Even as a patient on the stroke floor of St. Mary Medical Center, Davida Godett was in denial.

She had awakened that morning at home with numbness on her left side. Once at the hospital, Godett rationalized. She was only 31, thin and seemingly fit, with normal blood pressure. She must have been on the stroke floor because no other beds were available, she thought.

The Northeast Philadelphia accountant didn't realize that she has one of the most perilous of risk factors. She is African American. In her case, that trumped everything else.

"When the doctors came in and gave me the diagnosis," said Godett, formerly of Bensalem, "it was shocking." Fifteen months later, she had a second stroke. Both times, it was Godett's quick response to her symptoms that proved crucial to her recovery.

That is the gospel of stroke awareness that will be preached in churches throughout the nation today as part of the American Stroke Association's "Power to End Stroke" initiative.

The program to promote stroke education in African American and other minority communities includes today's "Power Sunday" as well as a special "Gospel Music Night for Stroke Awareness," on Saturday at St. Mary Medical Center in Middletown Township.

African Americans are four times more likely than others to have a stroke between the ages of 35 and 54 because of a genetic predisposition, said Emil L. Matarese, director of the Primary Stroke Center at St. Mary and a representative for the American Stroke Association.

Matarese, Godett's physician, is the motivating force behind a county-wide effort to raise stroke awareness. The gospel music program - which also will focus on stroke awareness in the Hispanic community - is a joint effort of St. Mary Medical Center, the stroke association, and the NAACP of Bucks County.

There will be singing by local gospel choirs, scheduled appearances by sports figures including Bernard Hopkins and Joe Frazier, and a keynote address by association spokeswoman Yolanda King, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A stroke occurs when blood vessels in the brain burst or become clogged. Symptoms include weakness or numbness in the face, extremities or one side of the body; confusion; slurred speech; and dizziness. The condition can cause death, paralysis, and impaired speech or cognitive skills. Treatment in the first hour is critical to prevent permanent damage.

"If people realize the severity of the situation, they'll take action, said Matarese, whose parents died of stroke complications.

The "Power to End Stroke" initiative is named after a song by singer Luther Vandross, who suffered a massive stroke in 2003 and was unconscious when he was discovered. He died in 2005.

Nearly 80 percent of African Americans who have a stroke die of complications, compared to 52 percent of all people who have strokes. Hispanics have strokes at younger ages than other groups, and are more likely to suffer the kind of stroke in which bleeding in the brain occurs.

Yet many people delay treatment because they don't recognize the symptoms.

"There is a young lady I know personally whose dad was having a stroke and the people in the neighborhood thought he was drunk because his words were slurred," said John Jordan, president of the NAACP of Bucks County. "He died."

Others are afraid to go to the hospital because they don't have medical insurance. Lack of transportation is another obstacle, said nurse Theresa Conejo, an Hispanic community activist who does health programs throughout the region.

"We are in the suburbs, and transportation is not as easily accessible as getting a bus in Philadelphia," Conejo said. Also, for Hispanics, the language barrier often gets in the way of treatment.

Conejo recently did a workshop in a Hispanic neighborhood in Bensalem where a young, expectant mother had died of a stroke.

"It hit home," Conejo said. "We as women, we have a tendency to put our kids first and husbands first. We stress to the ladies that you are important, too. If you have any kind of symptom, speak up and get attention."

Conejo is a member of the NAACP's health committee, and frequently visits churches to do screening and health programs. Part of the goal of the gospel night is to enlist the faith community as an ally in stroke prevention and education.

"It's all about healing," said Marcia Wright, a member of St. Mark AME Zion Church in Newtown who serves on the gospel night organizing committee. "That's the purpose of church, to spread the healing."

The Gospel Music Night for Stroke Awareness is the first step in an ongoing program. A DVD of the event will be filmed and included in an educational package to be distributed to other hospitals. Organizers plan for the music program to be an annual event in Bucks County, and one of a series of events to highlight the issue.

"This is something we don't need the health agencies and insurance companies to do for us," Matarese said. "This is something we can fix, starting at a grass-roots level."

If You Go

The Gospel Music Night for Stroke Awareness runs from 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the St. Mary Medical Center Auditoriums and Outpatient Care Building, 1201 Newtown-Langhorne Rd., Middletown Township.

The event is free and light dinner fare will be served, but reservations are required. For reservations and more information, call 215-710-5888 or visit www.stmaryhealthcare.org.

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Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or kholmes@phillynews.com.