A real lifesaver

Yada-yada, get healthy already: Team Bayada aims to be the winning team in the Heartstrings project. photo by Jonathan Welch

When teams of kickboxers, Zumba dancers, cyclists and other athletic-minded volunteers converge on the Reuter Family YMCA April 30, they'll be raising money to help Buncombe County residents like Keldwyn Teves — and promoting a healthier community.

Teves, 63, feels certain she wouldn't be alive today without Project Access, a program of the Western North Carolina/Buncombe County Medical Society that provides free medical care to uninsured, low-income local residents.

In late 2008, Teves, a writer and personal life coach, had qualified for the program so she could receive treatment for an eye problem.

But then, while trying to scramble eggs, she noticed a peculiar weakness in her right arm. On the advice of a physician volunteering through Project Access, she went to the emergency room. A scan revealed a tumor filling the left atrium of her heart. Doctors performed open-heart surgery to remove the offending mass; the tumor proved benign, but without the surgery, she was told she would have had about a week to live.

"I'm just so grateful," says Teves.

Below a heart-shaped pendant, she still sports a pale, thin, vertical scar from the surgery, which was followed by a week in intensive care and several months of cardiac rehabilitation. Now recovered, Teves has become an enthusiastic proponent of Project Access, even serving on a development board to help raise awareness of the program and rally support for it.

"It's just essential that people not die because of lack of medical attention," she declares.

A simple premise

Last year, about 3,800 people received treatment through Project Access, says Miriam Schwarz, the medical society’s executive director. Now in its 15th year, the program operates on a simple, generous premise: All medical care (about $14 million worth last year) is donated.

That includes hospital care, diagnostic care, lab workups and services such as physical therapy; recently, Project Access patients have been able to receive complimentary and alternative medical treatments such as acupuncture, chiropractic and massage therapy.

More than 650 Buncombe County physicians (85 percent of the county’s total roster) participate in the program, says Schwarz. The goal is to distribute the patient load equitably throughout the system — which may help explain the high participation rate, she notes. Universal claims forms submitted to the medical society help the nonprofit track participation.

With an annual budget of nearly $700,000, the program's overhead and administrative costs are largely covered by grants from the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and Mission Hospital’s Community Benefits program.

But other costs remain, and that’s where the annual HeartStrings fundraiser comes in. Now in its ninth year, the event features team members who solicit donations by pledging to exercise for an hour.

Donations pay for such essentials as eligibility screening, medications, durable medical equipment (think wheelchairs and crutches), case management and interpreters.

"We need to be connected"

In prior years, the fundraiser was held in February at the Asheville Mall, where volunteers rode stationary bikes for the cause. But after a snowstorm struck on the day of the event last year — putting a sizable dent in donations — organizers decided to regroup, Schwarz explains.

Teaming up with the YMCA of Western North Carolina, the medical society decided to make HeartStrings a joint fundraiser. This year’s event happens Saturday, April 30, from 9 a.m. to noon at the Reuter Family YMCA in south Asheville.

Participants, meanwhile, will enjoy an expanded menu, taking their pick among classes in Zumba, kickboxing, cycling, "boot camp" and walking or jogging.

"It's very easy to do; it's a lot of fun," notes Mary Michael, executive community director for the Reuters YMCA. "There's a real need here locally for wellness and support around health. We need to take care of each other."

This year's fundraising goal is $50,000, with the two nonprofits splitting the proceeds.

The YMCA's share will help fund its annual Healthier Communities Campaign, which raises money for things like after-school and sports programs, youth-mentoring efforts and wellness opportunities for the obese — and no one is turned away due to inability to pay.

"No one should be excluded from wellness, just like no one should be denied necessary medical care," declares YMCA CEO Paul Vest.

Adds Teves: "We need to be connected. This is a thing that you can give to every year and know that the money is saving lives and improving the quality of our community."

The beat goes on…


HeartStrings happens Saturday, April 30, from 9 a.m. to noon at the Reuter Family YMCA in south Asheville. For info on joining or forming a team, call the Western North Carolina/Buncombe County Medical Society at 274-2267, or register online (bcmsonline.org/heartstrings). To donate money, prizes or serve as a sponsor, call the same number, or email miriam@bcmsonline.org.

— Freelance writer and editor Tracy Rose lives in Asheville.

who: HATCH Asheville
what: Festival of networking and mentoring
where: Venues across downtown Asheville
when: Thursday, April 14 to Sunday, April 17 (Full schedule at hatchasheville.org)

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