PITTSFIELD -- For about 15 minutes on Thursday, Herberg Middle School teacher Nancy Sacchetti put science curriculum aside so that 13-year-old Allison Wolfe could have a heart-to-heart conversation with her eighth-grade classmates.
"I was born with heart disease," Wolfe told her classmates, who listened respectfully.
"I have had two angioplasties and three open heart surgeries and will probably need a fourth one," she said. "Some days I wish my heart disease would just vanish, but it has given me the strength to be my own person instead of being like everyone else."
The teen went on to explain statistics and dangers of heart disease and how it affects her personally. Today, she and more than a hundred fellow eighth-grade students and teachers will be wearing the color red in observation the American Heart Association's 10th annual "National Wear Red Day" to raise awareness about women's heart health -- the No. 1 killer of women in the United States.
Wolfe has been an advocate for heart health since the second-grade.
"My involvement started because a school I was attending did not want to provide an automated external defibrillator, or AED, even though I had a prescription for it. For months, my mother and I tried to get them in the school. I finally had to switch schools," she said.
Eventually, the American Heart Association and Massachusetts lawmakers got involved in the campaign to get AEDs in all state schools. At this time, because of Wolfe's story, all Berkshire County schools have AEDs. The efforts are ongoing to make the life-saving machines mandatory in schools across the state and nation.
Last year, Wolfe participated in "Heart on The Hill" at the Statehouse where her story was shared and legislation was passed for a standard medical emergency response plan for all schools.
She said she's met a lot of fellow patients, from infants to the elderly, over the years during her travels for treatment.
"I have to go to Boston hospitals and have lots of scary tests done. Big machines. Lots of blood draws. Lots of ‘checking on things.' And a lot of waiting," the teen said.
Wolfe and Sacchetti said raising awareness this week about heart disease, a disability, works in tandem with the school's observation of "No Name-Calling Week," a national movement to prevent bullying and promote understanding.
"I think many kids with disabilities feel like they don't quite fit in," Sacchetti said.
As a girl, growing up with heart disease can be an isolating experience, said Wolfe.
"Sometimes I feel it just ruins my life because it hasn't given me things like the social outlet to have friends my own age because I get tired a lot and I can't do sports. Instead, I become friends with adults who I learn a lot from," said Wolfe.
A few other students were prompted to speak up after their classmate's speech.
Paige Gratton said it is important to "show support for a person, to make them feel they're not alone."
Another classmate, Kevin Kelly, said he appreciated having the opportunity in school to discuss personal experiences.
"It gives us some time to focus on the entire picture and see where everyone is at -- in school and everywhere," he said.
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Women and heart disease
n Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of American women, affecting more women than men and causing more deaths than all forms of cancer combined.
n Heart disease causes 1 in 3 women's deaths each year, killing approximately one woman every minute, nearly 500,000 women each year.
n An estimated 43 million women in the United States are affected by heart disease.
Source: American Heart Association