The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2013

A Don McCormack column: 'I've been given a gift'

One month ago tomorrow, Ron Cramer lay down dead on an Ashtabula street. Now, he vows to live each and every day to its fullest

By DON McCORMACK - donmac@suite224.net
Sports Editor

— None of us needs to have death come knocking on our door to appreciate what Ron Cramer has been through the past month.

After all, to appreciate life, one only needs to be alive.

And for 59-year-old Ron Cramer, an admitted man of God as Sunday School Superintendent, teacher of men’s classes on Sundays and the worship leader for the 11 a.m. service at the Jefferson United Methodist Church, he knows he received the ultimate gift last month.

“I’ve been given a gift by God... and I know it,” he said.

For, one month ago tomorrow, Ron Cramer was dead.



The Day

It was May 27, Memorial Day, and Ron journeyed north. “I went to the harbor to do the Memorial Day 5K,” he said. “I walk and run. I definitely don’t run the whole thing.”

Having taken up running about a year ago because he “wanted to drop some weight and get myself in better shape,” it seemed like a normal race for him.

It didn’t take long, though, for “normal” to be replaced by “uh-oh.”

“Almost a mile into the race, I felt kind of light-headed, so I stopped to catch my breath and sit for about 15 seconds or so,” Ron said. “Then, I got back into it.

“I remember starting up again, then... nothing. I remember nothing. Not a thing.”

Only because the actions of alert, willing-to-take-action people on hand to watch the race, rescue personnel and, yes, perhaps a higher power, is he able to tell his tale.

“I’m told I had passed out and that my heart had stopped,” Ron said. “I was told I wasn’t breathing.

“I was dead.”



Fate comes knocking

For all intents and purposes, Ron Cramer’s life ended that day at age 59, laying on the pavement on Walnut Boulevard.

Fortunately, a gentleman named Bartolomeo Agiannatassio was riding his bicycle down the road and came to his rescue.

“He performed chest compressions on me for what I’m told was 15 for 20 minutes,” he said. “I hear others volunteered to take over for him, but he wouldn’t have any of that, saying, ‘No, I’m on it. I’m staying with him.’”

As if more evidence of interaction by a higher power came into play, there’s this:

Bartolomeo Agiannatassio isn’t your normal Good Samaritan, or guardian angel. His official title is “Dr. Bartolomeo Agiannatassio” — he’s a cardiologist for the Cleveland Clinic.

“How amazing is that?!” Ron said. “I have a heart attack and the gentleman who saves me isn’t just a good guy, he’s a cardiologist for one of the best hospitals in the world.

“It’s incredible, really.”



Saving a life

With Dr. Agiannatassio hard at work, EMT personnel arrived on the scene.

“They rushed me to Ashtabula County Medical Center, where my heart was going absolutely crazy!” Ron said. “It was going completely irregular. I remember being at ACMC in the emergency room. When they shocked me and brought it back to normal, they put me on a helicopter and flew me to Cleveland Clinic, where they put a stint into one of my arteries.”

But as is usually the case with any story, and most certainly when a saga such as this plays out, there are several more layers to it.

The EMT administered a defibrillator on the way to the hospital and, well, what happened next is better left to Ron himself to explain.

“I immediately sat straight up and then started laughing,” he said. “The EMTs said they’ve never seen anything like it.”

Brought back from the brink, Ron’s trademark sense of humor didn’t stop there, either.

“When they loaded me onto the helicopter to fly me to the Cleveland Clinic, I asked what the in-flight movie was,” he said through another laugh.



Settling in

Ron admits he’s amazed at just how quickly his life returned to a sense of normalcy, or at least some semblance of it, anyway.

“Three and a half days after I entered the Cleveland Clinic, I’m out of the hospital and walking around with a wearable defibrillator,” he said. “It’s certainly not convenient... it weighs 5 to 6 pounds and, yeah, it’s a bit of a burden, but I really don’t mind.

“It sure beats the alternative!”



One beloved guy

Ron Cramer could run for mayor in Jefferson. Known as a big man with a big heart, he retired three years ago after 35 years as a teacher in the Jefferson district, spent mostly in the sixth grade.

His three and a half decades spent interacting and teaching young people in the community, on top of his dedicated work within the church, where his wife, Pat, has been administrative assistant since December 1993, have pretty much made Ron Cramer The Man About Town.

Then, there’s their family.

Ron and Pat have raised two sons.

Matt, a 1998 Jefferson graduate and a Liberty University graduate, and his wife, Alvina, have a 25-month-old son, Kingsley. They live in Morovia, Liberia, where Matt is the country’s director for Orphan Relief and Rescue.

James, a 2000 Jefferson graduate and a Kent State graduate, and his wife, Becca, live in Kinshasa, which is the largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he is teaching English.

In other words, the Cramer family has been — and continues — to be caring, giving people.

“It’s a good life,” Ron said. “God has blessed me in so many ways, I can’t even begin to count them.”

He does, though, know where to start.

“My wife is such a blessing,” he said.

The couple met in high school at Wheatfield Senior High School in Niagara, N.Y., where they were both members of the Class of 1971.

Not surprising to anyone who knows the couple, Ron knows all the details of their first date.

“Our first date was on April 17, 1981!” he said. “We went to see a movie, Cold Turkey, starring Dick Van Dyke and Hope Lange.”

After high school, Ron went on to study Christian ministries at Malone University. Pat moved on to Niagara County Community College, where she studied secretarial science.

The rest is history... ongoing history, thankfully.

The Cramers will celebrate 39 years of marriage on July 27 — two months to the day Ron’s life ended... and restarted.

“Pat keeps me on the straight and, mostly, narrow,” Ron says, breaking into his trademark boisterous laugh.



The next step

Though his life is back to “normal” as much as it could be, all things considered, Ron isn’t out of the woods, yet.

He has a big day Friday, when he’s going back to Cleveland Clinic.

“I’ve been feeling pretty good, not fully back to normal, but close,” he said. “I’m in the habit of walking daily, watching what I eat, keeping track of my blood pressure and weight, and just going about routine stuff at home and my wife is such a blessing.

“At the clinic Friday, I’m going in for the day, pretty much. They’re going to do all the tests — MRI, stress test, etc. — and we will know a lot more then.

“My chest and shoulders hardly hurt and I’m used to having Bro-Tech (his life vest) as part of my life, now.”

But he’s on the road to recovery.

“I’m up to walking a mile... a slow mile,” he said. “And I have to watch my sodium intake and I’m on about five medications.”



Good for the spirit

The circumstances of how Ron Cramer’s life-death-life tale have played out cause goose bumps to run up and down one’s arms, a tingling sensation to hit the back of the neck and, after speaking with him, a warming of the heart and a tear in the eye.

He’s darn fortunate he wasn’t working out near his home on South Denmark Road in Denmark.

“I train on South Denmark Road and Route 193. If this had happened during a workout, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now. I would have been a goner.”

I say it was almost a perfect storm, if you will.

“Everything came together. Dr. Agiannatassio, a cardiologist is there to perform CPR, I knew the police officer who was there, I knew one of the EMTs... it’s almost as if God put us all in that situation and that moment,” Ron said. “It was as if He was telling me He had more work for me to do, so he allowed for everything to come together for me like it did.”

Then, there’s this.

“My heart stopped... for a little while, I was dead,” he said.

“I remember many things from that day, but there is a 15- to 20-minute period that I remember nothing... not a thing. There’s just nothing there.

“I get asked all the time, about ‘the light’ or ‘the list,’ but it is pretty much a blank. I didn’t see anything, at least I don’t remember seeing anything, and I didn’t feel anything.”



Glass half full

Forever the optimist, Ron prefers to look forward as opposed to back.

We all want to live forever, but die instantly. Ron Cramer has done the latter. Now, he’s back working on the former.

“Yes, I died. But I’m back, with a vengeance! My goal is to live to 100!” the man who will turn 60 on Oct. 23 said.

He admits while starting on the road back at the pace of the tortoise and not the hare, having to don the wearable defibrillator, watch his diet more closely and take a handful of medications, is not preferred, it is acceptable.

“Hey, it sure beats the alternative!” he says, breaking into another of his fill-up-the-room laughs.

And a lifetime spent writing lesson plans and sermons, it comes as no surprise Ron has set a definitive goal to work toward.

“My goal is to get back in time to do the Run For the Grapes 5K (Sept. 29, in downtown Geneva) — that’s what I’m shooting for, anyway,” he said. “Like I said, I walk and I run. My average time for a 5K is probably around 38 minutes. It’s not like I’m doing it for the competition. I’m doing it because I love doing it.”



Waves of support

Ron knows he wouldn’t be alive to tell his story without not only all those who helped him that day — a month ago tomorrow — but the many who have offered encouragement and support every day since.

“I appreciate everyone’s continued prayers and support,” he said. “Each day is a new adventure. And I plan on taking advantage of and relishing each and every single day.”

And while he almost was called home, Ron’s attitude toward existence and what comes afterward have not changed. It’s almost as if he knows... he knows heaven is, after all, a place where we find what is missing here on earth — a fulfillment of all that we’ve lost.

But it wasn’t his time. And, armed and empowered with that, which is pretty much the ultimate weapon, Ron Cramer understands and expresses that way to realize our dreams of tomorrow is to do all we can to live them today.

He knows those of us who get what we want aren’t the fortunate ones. No, the fortunate ones are those who do what they are destined.

“I have to keep a positive attitude because, really, when you come right down to it, I am so totally and completely blessed to even be here,” he said.

“This truly is a gift... a gift I will forever cherish the rest of my life.”

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at donmac@suite224.net.