Howard Stewart remembers attending the annual Heart and Stroke Ball 10 years ago because it was just a fun event to go to. The American Heart Association’s Tucson Division puts together a lavish theme party complete with dancing, drinks, food, live music, performances and an auction all benefiting cardiovascular research in Southern Arizona.

But in 2011 Stewart suffered a heart attack, and the ball’s purpose suddenly became deeply personal to him.

“My lateral anterior descending artery was completely blocked,” he said. “It’s referred to as the ‘widow maker.’”

He survived the event but his heart suffered permanent damage, so cardiovascular health soon became a priority in life. Stewart, the president of AGM Container Controls, Inc., stayed in contact with the AHA and in 2014 and 2016 the organization asked him to be part of the ball’s entertainment as a dancer and a speaker.

When they asked him and his partner Dolores Lugo to serve as co-chairs in 2019, Stewart said they were hesitant for the responsibility. But after serving on the previous co-chairs’ executive team, Stewart and Lugo got a first-hand taste of what it would be like and decided to accept the AHA’s offer.

“It’s a big thing saying ‘yes’ to doing it and then having it fall on you for responsibility,” Stewart said. “We’ve had some both table goals and fundraising goals to achieve and it’s been a challenging experience for us but it’s something that we feel really good about.”

Each year, the AHA asks the ball’s co-chairs to set goals for how many tables they will sell at the event and how much money they will raise for the cause. Stewart and Lugo set a 70 table goal. When Tucson Local Media spoke to them after New Years, they had already sold 60 tables and felt confident they would reach their $650,000 fundraising goal as well.

The pair also had to assemble an executive leadership team to help them along the way.

“Frankly, there’s no way we could have done this from a time or contact perspective without having gotten some help from other key leaders in the community,” Stewart said

This will be the Heart and Stroke Ball’s 61st celebration. Over the past 25 years the AHA has funded tens of millions of dollars for heart research right here in Tucson, according to Stewart.

“Why here instead of Phoenix? This is where the heart research goes on, by and large it goes on in Tucson,” he said. “Last year we raised almost $900,000. What that led to was getting some matching funds from a national AHA so we were able to fund $1.3 million in research right here in our community.”

The pair’s focus during their time as co-chairs has also been on CPR training. They actively support a statewide initiative to get all high school students hands-only CPR training which could potentially save lives in the future.

“If somebody has a cardiac arrest in our state and they get that hands-only CPR their chances of surviving go up like 300 percent,” Stewart said. “One of the things that’s really sad is someone will be stricken with cardiac arrest and no one around them knows what to do. I heard recently that a man was playing racquetball at a health facility, he all of a sudden went into cardiac arrest and even though there were all these healthy people around, no one knew what to do and he ended up dying.”

Heart disease, including cardiac arrest and stroke, is the second-leading cause of death in Arizona, according to the Center for Disease Control’s most recent data in 2015. Nationally, heart disease is the number one cause of death in both men and women.

“While I fully support research into other issues, for example cancer which my wife passed away from, heart disease and stroke research is important and that’s why we’ve decided to give this  initiative our support,” Stewart said.

Lugo, the only Hispanic woman on the Tucson AHA’s board of directors, is in her second year of leadership and has been working hard to find supporters of the organization’s cause. She said Por Tu Corazón, one of their programs, has a focus on helping Hispanic women in the community become heart-healthy in terms of dietary intake and exercise. They travel to different towns in Arizona to help women understand the importance of these issues.

In addition to her involvement on the board, Lugo will be the first Mexican citizen to co-chair the event in its decades-long history. 

“Considering that Tucson is roughly 40 percent Hispanic and we do have many citizens from Mexico that are living here and making Tucson their home, I think it’s spectacular that someone like Dolores has stepped forward to help bring visibility to this specific issue,” Stewart said

“Especially because in my community they don’t know about the American Heart Association, they don’t know what they do, what the reasons are,” Lugo added. “So they are learning through me a lot of information about the association and they can get involved in the future.”

She hopes to make this year’s ball the most fun event ever. There will be two bands, Dallas-based Day Job will cover ’80s and ’90s tunes and the local Zona Libre will play contemporary Latin and Americano music, which goes along with the ball’s theme for this year: Mi Corazón Baila (My Heart Dances).

Viva Arizona Dance Company will perform and the audience will have a chance to participate in their dance demonstrations in Bachata, Salsa and Tango styles.

“That’s one of the things we do for fun is dance,” Stewart said. “It’s also a great way to keep yourself healthy and keep your mind sharp.”

With less than a month left before the big day, about 600 people are expected to attend. However, Stewart said that from what he knows, deals are almost “ready to be inked” and they expect more than 700 to come.

“The all time record was 78 tables in 2015 and I intend to beat that number because by beating that number we have a higher chance of raising a record amount of money for the various causes the Heart Ball supports,” he said. For the live auction, various high-profile individuals in Tucson have offered their time for a “VIP lunch.” 

The highest bidders could snag a one-on-one meal with one of the following people: Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, car mogul Jim Click, HSL Properties President Humberto Lopez, Long Realty President Rosey Koberlein, philanthropist and Rio Grande Valley Vipers Head Coach Joseph Blair, University of Arizona President Dr. Robert Robbins, former Tucson Roadrunner Craig Cunningham and Governor Doug Ducey.

The auction will also include some exclusive vacation packages. A stay at the Marriott Marbella Beach Resort in Spain, a vacation in a castle in Ireland and a trip to Hawaii are all on the table. Stewart said his team is currently in the process of securing the airfare costs for all three trips.

The flashiness of the event is aimed at generating the most amount of money possible to donate to top research institutions in Tucson and raising awareness of the importance of heart health.

“I would not be here today without previous heart research, so I’m trying to pay it forward by providing research that will save people right now and in the future,” Stewart said. “It may be because of research that happens in the next year people will be saved or the lives of their loved ones will be saved.”

The 2019 Heart Ball takes place Saturday, Feb. 2 at  JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa, 3800 W Starr Pass Blvd. The reception begins at 6 p.m.

You can buy individual tickets to the Heart Ball by visiting: ahatucson.ejoinme.org/MyEvents/20182019TucsonHeartBall/Tickets/tabid/978634/Default.aspx

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