One day earlier this year, Ryan J. Clarke finished a full day of work as a machinist at a Paso Robles company and headed home.
It was March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day. Clarke had turned 30 just three days earlier and by all accounts was an outgoing, active Paso Roblan who enjoyed surfing, waterskiing and scuba diving.
That day, Clarke was watching television when he started feeling ill.
He called his wife of nearly two years, Gina, who left her job and came home. Shortly after, Clarke’s heart starting beating rapidly and led to an emergency condition called ventricular fibrillation, in which blood is not removed from the heart, said his mother, Mary Winokur.
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Then Clarke collapsed.
Gina Clarke called 911. Emergency responders tried to revive him, but Clarke was gone. He died of sudden cardiac arrest, his mother said.
“I miss him so much,” Winokur said last week. “He was sensitive and caring and always just wanted to help somebody.”
According to the American Red Cross, sudden cardiac arrest is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., affecting more than 300,000 people each year. Of that number, about 5 percent survive.
It can happen to people who appear healthy and have no known heart disease or other risk factors, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Death can happen within minutes, but rapid treatment with an automated external defibrillator can be lifesaving.
With that latter fact in mind, Winokur started devising a plan to honor Clarke’s memory and to try to prevent future deaths.
Winokur and her husband, Jerry, a retired fifth-grade teacher, are starting a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching first aid to high school students, called the “Ryan J. Clarke CPR Fund for Schools.” They’ll start by teaching freshmen and sophomores at Paso Robles High School, Clarke’s alma mater.
The Winokurs became certified CPR instructions through the American Red Cross and hope to expand their program to all high schools in San Luis Obispo County, enabling the students to become certified after the weeklong course is complete.
Donations can be mailed to 1707 Canyon Crest Lane, Paso Robles, CA 93446, or taken to Heritage Oaks Bank locations (they will be tax-deductible retroactively once the organization’s nonprofit status is approved).
“This has given me a focus,” said Mary Winokur, who plans to take a poster-size photo of Clarke to the classes. “If it wasn’t for this I’d be sitting on my bed crying all day long. I refuse to let his memory die, and that’s my way of keeping him alive.”