Bernard "Bernie" Dennis considers the heart attacks that nearly killed him more than two decades ago a "blessing, not a bad thing."
That seems a strange stance, but not when you consider his outlook on the world since then.
"Never in a million years would I have met all the people I've met if it weren't for the common bond of heart disease," Dennis said. "I learned that your voice can make a difference and you have a responsibility to use it."
The retired management consultant from Acton, Massachusetts, is a recipient of the Gold Heart Award, the highest honor the American Heart Association gives to volunteers who have provided continued, distinguished service.
Before that service began, Dennis was a fast-rising business executive at technology giant Oracle Corp., juggling high-pressure roles and frequent travel while sustaining himself with fast food and cigarettes.
After returning home from a business trip in 1995, he suffered his first heart attack and developed congestive heart failure. During a monthlong stay in the hospital, he had two more heart attacks followed by an emergency quadruple bypass and a difficult recovery.
That experience set him on a different course. He quit smoking and stopped eating fast food in favor of a heart-healthy diet. He also started volunteering with AHA, starting with the 1995 Heart Walk.
Then he worked on advocacy efforts on behalf of the organization, fighting for laws and policies that promote health. And he took on roles as a volunteer, eventually earning the title of AHA's chairman of the board.
Looking back at his years volunteering, Dennis recalls his first national Lobby Day, a major event in which volunteers from all over the country gather in Washington, D.C., to share their stories, advocate for healthy laws and urge lawmakers to increase funding for scientific research.
Dennis was inspired by the stories he heard from volunteers like him who had survived heart disease – especially a young boy with congenital heart defects. The boy urged Dennis to join him for a similar event in New York and contribute to his Heart Walk campaign.
"It was the most effective sales pitch I'd heard, and from that day forward, I attended the state Lobby Days too," he said.
Dennis said the transition to publicly sharing his experience wasn't easy, but he soon recognized it was a powerful tool in the fight against heart disease and stroke.
"If you can change a system, you can impact more lives than if you go person by person," he said. "Legislation is a vehicle to influence many lives, and you are the best person to leverage your own story to influence legislation. It's the difference between influencing one person to live a healthy life or a community to live a healthy life."
Over the years, Dennis has advocated for legislation to expand public access to automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, lifesaving devices that shock the heart into a normal rhythm following a cardiac arrest. He's also pushed for tobacco control, improving systems of care, access to care and obesity prevention.
"The tobacco issue was really important to me because I was a chimney smoker and it nearly killed me," Dennis said.
Understanding the risks of an unhealthy diet helped fuel Dennis' passion to prevent childhood obesity and fight for healthier school lunch programs.
Making CPR training a high school graduation requirement was another key. The AHA has advocated heavily for this, and most states now have such laws on the books.
"When you think of the multiplying effect of having those kids do CPR training over a decade, you're giving half a generation the power to help save someone's life. That's very powerful," he said.
Dennis' passion for leading volunteers is evident in his record. He's served as chairman in Rochester, New York; the Founders Affiliate; and the Workplace Giving Campaign. He served nationally in many posts, including secretary-treasurer from 2011-2012 and chairman from 2013-2015.
Experiences with AHA underscored to Dennis just how important volunteers are to the organization's mission.
"The accomplishments of the AHA are profound and significant, but as an individual volunteer, what resonates is the people that you meet, the stories they share and the bond that develops," he said. "The AHA is the story of many stories. It's all these people lined up for no other reason than to save lives."
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