Carroll schools chief Ecker has surgery

Ex-Howard executive had blocked artery

January 19, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Carroll County Schools Interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker was recovering from bypass surgery yesterday after doctors discovered a blockage in his coronary artery following a routine physical this month.

He was in stable condition last night in the intensive care unit at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore and was expected to return to his Columbia home tomorrow.

Vernon F. Smith Jr., Carroll's assistant superintendent for administration, will fill in for Ecker during his four- to six-week recovery.

Ecker, a Carroll native and two-term Howard County executive, joined the school system in August after former Superintendent William H. Hyde quit to take a job in a northwestern Montana mountain town.

Since Ecker's arrival, many have credited him with reaching out to the community, defusing tension and improving the system's tarnished image in the wake of investigations and lawsuits into bungled school construction projects.

He agreed last month to add a year to his temporary contract, allowing the county more time to search for a permanent schools chief while providing continuity as the school system recovers from a trying two years.

Ecker, 72, was upbeat and in good spirits Wednesday when discussing his planned surgery.

"I feel great," he said. "In 36 years of teaching and eight years as county executive, I missed only a day and a half of work for sick time."

That includes, he added, the one day he stayed home with a sprained ankle after he injured himself high jumping when he was a track coach at the now-defunct Taneytown Junior-Senior High School.

He typically exercises three mornings a week at 5:30 with a personal trainer and said he nearly went Wednesday -- until his trainer expressed concern about Ecker working out the day before coronary surgery.

Ecker said his doctors became concerned after his annual physical exam Jan. 5.

He underwent a treadmill stress test, which is designed to detect any signs of coronary heart disease, blockages in the coronary arteries or heart irregularity, and a thallium stress test, which shows how well blood flows to the heart.

Follow-up tests revealed a blockage in one of Ecker's three coronary arteries.

Although Ecker's doctor gave him the option of trying blood-thinning medication to relieve the blockage before resorting to surgery, Ecker decided to go ahead with the operation.

"My heart is not damaged. My valves are great. But I want to get this done before the heart muscle is damaged," he said Wednesday.

Although he'll be out of the office for several weeks, most of his staff expect him to remain involved in steering the 28,000-student school system.

"He was on his way home [Wednesday afternoon] and he already called four times," Smith said.

He asked whether Ecker was aware of legislation proposed in Maryland's General Assembly barring the use of cellular phones while driving.

"He said, `I bet you'll testify for that one,'" Smith recalled, "and I told him, `That depends on how many more times you call me.'"

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