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American Heart Association’s Heart Walk draws thousands to Tropical Park

Thousands joined the American Heart Association Heart Walk at Tropical Park, raising more than $400,000 for heart disease and stroke research and prevention.

In August 2008, Gerard Acloque’s life was upset by an eye-opening tragedy: His sister, Nadine Acloque, died of a heart attack at age 27.

His family had no history of cardiovascular disease.

Gerard Acloque was jolted into some lifestyle changes, making time for exercise and changing his eating habits.

“Two months ago, I was 220 pounds, and now I am 200 pounds,” said Acloque, 32, who also changed his career track from surgery to cardiology after his sister’s death.

Acloque was among 8,000 people who signed up to run and walk 3.1 miles around Tropical Park, 7900 SW 49th St., on Saturday in the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk.

The annual event helps raise funds and awareness for heart disease and stroke, among the top health threats in the nation. The AHA’s message: You can help prevent it through diet and exercise.

Acloque, who drove from Hollywood to join the race, was part of the Nadine’s Heartbeats team made up of more than 40 family and friends who traveled from different states to walk in honor of his sister. The team raised $8,200.

“It’s a bittersweet day for us,” said Acloque, who wore a white T-shirt displaying a picture of Nadine, who was an emergency room nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood.

Her family is paying tribute to her by working out, eating right and losing weight.

Saturday’s event raised $465,745 in donations to the American Heart Association, which will go into research, education and community programs relating to heart disease and stroke.

Before the walkers and runners hit the asphalt, participants warmed up to music by stretching and doing jumping jacks.

Samantha Meister, 14, of Team Sammi’s Pacers, was excited to exercise.

“It’s great,” she said, walking offstage after being recognized as the individual to raise the most funds: $13,000. “I can do everything that I love.”

Samantha, who wore a red cap representing her survival, battled an isolated ventricular inversion and heterotaxia. Her lower heart chambers were switched, or inverted, while developing. She had several heart procedures throughout her young life but now is active and promotes a healthy lifestyle.

“I can play tennis, and I love running around and playing with my friends,” said Samantha, who attends Dr. Michael Krop High School.

Baptist Health South Florida, which locally sponsored the event, raised $71,000, making it the top company to donate, while Boston Scientific Support Team came out on top in the team category with $7,200.

“We are passionate about heart disease and prevention and research done by the American Heart Association,” said Baptist Hospital CEO Bo Boluenger, who co-chaired the event.

For Bridgette Benard, a heart and lung transplant coordinator for Jackson Memorial Hospital, it was refreshing to see familiar faces.

“It’s a rewarding experience to know where they came from and seeing them out here walking,” she said. “For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve been able to walk.”

After walking the three-mile course, Scott Shamis, 48, who had a heart transplant eight years ago and survived a stroke, said he looks forward attending the walk every year.

“Every year is a milestone for me,” said Shamis, who was born with a heart defect. “I could walk and talk. I can do things I never did before better than when I had my original heart.”

Shamis was part of Team Second heart, which raised about $4,000.

“Organ donations save so many lives,” he said.

As for Gerard, a Florida A&M University alumnus, said he is touched by the support of family, friends and his sister’s former co-workers.

“She touched a lot of lives, and people who feel touched by her are here today,” he said. “I am not the person I was a year ago.”

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