By Polly Keary, Editor
Election night is two weeks away, and ordinarily, this is when Jerrell Neal, 50, of Monroe, would be at his busiest.
Since taking a job for the mayor of Long Beach, Calif. at the age of 18, he has worked as a coordinator on initiative campaigns, traveling all over the nation.
But this year, all Neal can do is watch the news from the couch of the small, tidy house he shares with his longtime fiancé and their two young children.
He can’t stop having heart attacks, sometimes several in a day, and that has left the former professional runner, political organizer and entrepreneur unable to do much more than move from the bed to the couch and back again.
It’s a strange outcome for someone who has been so athletic throughout his life. Neal grew up in the rough South Central area of Los Angeles, but made it to college on a running scholarship while earning a degree in English.
As his political career grew, he turned professional as a runner, earning money by entering and winning races while serving as a high school coach, as well.
“We’d run 5K, 10k and half marathon races on the weekends,” said Neal. “That’s where the money came from.”
Even after he stopped running competitively, he continued to do it for exercise, while developing yet another career, that of electronics repair and secondhand store ownership.
Then, 12 years ago, he met Kim Helm of Snohomish online, and they’ve been together ever since.
It was a hectic life, raising two children between Everett and a long series of hotel rooms, bouncing all over the country working on political campaigns.
But when they got burglarized in Everett, they decided to make a lifestyle change and move to the small town of Omak in Eastern Washington, near where her parents had bought a remote ranch.
“We started a thrift store,” said Neal, still imposing at 6’1″ with a powerful build. “You try to grow on what your customers want, so we added pawn. And then we added recycling, and then we added electronic repair.”
In retrospect, Neal wonders if he took on too much.
In 2009, he had a massive heart attack.
“It shut me down,” he said.
It wasn’t his first heart attack; he believes he had one 15 years ago while shopping for the Tacoma thrift store he owned then called Neal’s Deals.
He got a severe pain in his chest, couldn’t breathe, and started dropping things. He waited it out and refused emergency care. When he felt better, he got up and went about his business.
“I’m suck a knucklehead; I kept shopping,” said Neal.
His first wife died young of an illness, and the experience left Neal with a lingering distrust of doctors. So he ignored the incident.
But he couldn’t ignore the heart attack he had in 2009. Accustomed to a lot of activity, whether running businesses, campaigns, or just running, he wasn’t able to work at all.
Helm carried on for a while, but once they sold through the stock of merchandise they had on hand, they had to close their Omak business in 2010, put all their things in storage and return to Everett.
In 2011, Neal was feeling better, and took on a couple more initiative campaigns. Last year, the family moved to Monroe, and their two children, now 8 and 9, attend Chain Lake Elementary.
In August, Neal went to Northern California to work on another initiative campaign.
“I think it was the stress, but I had another heart attack,” said Neal. He had to come home.
Ever since, his doctors, who Neal says believe he has a faulty heart valve, have told him to rest. And he has had little choice; even taking the garbage out exhausts him. But the inactivity sits poorly with the usually active man.
“The doctor says not to work, don’t run, don’t stress, but he doesn’t say, don’t pay your bills,” said Neal.
The family finally sold through all their assets remaining from years of business ownership this year.
So now Neal has turned to the crowdsourcing website gofundme.com, a website often used for fundraising for people trying to recover from a misfortune, dealing with a serious illness, or even raising college tuition money.
He is trying to raise $4,000 for his medical costs.
Kim Helm frequently posts information about it on local Facebook groups, but in a month, Neal has raised just $345, some from his old campaign coworkers.
He hopes to use the money for bills, doctor visits and medication. He hopes he will be able to manage his condition with medication instead of a financially ruinous surgery.
Then he hopes to start another electronics repair business in downtown Monroe.
“I can sit and do that,” he said. “And then I can get back to doing what I do for my family.”
His fundraising website can be found at http://www.gofundme.com/medicine-for-my-heart.