By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Heart disease is the world’s No. 1 killer. So even those without the condition are still affected.

Pauline Pavao is one of those people.

Although she’s healthy, Pauline lost both her parents to the disease, and her son Cori was born with a congenital heart defect.

Watching loved ones struggle with heart disease inspired Pauline, along with her husband Roy Pavao and her brother and sister-in-law Charles and Fatima Tavares, to launch a fundraising event called the Red Dress Ball. In seven years they’ve raised more than $80,000 to support the American Heart Association.

“My mom had heart disease for many years, but it went undetected for probably 10 to 15 of those years,” said Pauline, 56, of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. “Whenever she’d feel bad, we’d all joke that she was having one of her ‘episodes.’ We never took it seriously.”

Pauline Pavao at the 2013 Red Dress Ball with, from left, her son Cori, husband Roy and son Ryan. (Photo courtesy of Pauline Pavao)

Pauline Pavao at the 2013 Red Dress Ball with, from left, her son Cori, husband Roy and son Ryan. (Photo courtesy of Pauline Pavao)

Once, when she was a teenager, Pauline told her mother’s doctor that she thought her mom had had a stroke because her arm didn’t look right.

“He told me it was impossible that she’d had a stroke,” Pauline recalled. “I don’t know why he said that but he was the doctor. Who was I to question him?”

It wasn’t until Pauline’s mother, Pauline Tavares, suffered a massive heart attack that she underwent coronary bypass surgery. However, over the next few years she suffered a series of strokes and died in July 2009 at age 83.

Pauline Pavao’s mother Pauline Tavares and father Jose P. Tavares. (Photo courtesy of Pauline Pavao)

Pauline Pavao’s mother Pauline Tavares and father Jose P. Tavares. (Photo courtesy of Pauline Pavao)

Four months later, Pauline’s dad, Jose P. Tavares, had a heart attack and died the next day after undergoing an angioplasty.

“He was healthy and active,” she said of her father, who was a barber. “He walked everywhere and watched his diet, so it was a real shock when he died.”

Moved to do something, she, Roy, Charles and Fatima held the first Red Dress Ball in 2010.

“Heart disease is such an awful disease and we don’t want others to suffer like we did,” Pauline said.

As the name suggests, attendees are encouraged to wear red to the event. Gowns abound in various shades of the color associated with the fight against heart disease. Men often accessorize with red ties, cummerbunds or carnations.

But the evening isn’t all fun and games. Each year, Pauline arranges for someone from the local medical community to make a brief speech discussing the latest advances in heart disease treatment and to emphasize the importance of getting checked out.

“Pauline truly is a force of nature,” said Michael Rocha, M.D., last year’s featured speaker. A cardiologist with Hawthorne Medical Associates in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Rocha accessorized his tuxedo with a red bow tie he learned to tie by watching a YouTube video.

Pauline Pavao (front center) at the 2016 Red Dress Ball with (from bottom left) Laurie Botelho, Fatima Martins, Red Dress Ball co-founder Fatima Tavares, Dr. Michael Rocha, and American Heart Association staff Amanda Leite, Michelle Karn and Andrea Larocque. (Photo courtesy of Pauline Pavao)

Pauline Pavao (front center) at the 2016 Red Dress Ball with (from bottom left) Laurie Botelho, Fatima Martins, Red Dress Ball co-founder Fatima Tavares, Dr. Michael Rocha, and American Heart Association staff Amanda Leite, Michelle Karn and Andrea Larocque. (Photo courtesy of Pauline Pavao)

He spoke about the importance of understanding the symptoms of heart disease, especially for women, and how lifestyle can help lower risk. It’s a message Pauline and her husband have both taken to heart. They’ve both been to their doctors and, other than Pauline’s high blood pressure, have been given clean bills of health.

“And we want to stay that way,” she said. “We walk regularly, watch what we eat.”

As for Rocha, he enjoyed last year’s Red Dress Ball so much that he’s planning to attend this year’s event, this time as a guest.

“I just hope I’ll be able to tie the bow tie again,” he said.

The 2017 Red Dress Ball is Feb. 25 in Westport, Massachusetts.