By Melanie Barker
You might call it poetic justice.
Mark Edward Decker had just realized his lifelong dream of publishing a volume of poetry when he almost died last November.
But after 34 days on a ventilator and a complicated heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, Decker is back working on his second poetry book.
From the beginning, Decker was never expected to live.
The 49-year-old Ocean Lakes resident was born with atrial septal defect, which prevents normal blood flow between the heart’s upper chambers.
“Back then, that was pretty much a death sentence,” Decker said.
At age 5, he underwent surgery at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters to reroute the veins in his heart.
“It was 1968, before we landed on the moon,” said Decker. “That kind of surgery wasn’t even performed regularly until 1986.”
Small in stature and wary of damaging his heart, Decker avoided sports at Bayside Junior and Princess Anne High schools. But he couldn’t avoid the jocks, who he said ganged up on him.
He found his calling in art and journalism. He was cartoon editor of the student newspaper and wrote reviews of the latest rock albums.
But Decker also discovered alcohol and drugs, and he freely admits to years of drinking and getting arrested. He was homeless for 13 years, and went to Eastern State, a mental health facility, three times, he said.
In June 2008, Decker was attending a court-ordered substance-abuse program when he heard a talk by Bob and Kaye Walsh, regional coordinators for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The Walshs’ daughter, Robin Gustafson, was killed by a drunken driver in 1997, and Decker said their presentation affected him deeply.
“I went up to them and promised I’d try to get help,” Decker said.
He entered a detox program at the Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center and said he has stayed clean and sober ever since.
Kaye Walsh said that whenever she and her husband speak, they hope they can reach just one person.
“Mark was that one person,” Walsh said. “I’m so proud of him for what he has done with his life.”
In April 2011, Decker published “Enter at Own Risk,” a collection of offbeat poems about everything from recovery to romance. He had just started to promote electronic book sales through Amazon.com when his heart failed.
Decker’s mother, Judy Martin, recalled that one night in mid-November, her son coughed up a lot of blood and said, “Call an ambulance.”
He was taken to Norfolk’s Sentara Heart Hospital, stabilized, and kept on a ventilator for more than a month.
Decker said the doctors had never seen a heart like his.
“Veins were growing out of my heart and one was as thick as a garden hose,” Decker said. “It looked like the eyes of a potato.”
Martin said that Decker’s local cardiologist performed miracles to get her son transferred to the Cleveland Clinic, where one of the world’s top cardiovascular surgeons operated on Decker.
Insurance covered most of the hospital bills, but Decker’s father, Fred Decker, took $15,000 out of his retirement account to pay for the medical airlift to Cleveland.
A group of Decker’s friends came up with the idea to host a fundraiser this Saturday to help his family recoup expenses.
Today, Decker says his heart is stronger than ever. He takes physical therapy twice a week for neuropathy in his left leg, but is driving again and walks with a cane.
Martin, who stayed by her son’s side throughout his ordeal, said the experience was like a roller coaster.
“It was overwhelming, but the outcome is good because we still have Mark,” Martin said. “He’s come such a long way in the past three years and helped so many people. It was not his time to go.”
Melanie Barker , melanbark@cox.net



  1. Mr Mark Getz Says:

    I met Mark when he had 11 months sober.At that time I was in Virginia Beach helping my sister with her I’ll husband.I met Mark at the new day aa mtg..He latched on to me..We went to meetings,fishing and to the Strawberry festival.Where his sponsor was volunteering. Met the Walsh’s..On the 13 of June Mark celebrated 11 years sobriety.I thank God for Mark.He is a loving caring and often funny man.He is also a very talented individual. 11 Years later we are still friends..Thank Mark..My brother from Va Beach.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Mark it Charlotte you still here??

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Happy New Year! Hope all are safe. 2020 should see more of my writing and art posted here.
    Mark Edward Decker

  4. Someone at a meeting in Pittsburgh PA saw me coloring at the meeting tonight. Some people think its rude but not this guy. He said i have to tell you about my friend Mark Edward Decker, look him up! So when i got back to the halfway house, that’s what i did. Now here i am. Charleen.

    • Anonymous Says:

      Hello Charleen,
      I know a few people in Pittsburgh. Sounds like my friend Mark G.
      Hope you are well.
      Mark Edward Decker

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