do all those things to take care of yourself if you’re depressed.” 

click to enlarge WomenHeart Champions hosts monthly meetings for Santa Barbara County women facing heart disease
SHARED EXPERIENCES : Santa Barbara County WomenHeart Champions (left to right) Olivia Rodriguez, Janet Wolf, Marsha Griggs, Evan McCabe, and Lou Ann Topping help women better understand heart disease through monthly meetings and community events.

WomenHeart Champions was founded in 1998 to help educate women about heart disease and provide a community network with monthly support group sessions. Champions also provide education on heart disease at various events and are available for one-on-one support. Prior to taking on the role, champions are required to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to learn about various tests and technology and receive training to hold support group sessions, she said.

“It helps that women are trained in those specifics, making sure they have equal access to testing and treatment. We need the training so we know what we are talking about,” Griggs said. “Women have higher rates [of] depression, and depression and heart disease go hand-in-hand. And women speak better with other women.”

Griggs now leads monthly meetings for women in Santa Barbara County alongside fellow champion Lou Ann Topping, where they meet with women on Zoom to swap information about heart disease, share their own stories, and hear from fellow group members. Prior to the pandemic shutdown, the women used to meet at Santa Barbara’s Sansum Clinic, but the shift to Zoom opened the meeting up to more women across the county, Topping said. 

The champions also attend local events and health fairs, including the Santa Maria Health Fair at Waller Park, to present information about heart disease symptoms, encourage women to see their doctor to learn more, and get the word out about their support groups. 

“We educate the women on the spot, and if they have any questions, they are free to ask us. We go off, away from the table, and talk one-on-one,” Topping said. 

Topping often shares her experience when she had a “massive” heart attack in January 2016 when she was visiting her daughter in Washington state. After initial treatment, she came back to Santa Barbara and had a cardiology appointment where she saw a WomenHeart pamphlet in her exam room, she said. She went to the meetings for almost a year before agreeing to become a champion herself. 

“We’re there to listen, and we always tell them our story, and I think it’s important for them to know that we have stories to tell. We’re not just there to support; we know what we’re talking about in that sense,” Topping said. 

“It’s important to validate the patient’s feelings, and we teach the patient how to live with heart disease, common problems, and how to improve quality of life.”

Visit womenheart.org to find more information about the organization, or email [email protected] to find out more about the local chapter. 


• The Santa Maria-Bonita Office of Family Engagement will be celebrating Black History Month with the NAACP of Santa Maria/Lompoc. On Feb. 25 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the two groups will be in Pioneer Park—located at 1150 W. Foster Road—with games, “culturally significant” books to distribute, arts and crafts, dance, poetry, free lunch, and information about school district and NAACP resources. The event will also have a mobile vaccine clinic that will be handing out free Starbucks gift cards to the first 200 people who get vaccinated. 

• The Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department planted 250 trees in city parks and 50 trees along sidewalks and street medians to improve quality of life in the area. The department will plant 235 15-gallon street trees as part of the Cal Fire Urban and Community Forestry Grant. An additional 125 large trees will be planted using the annual street tree budget. The department is also planting trees in front of residences. Call the Recreation and Parks Department at (805) 925-0951, Ext. 2260, if interested in having a tree planted in the easement near a home.

Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor wrote this week’s Spotlight. Reach her at [email protected].

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