Sally SoterYears ago, when Sally Soter was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes an irregular heartbeat, she told her doctor she was determined to conquer heart disease — and help other women facing it too.

Her commitment to fighting the No. 1 killer of women was clearer than ever this week, when she and her husband Bill donated $5 million for a new research center studying the prevention and treatment of heart disease in women.

The Sarah Ross Soter Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Research, part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Research Network, is one of a series of Strategically Focused Research Networks. The association’s research networks are made up of several elite research institutions collaborating to address a specific area of heart disease or stroke, the world’s leading killers.

“To be able to fund something that could help women and heart disease is very rewarding,” said Soter, an active community volunteer who’s passionate about improving healthcare for women by accelerating science. “There’s so much we still don’t know. It could mean so much for research.”

Soter’s gift will make a major impact on the AHA’s research program, which funds more heart and stroke research than any organization outside the U.S. government.

“The American Heart Association is so grateful for Sally’s commitment to improving women’s heart health and to correcting the disparities that so many women face when it comes to accessing the care they deserve,” AHA CEO Nancy Brown said. “We are eager for this important new research to begin, and for the improvements that will follow in prevention, treatment and care for all women.”

Research continues to show differences in heart disease among women and men, yet gaps remain in how to best diagnose, treat and prevent it. These gaps mean a lack of information about whether women react differently to heart disease, if diagnostic methods work as well in women as in men, and if women respond differently to treatment, according to the AHA.

Soter hopes the new research center can help get to the bottom of what’s still unknown about women’s hearts. She recalled feeling upset about her own heart when her doctor diagnosed her 17 years ago.

“I was angry that I had it,” said Soter, who had two ablations to treat the atrial fibrillation. “I felt that I had taken care of myself. I was just plain determined that I wasn’t going to have it forever.”

Soter’s gift is the latest event in her long history of volunteerism and advocating for women’s heart health. Soter established the first-ever endowed chair exclusively for women’s heart health at Ohio State University Medical Center. She has a particular interest in fighting healthcare disparities, ensuring that “rich or poor, regardless of gender, ethnicity and income, you would have a chance at a different life.”

Soter is also the founding funder for the AHA’s Teaching Gardens, funding half a dozen schools in Palm Beach County, Florida, getting the pleasure of seeing kids who’d never eaten vegetables enjoy them.

Sally Soter, middle, helped fund the American Heart Association's Teaching Gardens.

Sally Soter, middle, helped fund the American Heart Association’s Teaching Gardens.

“It has meant a great deal to me to see these children and know that they’re learning in their work,” she said. “I was raised to know that one should give back to the community and I really believe in teaching.”

Soter wants more people to pay attention to cardiovascular diseases, which affect one in every three adult Americans.

“This disease hits everyone,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are — it just doesn’t.”