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Strides taken for healthier hearts

September 27, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

GREENCASTLE, Pa. -- Melinda Ocker's fingers clenched a crumpled tissue on what she described as a very emotional day.

All around her was bustling activity, with music spilling from speakers and children tossing footballs across the lawn. But Ocker's thoughts were far away -- to the infant she lost to a heart defect and to her brother-in-law recovering from last month's heart attack.

Ocker's family members displayed baby Benjamin's name on their clothing to honor his memory during the 16th annual Mason-Dixon Start! Heart Walk.

"For us, it's just a good day to be together and support the organization," said Ocker, of Chambersburg, Pa.

About 60 teams and 750 people registered for Sunday's event, although the threat of inclement weather diminished the crowd greatly. The number of registrants was higher than in 2008, due in part to inclusion of Washington County in the Heart Walk that previously served primarily Franklin and Fulton counties.

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This year's co-chairman Craig Sencindiver said organizers received a good response from the Hagerstown area, reaffirming his belief that the support comes because heart disease and stroke affect so many people.

"It's so personal to everyone," Sencindiver said.

Sencindiver, of Chambersburg, suffered a heart attack three years ago. A quick diagnosis and stents allowed him to regain better health and strength.

"It really comes from research dollars raised through events like the Heart Walk," he said.

The American Heart Association funded research for bypass procedures, pacemakers, valves and CPR, event organizer Sharon Strike said.

"That's how we make a difference," she said, saying the organization also serves as a legislative advocate for things like the Clean Indoor Air Act and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight of tobacco.

The latest focus is on quality physical education in schools, Strike said.

Jamie Reynolds started volunteering with the American Heart Association when she was in high school. At age 12, the Greencastle native underwent a heart transplant after a virus destroyed her heart.

She credited the American Heart Association with providing "lifesaving research" for procedures like the one that allowed her to return to school in only two months.

"I think in my case it's important because without the research, the techniques wouldn't be available," Reynolds said.

On Sunday, she celebrated the 20th anniversary of her heart transplant and walked with her husband, William, and their two sons. Zakary Reynolds, 6, said he was glad the weather wasn't as hot as in 2008.

"They've grown up doing this," Reynolds said of her sons.

Ocker said she tries to make people aware that heart defects can be simple, like a hole in the heart, or complex, like the one suffered by her son. She supports research into pediatric treatments.

"Unless you've been through that, you don't know," she said.

As of 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Strike reported that a net amount of $107,000 had been turned in for the American Heart Association's premier fundraising event. But she hastened to add that some teams would report their pledges later, hopefully swelling that figure nearer to the $157,690 goal.

Erin Dowling served as this year's Red Cap spokesperson, representing all heart and stroke survivors.

Walkers could choose between a four-mile or 1.2-mile route.

Staff writer Marlo Barnhart contributed to this story.

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