Drenched in sweat as she bounded across the finish line on the Parkway, Marina Grace had 10 half-marathons under her belt, but that Sunday morning in 1993 was unlike any of the others.
“I started to see all different colors,” says Grace, who was 35 at the time. “I sat down on a wall, feeling really tired.”
She remembers a stranger approaching her, then event staff wheeling her on a gurney into the medical tent. And then she blacked out.
She woke up in an ambulance to someone pushing down on her chest — “Evidently, I coded,” she says — as the vehicle sped to the emergency room at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
She recalls the frenzy of activity as she was rushed into the ER — the hospital staff tugging at her clothes, asking her name, hooking her up to machines. But what she remembers most clearly is the voice that cut through all the noise. It belonged to Jefferson ER nurse Linda Davis-Moon.
“Don’t worry,” she heard Davis-Moon say to the concerned race officials who’d followed Grace to the ER. “You can go. We’ll take care of her.”
And with that, Grace’s fears settled. Something in Davis-Moon’s voice, she says, “just made me feel safe.”
Meanwhile, Davis-Moon was having her own moment.
“I remember looking at her and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m the same age as her, and she had a cardiac arrest,' ” says Davis-Moon. “I would ask her, ‘Are you OK? Did you see the light at the end of the tunnel?’ I was curious.”
For Grace, who had never been in an ER for anything more serious than stitches, the incident was a shock. Her family had no history of heart conditions, and her general health had been excellent — “I didn’t get sick,” she says. Plus, she was active and fit. She ran year-round, with one exception: “If it went below 14 degrees, I didn’t run.”
After she underwent much testing, doctors concluded that the episode was essentially a fainting spell and Grace returned to her job in the bursar’s office at La Salle University. But as time passed, she felt increasing, overwhelming gratitude for the ER staff that saved her life. She wrote thank-you notes to Davis-Moon and to the doctor who administered CPR that day.
“These people don’t know me. And I know it’s their job to help me,” she says. But thank-you notes seemed inadequate to express her larger appreciation for the miracle she’d experienced.
So within a year of “the event,” as her family called it, Grace began volunteering in Jefferson’s ER, visiting with and talking to patients. Her gratitude deepened again when, at 39, she had a second cardiac episode and was revived by defibrillator. She was diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia — a rare heart disease that affects 1 in 1,250 people and often goes undetected until it’s too late. Since then, she has worn an implanted cardiac defibrillator, a device that will shock her heart back to a normal rhythm if it wobbles.
(One time she felt a shock during a run — right in front of a funeral home. She took it as a sign that she should slow down. So she has traded runs for walks and pedals a stationary bicycle.)
Grace eventually landed a job at Jefferson, managing budgets, and began donating her own money to the organization. She had worked with finances for her entire career and seen how money, and lack of access to it, can change lives. But by 2007, even those donations didn’t seem like a big enough gesture.
Thus was born the Grace Humanitarian Award, established with the help of Davis-Moon and Dr. Theodore Christopher, head of Jefferson’s Emergency Medicine Department. It’s simple, straightforward goal: to help people “doing good works.” Recipients have included a doctor from Sierra Leone who coordinated an emergency response to the recent Ebola outbreak there, and a researcher of pediatric sudden cardiac death who discovered an abnormal heart condition in children.
The award is “all Marina” says Christopher. “She’s one of these silent, exceptional people who fly under the radar. She just has this desire to recognize people who help people, especially vulnerable people. In her small way, she’s making a very large impact.”
Over the last 11 years, Grace has donated well over $100,000, a tremendous amount for her. “Compared to the millionaires, that’s a drop in the bucket,” she shrugs. “I just wanted to keep giving as much as I could. It’s the least I can do.”
She is living proof that one event can impact a life so significantly that everything that comes afterward is realigned. “I wouldn’t want [the cardiac events] to have not happened because I gained so much because of them," she says.
Including a dear friendship with Davis-Moon, with whom she shares quirky similarities.
“Our birthdays are a day apart. She’s July 6; I’m the 7th. Our dads had the same birthdays. She has three siblings; so do I," says Grace. As kids, their families would visit Wanamaker’s annual Christmas light show, so the women make a point to attend it together every year.
When Grace hears stories about those who don’t survive medical incidents like she experienced, she marvels that her life was saved not once but twice. Not many people can say they’ve been given two second chances. In thanks, Grace has made it her mission to focus on the people who help, like the Good Samaritan who found her the morning of that long-age race, and acted.
“There are always people around," he says, "who want to try to help you and do good.”