It wasn’t his specialty, but he learned enough to enlighten the others. The speech went so well that he was invited to be a visitor at a board meeting.
And so began his journey in the organization, an ascension that paralleled a rise in his profession – from a professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas to his current post as chief of the Division of Cardiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago; from an entry-level AHA volunteer to a bevy of leadership roles, including national president in 2009-10.
In recognition of his passionate, impactful roles in the organization, Yancy last week received the AHA’s highest honor for a volunteer, the Gold Heart Award.
“When you start from where I did and you end up in a place like this, your first, second and third phrases are, `Thank you,’” Yancy said. “I tell people that the AHA has just been the right fit for me. This is the most right thing – in terms of appropriateness – that I’ve ever done.”
Yancy grew up in Scotlandville, Louisiana, in the 1960s and ‘70s, a time and place that wasn’t easy for African-Americans.
The grandson of sharecroppers, he was raised primarily by his mother, a teacher who was “steadfast that I would end up being somebody.” Alas, other teachers and counselors weren’t as supportive of his ambitions.
“I was told it would be a long shot for me to go to medical school,” he said. “And, if I went, I could only expect to go to one of the predominantly African-American medical schools, and that I would become a mediocre physician. I heard ‘no’ more times than I heard ‘yes’.”
Fueled by his mother’s encouragement, Yancy became an Eagle Scout and graduated high school at 17. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Southern University, and his M.D. from Tulane University Medical School.
His fascination with cardiology began during his first year of college, when a professor demonstrated that two proteins perform a catch-and-release function that causes the heart to squeeze and contract.
“I said, `That is the coolest thing I have ever heard,’” he said. “Nearly 40 years later, I still think, `That’s just amazing.’”
A handful of moments propelled his involvement in the AHA.
“The first was the opportunity to talk about diversity in a really meaningful way – to get the organization to face our own shortcoming, and then to savor the experience as we became more inclusive,” he said. “It wasn’t just lip service. It was an action plan, and we followed it.”
Representing the organization on Capitol Hill meant a lot, too, because it provided an opportunity to shape public health policy.
Before the turn of the millennium, the AHA set a goal of preventing deaths from heart disease and stroke by 25 percent by 2010. When it was met early, Yancy was so enamored that he became part of the group that wrote the organization’s 2020 Impact Goal: to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent while reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent, all by 2020. He also played a vital role in developing a key ingredient to reaching this target – “Life’s Simple Seven,” the key measures and behaviors people can follow to improve their health.
Since leaving the presidency, he’s remained active in the organization, such as being part of a group that is re-evaluating one of the AHA’s revered scientific meetings.
“If you volunteer because you want your name in lights, because you want the leadership accolades, because you want the plaque or the gavel, you will very quickly get frustrated because this organization is not about self-aggrandizing,” Yancy said. “This organization really is about service, about working together, about adopting a lower profile and helping and lifting others up.”
He offered another, more powerful way of looking at it.
“To scale my efforts as a doctor, it’s by factors of one. To scale my efforts as an educator, it’s by factors of 10. To scale my efforts as an investigator, it’s by factors of 1,000,” Yancy said. “But to scale my work by what we accomplish at the American Heart Association, it literally is at the threshold of millions.
“Over 300 million American citizens and millions more around the world are able to realize a potential world without the burden of death due to heart disease and stroke because of on the work done by the AHA. Families aren’t suffering, children aren’t crying, spouses aren’t mourning. That’s huge.”
Yancy describes his work with the AHA as “compellingly rewarding.” He’s also convinced his involvement with the organization fueled his career.
“How many speaker training courses have I had with the AHA? How many leadership seminars have I taken through the AHA? How much scenario-planning? How many strategic planning sessions, vision statements, mission statements?” he said. “Well, guess what I do now in my everyday job? Strategic planning, mission statements, vision statements – the whole thing.
“So much of what I use day-to-day in my own world really was birthed through AHA experiences. I’m a better investigator because I critically review the science for the American Heart Association. I’m a better teacher because I work with career thought leaders within the AHA. And I’m a better leader because I’ve worked in and for an organization that understands culture; cares about issues; and is driven by passion.”
There’s another driving force behind Yancy’s career – his extended family.
In the previous generation of Yancys, there were nine siblings. Seven earned teaching degrees. When the last of that group retired, they’d taught a total of 299 years.
Smart as they were, they didn’t understand heart disease and stroke. Eight died, prematurely, of those diseases.
“It’s with me at all times,” Yancy said. “As one of my ministers once said, I realize who I am and whose I am.
“So in large measures, the AHA has helped me become who I am, with the lessons and leaderships and passion and service and mission. But I can’t forget whose I am, because I come from a very simple place that really felt the sting of heart disease and stroke.”
At the Gold Heart Award ceremony, Yancy’s speech focused on the concept of gifting.
Sure, he’s given the organization countless hours over the last quarter-century. And he’s made many generous donations.
Yet if you add it all up, he is convinced it wouldn’t come anywhere near the gifts he’s received from his involvement in the American Heart Association.
“At the very beginning when you are recruited, you are giving the AHA a gift. You are giving your time,” he said. “But if you stay committed, the gifting turns around – you receive the gift.”
He summed it all up by quoting Winston Churchill: “You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.”