At the Heart Run, heartbreak inspires generosity

bbragg@adn.comApril 27, 2013 

— The Minions and the Bandits were out in strength Saturday at the Alaska Heart Run, two teams among dozens that brought heartbreaking stories and heartwarming intentions to the annual 5-kilometer race.

"Minions" is the nickname Joe's Army gave itself, because that's what Joe Hebert would have called the 160 people who ran and walked in his honor while wearing matching Joe's Army T-shirts. Hebert, a Palmer man who was 33 when he died of a pulmonary embolism in December, was a funny guy, his family said. He got a kick out of calling people his minions.

The Bandits is the name of the 12-person team running in honor of Virgil Chron, who founded the Muldoon Road Baptist Church in 1960. He was 85 when he died of congestive heart failure in January 2011. He always liked to say he had made out like a bandit, his family said.

Chron died after years and years of heart-related problems. "My dad started having heart attacks in his 50s," said Jana Shedlock, 65. "He had ablations, bypasses, everything."

Hebert's heart was sneakier.

Last year, his dad had surgery to replace a bad heart valve. Doctors told family members the condition could be hereditary and they should get checked. Joe was working on the North Slope and intended to get an EKG the next time he was home.

But before that happened he work up with his heart pounding out of his chest. At the urging of co-workers, he was rushed from the slope to an Anchorage hospital. Doctors said he had a valve worse than his dad's and needed surgery.

Surgery happened July 23, and although it was expected to be routine, it was not. It lasted 10 hours and required surgeons to replace his valve with a mechanical one.

The next day, he went into cardiac arrest and was flown to a Spokane hospital and put on life support. His family was told to start thinking about end-of-life decisions.

Joe lived 148 days in the ICU unit at Spokane's Sacred Heart Hospital. There were some miracles along the way, but there were even more setbacks -- infections, organ failures, additional heart problems.

He was able to laugh and smile, he was able to watch the Seattle Mariners and New Orleans Saints on his computer, he was able to flash his wit. But he was never able to come home.

Looking back, the Heberts see signs they missed.

He got sick with colds he couldn't shake. When he was a high school swimmer, he often threw up after a hard practice or race. As an adult, he fainted a couple of times.

"Now we're putting the pieces together," said his sister Chris, who gave birth to a daughter, River, while Joe was in Spokane.

Joe also had mitral valve prolapse, a common heart valve problem but one that is rarely dangerous. And when he was 16, he had paricarditis, an inflammation of the lining of the heart. The condition seemed to go away, but the family said doctors believe the infection was dormant for years and roared back during his first heart operation.

The family formed Joe's Army so they could help raise money for the American Heart Association and so they could tell Joe's story, perhaps sparing another family of the heartbreak they know.

"I just want people to know this is not an old man's disease," said his mother, Sherran Hebert, said. "He was active, he worked on the Slope, he swam."

Joe's Army raised more than $15,000 in donations for the Heart Run, the most any team has ever raised.

The effort helped this year's Heart Run raise a record $240,000, according to Lisa Sauder, Alaska's executive director of the American Heart Association.

The money will go to education and research, something Virgil Chron's family knows is imperative in the fight against heart disease and stroke. The world was a much different place for heart patients 30 years ago, when Chron's heart problems began.

"It's amazing what they can do now," said September Shedlock, whose husband Brandon was Virgil's grandson. "And it's amazing what we can do as well."

Amazing is right, Sauder said after watching the tally approach a quarter-million dollars by Saturday afternoon.

"Truly incredible," she said, "and so much of it is due to the fact that people went above and beyond -- they went beyond their entry fee. They donated, they fundraised, they got their friends and coworkers to donate."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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