Toasting 20 in Tuscany: A HeartSister Story of Celebrating Life

In October 2023, four women who became friends at the WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Class of 2003, celebrated 20 years of living with heart disease. Our group members are Ann de Velasco, Jody Knack, Karen Fraser, and Star Colwell.

Since we first met, traveling to visit each other has been something we always have looked forward to over the years. We have visited one another in our homes in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona and Florida; we also traveled to Savannah, Utah, Tucson, and parts beyond. To celebrate this 20-year milestone we decided to do it big!

Our search led us to traveling to Italy for a “Cooking in Tuscany” adventure.

Prior to arriving in Lucca, the picturesque home base for our cooking class, we made stops along the way in Pisa and Florence. Between visiting the Leaning Tower, walking the Rialto Bridge, taking photos in the museums, taking a wacky golf cart city tour, and making stops for gelato, pasta and wine tastings, we hardly missed a thing!

Our first group photo on the terrace of the Hotel Boston in Florence, shows us with the signs we made introducing WomenHeart to Italy!!  Our official debut as “International Heartsisters!!”

The next day we headed south to the beautiful region of Tuscany and the picturesque walled city of Lucca. When we met up with our tour group in the hotel, we became known as the “Heart girls” and everybody wanted to hear “our story”. “Thank you, John Capecci; we hope we made you proud!”  During our days we got to know the other 8 diverse members of the class from all over the United States. They each left with a new awareness of heart disease in women and voiced a commitment to supporting education in their own cities.

Arriving the following day to the cooking school, “The Italian Culinary Institute”, we began what would be four intensive days of working under the tutelage of renowned Chef GianLuca. We both prepared, served, and ate delicious meals we made from scratch! This was an intensive introduction to Italian cuisine and the healthy ‘slow food’ movement, while preparing appetizers to desserts, with regional main courses in between. Despite the focus on food, we had healthy dishes and didn’t gain a pound!

No visit to Italy is complete without touring the many family vineyards and wineries; as part of our introduction to the cuisine, we visited some of the best, often with local food and ample tastings! In addition, we toured a family-run cheese factory and thoroughly loved the homemade Ricotta! Our tours also included the marble covered mountains of Carrara, the delightful town of Pietrasanta where throngs had flocked for the funeral of the artist Fernando Botero, and Montecarlo, the hometown of our guide, to explore the hilltop fortress with scenic views of the olive trees on the mountains.

We certainly got our steps in for good heart health- walking up to six miles daily!!  Not believing we could possibly do this; we were happily surprised at the end of each day to check our progress. (good shoes, a back brace, and encouragement from each other saved the day despite the occasional blisters and sympathetic moans and groans).

Whether carrying our signs or wearing our special “Heart shirts” that Jody had made, we attracted attention to our WomenHeart message. The welcoming attention and curiosity about our mission revealed a shocking lack of awareness about this number one killer of women; many we met revealed their risk factors, family history, and lack of education or prevention. Surprisingly, our chef revealed his own struggle with atrial fibrillation and upcoming ablation, and two female physicians in our tour group expressed both surprise and interest in our message and commitment to awareness and living well with heart disease. We returned safely home, exhausted but with wonderful memories and the joy of celebrating 20 years together and healthy.

Our varied personal stories, backgrounds, and life experiences continue to enrich our friendship and ability to relate our journey along the way. We remain true to the commitment we made at Mayo 20 years ago.  Our own stories and health challenges continue, but our support of each other, connection with our many beloved Heartsisters, devotion to the message of WomenHeart, and determination to living our best lives remain our common mission.  Celebrating together, with joy and gratitude, re-energized us and we hope it will do the same for others.


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