High school honors heart attack survivor with fundraiser

This weekend, Herkimer Jr./Sr. High School nurse Mary Ellen Clark will join nearly 10,000 people at America’s Greatest Heart Run & Walk at Utica College, marking the 20th year of central New York’s premier fundraiser for the American Heart Association.

Clark’s race bib for the three-mile walk will display the image of a heart with a bandage over it — marking Clark as one of about 42,000 Americans who survived a heart attack in 2016.

Read more: To participate in the Heart Run and Walk or to support the American Heart Association, visit the AHA website’s Heart Walk page.

Clark was at home a few days before Thanksgiving when the heart attack happened.

“I didn’t have heart disease, I didn’t have heart problems — there was nothing leading up to it,” Clark said. Her family called an ambulance, and she was taken to St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Utica, where Clark said she received “wonderful” care.

“It’s a different world you get into when something like this happens,” Clark recalled. “You have some idea about these things, but you don’t really know until you experience it.”

Clark spent the next several weeks recovering, first in the hospital and then at home. When she returned to school, substitute nurse Jill Barra told Clark that she planned to participate in the Heart Run & Walk in Clark’s honor.

“I said, if she’s running, the least I can do is walk,” Clark recalled.

In February, Herkimer Jr./Sr. High School teachers participated in “Dress Down Days” to raise money for the Heart Run & Walk in honor of Clark. More than $300 will be donated to the American Heart Association from the effort.

Clark said her recovery has been steady, owing in part to otherwise good health, but that she still sees her cardiologist regularly, and is considering having a pacemaker put in.

“Time is muscle,” Clark said. “I lost a lot of my heart muscle function, even though everything went absolutely as well and quickly as it possibly could.”

Clark said the recent deaths of celebrities such as Carrie Fisher and Alan Thicke highlight the risk and unpredictability of heart attack.

“Here are people who have the most money, and access to the best doctors, but there aren’t always warning signs,” Clark said. “What I learned was, the moment you think something may not be right, get help. Don’t wait. And don’t be afraid to accept the help of others. If you aren’t going to do it for yourself, do it for the people who love you.”

Clark said her experience has left her feeling grateful for the little things in life.

“I go to all my appointments, I do everything the doctors tell me to do, because I’m not taking this for granted,” Clark said. “It’s changed my thinking from ‘this is what I have to do today’ to ‘this is what I get to do today.’ Each day truly is a gift, and I’m so grateful for it.”

Read more about Mary Ellen Clark in this month’s Spotlight feature.