Karen Hein

“Even when I was an intern in the Bronx, I would be on from midnight to 4:00 am and then I’d get in the car and come to Vermont. It was always a magnet,” says Dr. Karen Hein, who bought a dilapidated house in Jacksonville at a time when she was still finishing her medical degree at Columbia. The house has since been rebuilt from scratch with her husband, Dr. Ralph Dell. Yet forty years later the mountainside plot continues to be the sanctuary from whence she draws energy before launching back out into the larger world.

Dr. Karen Hein

Karen’s illustrious career in health and health policy began with a domestic focus. In 1987, she founded the first comprehensive adolescent HIV/AIDS program in the U.S. and authored the book AIDS: Trading Fears for Facts. She also served as President of the William T. Grant Foundation, which strives to improve the lives of young people through investments in schools, neighborhood organizations and other social settings that influence youth. But her affinity for the communal lives found in central Asian culture — she cites the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi as a guiding influence — led her to devote a second stage of her career to international health and youth development though organizations that focus on Africa and India like the International Rescue Committee and Child Fund International.

“Indian and Asian cultures are proficient in making the elements of life and connections of family and community,” says Karen, who also uses it as a model for her home life. She raises Himalayan cashmere goats to harvest precious fiber for knitting and weaving and makes her own paper. “We try to live in a way that reflects our values. I also jog. I ski cross-country and downhill. I hike.”

A year and a half ago, Karen was jogging the three and a half mile uphill road that leads back home from the general store when she experienced “classic signs of angina.” It dissipated after a couple of minutes rest, but the same chest pains and shortness of breath manifested itself a week later while jogging the same stretch of road. “I thought: ‘Oh no! Not me,’” Karen says.

A meeting of the IRC brought her to New York around that same time. She had her former New York physician refer her for an angiogram that discovered an 80 percent blockage in one of her acoronary arteries and had a stent inserted to clear it. Then back home in Vermont, she wondered what else she might be able to do to strengthen her heart and discovered Brattleboro Memorial Hospital’s Cardiac Rehab program.

Led by her cardiologist, Dr. Burt Tepfer, (coincidentally a former classmate), Karen went through the three-month cardiac rehab program, learning more about dietary implications of controlling heart disease, the effects of the medications she would be taking and about the critical importance of reducing stress. The 67 year-old Karen loved the experience so much she refers to herself as “the poster child for cardiac rehab. It’s such a great example of saving lives by having people live in a more healthy way,” she says.

Karen’s relationship with her family practitioner, Dr. Robert Tortolani, gave her the confidence that the BMH medical staff would share her perspective on health care. But her experience with the cardiac rehab staff compelled her to become a first time BMH donor with a gift to that department.

“Of course we’re very fortunate to have such an excellent facility as we have at BMH but it really is the team, their skill and dedication and their knowledge,” says Karen. “Their emphasis was on health and well-being and not on disease and disability. Everybody should go do cardiac rehab, so you can learn about being healthy.”