By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Theresa Conejo received the American Heart Association’s Healthcare Volunteer of the Year award at an awards ceremony last month in Dallas. (Photo by Tim Sharp)

Theresa Conejo received the American Heart Association’s Healthcare Volunteer of the Year award at an awards ceremony last month in Dallas. (Photo by Tim Sharp)

A stroke more than two decades ago left Theresa Conejo’s 56-year-old mom struggling to relearn how to do simple things, like walk, talk and eat. There were other losses too.

“My mother had a beautiful voice, but after that, she couldn’t sing anymore. The person I grew up with wasn’t there,” Conejo said. “We learned to love a new person.”

Caring for her mom has shaped how Conejo deals with patients as a cardiovascular nurse and heart failure coordinator at Nazareth Hospital near Philadelphia. That special focus on patients earned her the American Heart Association’s Healthcare Volunteer of the Year award last month.

Theresa Conejo, R.N., with her mom, Joan. (Photo courtesy of Theresa Conejo)

Theresa Conejo, R.N., with her mom, Joan. (Photo courtesy of Theresa Conejo)

“Every patient I meet, I say: ‘This could be my mom. This was my mom,’” Conejo said. “I feel like I have to reach out. I have to provide information and support.”

Conejo has served in many volunteer leadership roles with the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, propelling the organization’s reach into diverse communities across the country. She pushes legislators to pass smoke-free air laws and educates families about heart disease and stroke, all in an effort to make people healthier and communities safer.

But before she was working to help entire populations, she was focused on her mother.

After Joan had a long hospitalization and then rehabilitation at a nursing home, Conejo thought she needed more aggressive rehab. The insurance company didn’t agree, so Conejo quit her nursing job for a year so she could take her mom to outpatient therapy.

They lived together, along with Conejo’s young son. Conejo scoured the Internet for resources as she balanced motherhood with helping her own mom with daily activities, like using the restroom and lifting her from the wheelchair to the bed or the car.

“I was constantly hungering for information. I had to watch her constantly,” she said. “It was like having two kids.”

Although her mom, who’s once again living with her, still struggles, Conejo admires her perseverance. “It was a tremendous task, but her zest to live helped her conquer it. Even today, 22 years later, her drive and determination to live a full life despite her handicaps is beyond words.”

Many other women have benefitted from Conejo’s care — in and outside the hospital.

She is passionate about addressing health disparities in high-risk minority populations. She works closely with Hispanic and Latino communities throughout Philadelphia, where she volunteers at health fairs and blood pressure screenings.

“There are a lot of people out there who have hypertension but haven’t been to the doctor,” Conejo said. “This gives me the boost to get out there and start being the bridge. You have to navigate the people to do it and show them what’s there, what’s free.”

From African-American churches to Hindu temples to parking lots, she tells people the benefits of getting healthy instead of dwelling on the consequences if they don’t. She uses powerful reminders like, “’You want to see your kids grow up, graduate, get married.’”

Even with all the people she’s helped, Conejo is also driven by the stories that don’t end well.

In 2007, Conejo was teaching an English as a Second Language course at a local YWCA. A 30-year-old pregnant student kept passing out, but she was sent home from the clinic where she tried to get help. After the third time she passed out, she died from a hemorrhagic stroke.

The women in the class were angry, wondering: “’How could this happen? She was being proactive and there was no one there to understand what she was saying.’”

So Conejo organized a health day on pregnancy and stroke to educate the community.

“We couldn’t bring her back, but we could do this in her memory,” she said. “It’s not wrong to ask for a translator. We urged people to speak up and ensure their needs are met by their healthcare providers.”