Rep. Clark takes health lessons to heart
VERGENNES — It was a chilly Feb. 15, and Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, knew he shouldn’t be perspiring. But he was.
Clark, 63, had just returned to his room in the Hilltop Inn in Berlin, where he stays during the legislative session. He had just attended a GOP caucus, ironically on the issue of health care legislation, and was starting to feel ill.
“I felt a little bit dizzy, and I crawled into the tub to rinse my head off and surprisingly enough, I couldn’t cool off,” Clark recalled on Monday. “I sat around for another 20 minutes and I finally called downstairs and said, ‘I hate to do this, but you had better call the rescue squad.’”
A couple of men from the Berlin Rescue Squad responded quickly, and Clark quickly told them he was sorry to have interrupted their evening.
But it didn’t take his attendants too long to confirm that Clark had made the right call — and just in the nick of time.
“They said … ‘It’s a good thing you called us, because if you hadn’t, we’d have been back in a day or two collecting your body,’” Clark said.
Indeed, Clark was unaware until that moment that he was suffering a major heart attack. Berlin Rescue quickly shuttled him to the nearby Central Vermont Medical Center.
“They couldn’t deal with it there, and decided to transport me to Fletcher Allen (Health Care),” said Clark, who had been on heart medication that had kept his blood pressure in check.
Once there, FAHC physicians quickly inserted stents into the right side of his heart to restore blood flow that had been stemmed by a major blockage.
“I think there were two good things about this,” said Clark, his trademark sense of humor clearly intact. “One is that I discovered that the surgical team at Fletcher Allen was pretty good. The other important thing is that this proved that, in fact, I do have a heart, contrary to the opinion of some of my legislative colleagues, who think that all Republicans don’t have hearts.”
Clark felt immediately better following placement of the stents, but that was only the first phase of surgery. On March 9, they inserted some additional stents to clear passages to the left side of his heart.
That second operation really threw Clark for a loop.
“It took the wind out of my sails,” Clark said. “I was really drained.”
That meant he had to take it easy, at least initially. Suddenly, Clark found himself recovering at home and away from his two customary stomping grounds — the Statehouse in Montpelier, and Mount Abraham Union High School, where he has taught for the past 21 years.
The time off allowed him an important opportunity to better understand his body and how to better care for it.
He has begun regular physical therapy sessions, during which he works out with weights and on a treadmill, rowing machine and stationary bike — his primary nemesis because of its slender seat. He joked with his physical therapist that he would feel more comfortable if the bike seat resembled that of a 1957 Chevy.
His joke failed to tickle the funny bones of his taskmasters.
“They added two minutes to my (bike) time,” Clark said.
He carefully watches what he eats, and credits his spouse, Eileen, with preparing tasty meals that fit within his dietary parameters that emphasize vegetables and fruit and discourage fatty foods and sugary/salty snacks.
He doesn’t deprive himself completely of the “good stuff,” but rather he exercises moderation.
“It’s not that I can never have a piece of chocolate cake again, but I am finding that a couple of bites will satisfy you rather than having the biggest piece,” he said, adding he finds he can sate his sweet tooth with sugar-free Jell-O and other substitutes.
LEARNING THE SIGNS
Clark has also become better educated on some of the signs of a heart attacks that he did not experience when he had his. For example, Clark did not feel the crushing chest pain and numbness/tingling sensation in the left arm that many cardiac patients experience during heart attacks.
“I think (next) time around, I will be much more attuned to the warning signals,” Clark said, adding that he had considered simply going to bed that evening of Feb. 15 figuring that he would feel better in the morning.
This health scare has also prompted Clark to better confront his diabetes, which he has been better able to keep in check thanks to his new diet and exercise regimen.
“Diabetes can be a warning signal; it can adversely affect your heart condition,” Clark noted.
He equates his heart attack and ongoing recovery to a journey, one he might describe in a book.
“It’s a long road back — much longer than I thought it would be — but I also realize how important a trip it is to take,” Clark said. “Without this rehab, it would easy to think, ‘Well, they’ve fixed my heart; I’m good for another 10 years.’ But I think that is not the case.”
He plans to spend a lot more time in the future with young people at Mount Abe and in Vergennes to start walking groups and, together, recognize the value of exercise.
Clark has seen at his rehab center that heart ailments aren’t confined to those carrying extra pounds. He is working out with people considerably younger and thinner than himself.
“It’s a matter of working those heart muscles to strengthen them,” he said.
“In my old age, I am beginning to live the way I should have been living for the last number of years — I just didn’t do it.”
Clark has no plans to leave the Legislature or Mount Abe in wake of his heart attack. He has gradually returned to both venues, and is very appreciative of the manner in which his colleagues have allowed him to resume his duties as his rebounding health will allow.
“I have committed to doing this for myself, my family and my constituents,” Clark said.
“I think this has brought my family closer together,” he said of the health crisis. “We check in with each other a lot more than we ever did before.”
The Clarks have two grown children and seven grandchildren.
Clark continues to receive cards and good wishes from friends, colleagues and students spanning more than two decades.
“The expressions of sympathy and ‘get well’ from this school simply amazed me,” Clark said, clearly touched by the outpouring. “I got notes from kids, teachers and a few parents in the area. I was just amazed that people cared enough to send flowers or a card or call me on the telephone.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].