Sarah "Sally" Ross Soter remembers casually picking up a Time magazine while waiting to see her doctor.
Glancing at the cover, the startling headline caught her attention. It read: "Women & Heart Disease: Is your biggest worry breast cancer? Think again."
That day in 2003 changed her life. She remembers being shocked to learn the high risks women face for heart disease – and the fact that most science about heart disease comes from studies of men.
The story hit her hard, especially considering her recent diagnosis with atrial fibrillation – a quivering of the heart that can greatly increase risk of heart disease and stroke.
"I knew that to reduce death rates, women needed to become keenly aware of this killer disease," she said. "I wanted to help in any way I could, especially in research."
She was also fighting for her own life since being diagnosed with AFib in her 50s. Soter recalls one doctor telling her she'd just have to live with her condition. She quickly answered: "No. I am not going to live with it!"
And with that, she had a new doctor and her work advocating for women's heart health was underway in earnest.
Since then, Soter has worked with the American Heart Association to fund numerous research projects. She's endowed a Chair in Women's Cardiovascular Health and supported numerous health programs. This year, she's being honored with the AHA's Award of Meritorious Achievement for her work.
Soter's journey began at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. But, tired of "being in school with just women," she was eager for an interior design career in New York.
Her parents didn't feel she was ready. To prove herself, she enrolled in Ohio State University in Columbus, and finished with a 4.0 grade point average.
"Only then was I allowed to attend the New York School of Interior Design," though she wasn't thrilled by the overly protective environment requiring separate housing for women.
After moving to New York and around Europe, Soter returned to Columbus. She started decorating and volunteering on several arts boards, and she had an art gallery. She married Bill Soter and, together, the couple supported the arts and medicine, and she was appointed to The Ohio State University Medical Center Board.
The Soters got involved with the AHA in West Palm Beach, where they relocated. She has given generously to establish AHA Teaching Gardens for Title I Schools in Palm Beach County, the Go Red for Women Strategically Focused Research Network, The Sarah Ross Soter Center for AFib, Better U Challenge Palm Beach, and The Sarah Ross Soter Center for Women's Cardiovascular Research in New York.
"Important work is being done," she said, "and I'm proud to know that. Research, people, programs and the AHA inspire me to continue the fight to cure cardiovascular disease."
With the knowledge that today one of every three women's deaths is from cardiovascular disease, the Soters are more motivated than ever.
"The future is in our hands to grow and help others grow and live longer and better lives. Bill and I are 100% supportive of the AHA's efforts and practice what we preach – diet, exercise and awareness."
As for her health, Soter – who turns 78 on Sept. 10 – reports she is thriving.
"I do Pilates and I walk the dog," she said. "Bill and I have 11 grandkids and one great-grandson. Life is good."
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