Ilissa’s Story

Ilissa and Tracy Clark use their experience for awareness

Ilissa and Tracy ClarkFeb. 1, 2018, was supposed to be a day of professional triumph for Ilissa Clark. The Shaker Heights resident, then 26, was hosting her first big upper-management meeting as general manager of a multinational restaurant chain’s suburban East Side location. After driving her son to kindergarten, she took the extra step of stopping by the restaurant to make sure it was in perfect order for the meeting before dropping off her younger daughter at her mother Tracy Clark’s Shaker Heights home and returning to work to start her day. Tracy recalls that Ilissa was hurried and stressed. But other than that, she seemed fine.

Ilissa and her family now remember that day for a far different reason. At around 1 p.m. she turned from a table of diners and collapsed. She’d gone into cardiac arrest.

Paramedics estimated 10 to 12 minutes passed before they arrived and shocked her heart back into rhythm. “Every minute that you are not getting oxygen to your brain, your chance of survival drops approximately 10 percent,” says Tracy, quoting American Heart Association statistics. The restaurant did not have an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). And no one working or dining in the busy eatery had performed CPR.

Tracy still can recite the University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center emergency room physician’s prognosis, word for word: “Her chances of survival are slim.”

Doctors put Ilissa into a hypothermic coma, a practice in which body temperature is lowered for a short period of time to reduce brain damage incurred from lack of oxygen, then warmed back to a normal average 98.6 degrees. Two days later, Ilissa not only regained consciousness during the warming process — miraculously, she did so with no discernible brain damage. She was weak and hooked up to a plethora of machines. But the only cognitive sign of the trauma she’d suffered were gaps in memory.

Testing revealed Ilissa had an irregular heartbeat — something regular physicals failed to detect — but could not pinpoint which electrical pathway in which area of the heart was causing it. The cardiologists installed a device that would illustrate the dramatic difference quick action can make. When Ilissa collapsed from a second cardiac arrest at her grandmother’s home on Oct. 7, 2018, only a month later, the device shocked her heart back into rhythm in less than a minute, although it took three shocks to do so.

But the arrests have taken a toll. The memory of that second arrest triggers daily panic attacks and anxiety. “I do go to a therapist once a week,” she says. “She does help a lot.”

Ilissa’s arrests have moved Tracy to help ensure more victims of cardiac arrest survive. She took courses to become a CPR instructor and in May founded In a Heartbeat, a licensed provider of CPR-certification training. She also raises money to buy AEDS to donate to organizations, along with training on how to use them. “I’m hoping that one day it will be a law, that just like fire extinguishers are required in all public spaces before they can open, defibrillators need to be on hand as well with trained staff,” she says.

Tracy asks those who do not know how to perform CPR and/or use an AED to learn. And she urges those who have acquired the skills to muster up the confidence to use them if the situation calls for it. “If people would just act, [we] could save a lot of lives,” she says.

Article featured in Cleveland Magazine February 2020 issue
Photo caption: Tracy and Ilissa Clark
Photo credit: Jason Miller, Pixelate Photography