Wide Awake: Up in Smoke
Sometimes the impossible happens

My first real job out of college was as an editorial assistant with the American Heart Association. When I started, the AHA was embarking on a new mission, something I laughed about because it seemed preposterous. It was 1986, and officials running the Heart Association had this crazy idea they could get people to stop smoking.

At that time, it was normal for people to smoke in their house or at the table next to you at a restaurant. If you found the billowing smoke passing in front of you annoying, something was wrong with you, not the smoker. It was OK for dirty ashtrays to lie around and totally acceptable for a visitor in your home to smoke – even if you didn’t.

When I explain that to my kids, they have a hard time believing me. They look at me with such disbelief on their faces. “But then you’d be eating in a restaurant and smoke could blow on your table,” they say. “That can’t happen – it’s disgusting.”

I tell them I agree, but that’s how it was. I’m still not sure they believe me.

Back then, smoking was a part of everyone’s normal. And here was this nonprofit deciding it was going to change that. They had good reason – plenty of scientific data to back them up – but come on, how do you change everyone’s normal?

You know what happened. And if you think about it, it’s astounding. It wasn’t just the Heart Association, of course. Then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was a key player. He gave the effort a deadline: 2000. He announced to the world his plan to eliminate smoking by the new millennium, which in the ’80s seemed a space-age world away. He kept talking about it – in interviews and at medical conferences. He published papers detailing the quest, and for some crazy reason, people started listening. And some of those crazy people started thinking it could work. And here we are today.

Having such a monumental change begin when I was in my early 20s and watching it unfold as the years went on has shaped a part of who I am. While we’ve all seen great efforts fail, every now and then, a super-ambitious plan succeeds. It’s usually shocking when it does, but it’s proof that anything can happen.

I’ve stayed connected to the American Heart Association. I’m active in their Go Red for Women campaign. (In fact, Go Red holds a luncheon every spring and if you haven’t gone, I urge you to go. It’s a great event.) I also recently joined the AHA’s South Jersey board, and when I sat down with Executive Director Ryan Reczek, guess what he told me? The new mission is to reduce the nation’s deaths from cardiovascular disease and stroke by 20 percent by 2020. (That translates to about 116,000 fewer deaths each year.)

Crazy, right?

If you think about it, though, it’s totally doable. Heart disease and stroke are preventable diseases, and there isn’t this mindset that the behaviors leading to these illnesses are normal, like there was with smoking. No one thinks it’s OK to be morbidly obese or have high blood pressure. The quest already has a head start because pretty much all of the population wants it to happen – that’s a big difference from the eliminate-smoking mission.

Maybe in 25 years we’ll look back and find it hard to imagine that so many people once died of heart attacks, and we’ll struggle to remember exactly what happened when someone suffered a stroke. Perhaps a group of outside-the-box thinkers will once again show us that some tasks are worth the incredible effort. We’ll watch them tackle their work, despite how insurmountable it seems. We’ll see them complete the impossible, and people will live longer because of it.

Crazier things have happened.

August 2014
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