Pat McDermott thought something was wrong as he walked across the parking lot expanse at work.
It was a bitterly cold January day in Brainerd where the high temperature would top out well below zero. Anxiety from the job had been building in the afternoon. McDermott could feel pain in his jaw and later an increased pressure in his chest. It was a sensation he remembered from more than a decade earlier. It wasn’t long before his mind went to the suspected culprit — a heart attack.
McDermott’s dispatcher at work asked if he needed a ride to the hospital. His response was to ask if the dispatcher was versed in CPR. The next call was for an ambulance.
It was Jan. 22.
And a number of small events were converging to help save McDermott’s life. The following day, McDermott and his wife, Sunday, who live near Trommald, expected to fly out of Minneapolis for a two-week vacation in the Dominican Republic.
Some plans go awry, McDermott said.
North Memorial Ambulance paramedics Darin White and Samantha Welle and Tom Petersen, emergency medical technician arrived on the scene. Petersen handed McDermott baby aspirin to chew and they assessed his condition. McDermott asked if he was going to make his vacation flight.
White expressed his doubt, saying McDermott would be making a flight — just not to the Dominican Republic.
In short order, McDermott was on his way to Essentia Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd. Moments after that, he was in a North Memorial Air Care helicopter on his way to a catheterization laboratory (cath lab) in St. Cloud. His first images of flight paramedic Jeff Kalla in full helmet reminded McDermott of a man from Mars.
McDermott’s detailed recall of events and conversations of that day amazed the medical crew who worked on him. They were also amazed at what he did four months after his heart attack as he invited them all for a coffee and thank you. Earlier this week the crews and the McDermotts met at Wings Cafe at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.
In 17 years on the job, Petersen said such a thank you was the second one he’s experienced. The crew members were curious how the patient was doing, what he felt that day and what lessons could be learned that may help others survive a cardiac event. The medical response has also changed even in recent years.
Flight nurse Sharon Lukach said 20 years ago patients with McDermott’s symptoms were simply put to bed and even more recently crews didn’t have the equipment to diagnosis a heart attack in the field.
With rapid transport, Lukach said they’ve been flying patients directly to a cath lab since 2003. Minnesota, she said, was the first state in the nation to do that and Abbott Northwestern started the ball rolling on that front.
A blood clot broke loose in a restricted vessel in the right coronary artery in McDermott’s heart. Doctors also found a left anterior artery had one blockage. Lukach said McDermott suffered the most common heart attack that day affecting the bottom part of his heart. But with the quick response, he didn’t suffer any heart damage.
“What’s really nice is that you recognized it early,” Lukach said, noting many people will be in denial, wish it away and not tell anyone they are having discomfort. “That’s when you get into trouble and sometimes they will wait for days.”
“It was you who saved your life,” Matt Cordes, paramedic and supervisor, told McDermott. “You could have chosen to ignore it.”
Looking back, McDermott still marvels at the events of the day. The school bus he was driving lost power just as he was beginning to take students home. Students transferred to another bus. With the ailing bus back at the lot, McDermott planned to drive another empty spare bus to get back to his starting point. The bus fired up in the cold, but he was stymied when the door on the second bus refused to close. Frustrated, it was then he started his walk across the parking lot. Halfway across the lot, he said something told him to go to the office.
His heart appeared normal on six or seven electrocardiograms before one showed an abnormality. It was a good catch. The weather was clear to allow the helicopter flight and they had a tail wind.
Now he wonders at those events. He wonders what would have happened if the heart attack came when he was 30,000 feet in the air on a commercial jet or on the beach in the Dominican Republic. Instead, he was a couple of minutes from a hospital and less than 20 minutes from specialized invasive cardiology equipment.
“Kudos, hats off to you,” McDermott, 73, told the group who worked on him. “I’m glad you graduated out of your class. You displayed your expertise immensely and we’re grateful, our children and our grandchildren are grateful.”
Too often, White said people worry they are bothering the ambulance crew by calling, when that is just what the paramedics are waiting for — a call for help. Waiting can mean a heart becomes damaged and will never offer the same full quality of life as it did before.
“I’m lucky,” McDermott said — husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, friend, neighbor, retired railroad worker, school bus driver, survivor.
White replied: “I am, too, or otherwise I wouldn’t be getting coffee this morning.”
McDermott said: “Life’s a gift.”