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A man went into cardiac arrest on a run. A doctor running nearby saved him. Now, they're marathon partners

Dr. John Harvey and Dr. Sauni Perera met in 2019 when Perera helped resuscitate Harvey after he collapsed while running in Central Park.
/ Source: TODAY

Two physicians who share a special bond will be running the 2022 New York City Marathon together on Nov. 6.

In 2019, Dr. John Harvey, a surgeon at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital, was on a 18-mile marathon training run in Central Park. At mile 15, he stopping to kiss his wife, Helena, who had been cheering him on.

"She was there at mile 15, and she gave me a banana, and I gave her a kiss. Then I carried on, and that was my last memory of the run," Harvey told TODAY.

Marathon Doctors
Dr. John Harvey is a surgeon at Mount Sinai in New York City.Courtesy Dr. John Harvey

What Helena didn't see is that moments after that kiss, her husband collapsed to the ground as he went into cardiac arrest.

In a stroke of luck, Dr. Sauni Perera, an anesthesiologist at Mount Sinai, was also out running that day. "I came into the park that day, and I noticed a giant race was happening. Everyone was running the way I always run. ... So I decided to ... just run the opposite direction," she told TODAY, noting how crucial that decision would later prove to be.

Less than a half-mile into her run, Perera saw Harvey lying on the ground.

Marathon Doctors
Dr. Sauni Perera is an anesthesiologist at Mount Sinai in New York City.Courtesy Dr. Sauni Perera

"I came upon a runner who was collapsed on the side of the running path. And being an anesthesiologist, it was instinctual," said Perera. She recalled thinking at the time, "'I have to go help this guy’s airway.' So I ran over there."

"I started ventilating the patient," she recalled, noting that someone had handed her a handheld device called an Ambu bag, which comes with a mask, bag and oxygen canister. "Another police officer arrived with a defibrillator. We put the device on the patient. It noted that we should deliver a shock. We did," she continued.

The shock caused Harvey’s hand to flop onto his chest. “I saw his wedding ring. And I immediately thought, ‘This guy is married. He probably has kids,’” Perera said. “It really struck me. He was a very young guy. He looked like he was in good shape. And I immediately, of course, thought, ‘This could happen to me any day.’”

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Harvey tried to run again as soon as he recovered consciousness from his cardiac arrest.Courtesy Dr. John Harvey

In less than two minutes, Harvey opened his eyes. "He literally tried to get up and start running again," Perera recalled, laughing. "We had to tell him not to."

As for Harvey, he remembers waking to a crowd of people staring at him on the ground.

“My next memory was opening my eyes and looking straight up at the sky with a circle of people looking down at me and looking really excited and happy,” he recalled.

Harvey was then rushed to Mount Sinai Morningside hospital, where tests revealed his cardiac arrest was the result of a congenital heart condition, and he would require open heart surgery.

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Perera and her family made an appearance on TODAY ahead of the 2022 New York City Marathon.Courtesy Dr. Sauni Perera

A few days after the incident, Harvey called Perera to thank her. She'd given her number to the race coordinators at the park.

“He said, ‘Are you the person that helped resuscitate me?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am,’” said Perera. “It was as special to me as it maybe was for him.”

“But I just felt like I wanted to see that he was OK,” she continued. “Then he told me the craziest thing of all is that he, himself, is a surgeon.”

Although Perera downplays her role in helping Harvey that day, she acknowledges that the two have a unique connection. “An event like this bonds you for life,” she said.

Marathon Doctors
Harvey joked that Perera will have to slow down for him to run with her.Courtesy Dr. Sauni Perera

Harvey, meanwhile, still can't believe his good fortune. What are the odds that two doctors from the same medical community would be out running at the same time, in the same place, and one of them would end up saving the other's life?

"I consider myself a lucky person. But this was remarkable," he told TODAY.

What Perera did that day most certainly helped Harvey survive.

"When Sauni found me, she helped me with my breathing while the New York City police officers were performing CPR. So that was critical — to help get oxygen to my brain, to my body," he said.

Harvey and Perera stayed in touch during his recovery. "After my surgery, my wife and I met with Sauni and her husband, and we took them out to dinner to thank them. And it was clear that this was the beginning of a really lovely friendship," he added.

Now, the pair will take on the New York City Marathon together, both raising money for causes close to their hearts.

Harvey, who lost his mom to breast cancer earlier this year, will be raise funds for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, while Perera, whose mom is recovering from a stroke, will run for the American Stroke Association.

"Sauni is very much like a superhero. She’s super fast, and she saves lives," said Harvey. "So, Sauni is going to very kindly slow down so that we can run together."

With Perera running by his side, Harvey knows he will be in good hands. "I know nothing’s going happen at all, but if anything should happen, I’m sure that Sauni will save me again," he joked.