February 18, 2021
5 min read

A tribute to Irene Pollin, pioneer in women’s heart health

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In 1952, Irene Pollin’s firstborn son, Kenneth, died of congenital heart disease at age 15 months. More than a decade later, her daughter, Linda, succumbed to the same inherited condition at age 16 years.

After these two tragic losses, Pollin picked herself up and returned to graduate school to earn a master’s degree in social work. “I wanted to give people the kind of help I so desperately needed and could never find,” she said. She became a psychotherapist and social worker, and in 1976 she created the first crisis-counseling centers for people coping with chronic illness. She later co-wrote two books on long-term illness.

Pollin, who died July 28 at age 96 years, went on to change the landscape for women’s heart health, as she turned her focus on the disease that took two of her children. She did so in a unique and powerful way, attributes that matched her many contributions — by combining philanthropy with her own active involvement and leadership in new programmatic efforts to improve women’s CV health.

Irene Pollin
Irene Pollin

In 1999, Pollin established the nation’s first organization dedicated to women’s heart disease prevention and education — Sister to Sister: The Women’s Heart Health Foundation. During its 15-year history, it provided more than 100,000 free CV screenings for women while bringing together a broad mix of medical experts, research and community leaders, as well as the public.

C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD
C. Noel Bairey Merz

“This project brought together so many activities I have been involved with for a major part of my life: heart disease, chronic illness, women’s health, community involvement, gender issues, working women’s lives and promoting action beyond awareness,” she recalled later.

In 2013, Pollin extended her impact on the field of women’s CV health, making a transformational $10 million gift to the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center to create the Linda Joy Pollin Women’s Heart Health Program, and turned over Sister to Sister’s resources to the new program.

Jorge Plutzky, MD
Jorge Plutzky

“Irene Pollin was a feisty innovator and an amazing pioneer — tenacious, intelligent and committed,” Cardiology Today Editorial Board Member C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Linda Joy Pollin Women’s Heart Health Program, said. “We are forever grateful for her inspired partnership. The Linda Joy Pollin Heart Health Program funds an annual Linda Joy Pollin Heart Health Day, awards the annual Linda Joy Pollin Leadership in Women’s Heart Disease, supports a postdoctoral research fellow and provides seed grant funding for women’s heart health investigation to fight the leading killer of women — heart disease.”

Roger S. Blumenthal, MD
Roger S. Blumenthal

Pollin also made a transformational $10 million gift to the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. As part of this donation, The Kenneth Jay Pollin Endowed Professorship was created. Cardiology Today Prevention Section Editor Roger S. Blumenthal, MD, became the first recipient. Each year a Hopkins cardiology fellow is designated as a Pollin Cardiovascular Prevention fellow. Six of the former Pollin Cardiovascular Prevention fellows have already become leaders in academic cardiology.

Donna R. Zwas, MD, MPH
Donna R. Zwas

Pollin then turned her attention to the international front, and through a $10 million gift to Hadassah Women — Zionist Organization of America, founded the Linda Joy Cardiovascular Wellness Center at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem-based Pollin Action/Research Center, led by Donna R. Zwas, MD, MPH, transported Pollin’s vision to the diverse and challenging populations of the Middle East. The center is involved in intensive community interventions and has developed and implemented multiple culturally adapted CV health promotion, workplace and health literacy interventions.

Pollin then identified Brigham and Women’s Hospital as the site for a fourth Pollin Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Health. At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Pollin-supported activities have had a broad impact on women’s heart disease, through community outreach screenings and other activities. Under the direction of Jorge Plutzky, MD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital Pollin Center director, multiple Pollin Research Awards have been given to fellows and junior faculty pursuing new research and careers in women’s CV health, whereas the annual Pollin Lecture has served to educate and inspire many others.

Together, these four centers came together to form the Pollin Network, which has met regularly for more than 7 years to discuss their individual efforts and shared objectives of improving women’s CV health, with Pollin often participating in those meetings.

Although Pollin’s landmark contributions to women’s CV health would be more than enough for any individual, these occurred in parallel with her other noteworthy roles. She was a true partner with her husband, Abraham (Abe) Pollin, in managing the couple’s impressive real estate interests and sports holdings, bringing professional sports to the D.C. region and building two state-of-the-art sports and entertainment venues, along with many other contributions.

In 2015, Pollin wrote a memoir, Irene and Abe: An Unexpected Life. “I don’t want to be seen in only one way,” Pollin wrote. “I was Abe’s wife, my children’s mother, a mental health professional, a corporate board member, and I loved being all of the above.”

Pollin placed a priority on family. Her survivors include sons Robert and James, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“One thing is certain,” she once wrote, “it has been an interesting life. I used to tell my husband, ‘We don’t want boring.’ And it wasn’t.”

Just as she did with the physical nature of our nation’s capital, Pollin’s life and many contributions were transformational. One of these areas that she helped reshape was women’s CV health, serving as an inspiring colleague to health care professionals and helping define what is active philanthropy and what it can achieve. In so doing, Pollin touched countless lives and created an enduring legacy. For all who knew her and had a chance to work with her, there is no doubt that Pollin was ahead of her times. Perhaps what was so remarkable about her life was how hard she worked to realize her vision of how things should be, bringing the CV health of women into center stage and improving women’s heart health on a global scale.