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August 27, 2001

No time to sit still

By Eric Rangus

Although she’d competed many times previously, she hadn’t planned on it this year. None of her friends were running; her children weren’t either. In fact, she wouldn’t even have bothered had Emory track coach John Curtin not given the Emory physical education instructor an extra number to wear earlier in the week.

For a while, her run was routine. Uninteresting, even. Until she heard the cries for help at about the 8km mark.

A man was down. An older man. He wasn’t breathing. He needed a doctor. Or a nurse. Someone who could help. Chelko rushed through the small crowd surrounding him and kneeled his side. She said she wasn’t a nurse, but she knew CPR and rescue breathing. Immediately a painful memory flashed through her mind. Not again.

Last Christmas, Chelko’s brother Ronnie, who was autistic, suffered a heart attack at their mother’s house. Chelko and her sons Justin and Stephen were the first to reach him. But they couldn’t revive him. Not again.

“You are not going to die,” she thought as she kneeled next to 58-year-old Don Plunkett, who was having a heart attack. He was struggling to breathe. Chelko turned him over, and he started to vomit. His teeth clenched. His tongue swelled. His breathing stopped, then his heart.

More help arrived on the scene. Lee Davis, an anesthesiologist at Northside Hospital, stopped and began CPR. Another doctor, a cardiologist, started chest compression. Chelko forced her fingers into Plunkett’s mouth, fighting to open it. A group of runners and onlookers gathered nearby to pray.

An ambulance soon roared up. Plunkett was unresponsive and turning blue. The paramedics rushed to defibrillate. One shock, nothing. Two shocks, no. Three. Four. Finally, a pulse. The paramedics stabilized Plunkett then, accompanied by Davis, loaded the patient into the ambulance and sped away, sirens blaring.

As the crowd dispersed, Chelko started walking down the course. There was nothing else to do. After about a quarter-mile, she picked up the pace, finished the race and headed straight for the first-aid station, where she was told Plunkett had been transported to Crawford Long.

She went home, showered, then drove directly to the hospital to check on his condition. He was in surgery, so Chelko sat with Plunkett’s wife. He made it through surgery fine. Chelko and the Plunketts have become close. She visited him several times during his recovery and even introduced him to her children.

Not again.

“It was a team effort,” Chelko said. “It makes you feel good about humanity. People stopped and helped. They were very concerned. I was just glad I could play a small part. I was actually glad I had run the Peachtree because I believe everything has a reason. And I believe that’s the reason I was supposed to be running.”

Chelko’s athleticism, not to mention her giving nature and devotion to family, is quite remarkable, and it really knows no boundaries. Sometimes all these qualities intersect.

A swimming and backpacking instructor in Emory’s P.E. department for 17 years, Chelko has been an elite athlete all her life. A collegiate swimmer at Georgia Southern, she has run marathons and even competed in Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon in 1987. Raising five children in the process, now aged 26 to 16 (One child, Phillip, who was stillborn; he would be 20 now. Her surviving children are John, Olivia, Emily, Justin and Stephen—Olivia and Emily are Emory graduates).
In fact, the only thing that has really ever slowed Chelko down was a gift she gave to her eldest brother, Billy, in 1996. Billy was on dialysis, and among Chelko and her four other siblings, she was a donor match.

So that year she donated one of her kidneys, and Billy’s health took a turn for the better. He returned to work six weeks after the transplant. Unfortunately, his good health didn’t last long. After about a year, Billy’s body rejected the new organ, and he died soon after.

Chelko has no regrets. “It’s one of those things where you don’t understand why it happened, but I’m just so glad I did it,” she said. “I would’ve felt horrible if I hadn’t been able to help him. It was kind of special, really.”

She suffers no ill effects from the transplant. She teaches a full courseload, swims, mountain bikes and snowboards at her regular pace. While she has doctor permission to run marathons again, she doesn’t, just to save some wear and tear on her remaining kidney. Instead, she tops out at 10Ks. Her main precaution is that she must remain well-hydrated whenever she exercises.

Not even the fact that Chelko, who is divorced, was pregnant for half of a decade was enough to slow her down. For instance, when she interviewed for her Emory P.E. job in 1983, Chelko was pregnant with Stephen. Once he was born, she nursed him in the gym.

She competed in her first triathlon soon after her hire—a relatively easy one (a one-mile swim, 15-mile bike ride and 5K run at Stone Mountain that same year)—when she was eight months pregnant with Stephen. Her doctor, who gave her his blessing, accompanied her to the event. After she crossed the finish line, she took her kids to the pool for the afternoon, then went on a picnic.

“I never understood why you couldn’t exercise [while pregnant],” she said. “Up until 30 years ago, I guess, women didn’t do anything [when they were pregnant]. In the pioneer days, no one thought twice about it. You had a baby and were up and going within hours.”

Swimming, she said, is excellent exercise for a woman while she is pregnant, as well as after she has her baby. The pounding on the body is minimal, and pregnancy—she added with a straight face—makes a women more buoyant. Several of the women in the classes she has taught in the Atlanta community have been in fact, pregnant.

Chelko also teaches backpacking and takes her students on two hikes each semester. She likes variety and visits different trails throughout Georgia and even ventures into North Carolina and Tennessee on occasion, if the conditions are right. While on the trail, Chelko teaches her students about wilderness survival, basic first aid and camping techniques.

“It’s a neat class because you get to know your students. In the classroom, you know their names, but you don’t really learn about them,” Chelko said. “People will really open up when they sit around a campfire—they’ll talk about their families, their dreams and hopes for the future. I love teaching that class.”

Chelko got to use those backpacking skills on her most recent adventure: A camping and hiking trip through Europe with Justin and Stephen. For 31 days in July and August, the trio crisscrossed the continent on foot (hiking an average of 8–10 miles a day) and train, visiting nine countries in all. No hotels either.—they stayed in hostels and campgrounds, the most interesting being a large circus tent outside Munich, Germany, that sheltered more than 200 travelers.

She had never been to Europe and it was a trip she had wanted to take for many years.

“The first couple days were a little unnerving, but after that it was a lot of fun,” she said. “It was a great experience [being] with my boys.”


Back to Emory Report August 27, 2001