CARIBOU, Maine — Just five months after Jeanine Watson of Caribou married her husband Paul, and less than an hour before their first official Christmas together as husband and wife, she was technically dead in the skies above a forlorn stretch of Maine.
What had started out as a big Christmas Eve party for family and friends at their home had spiraled downward quickly into an emergency situation rife with chaos, pain and fear, but ultimately transformed into a story of how lifesaving medical intervention allowed Watson not only to persevere, but to live to celebrate the holiday with her family all over again this year.
“I was the most scared I think I have ever been in my life,” Jeanine Watson recalled on Monday evening, as she made pies and other treats for the large number of family members who would be spending the holidays with them. “I just didn’t know what was happening.”
Although the Watsons had been in a long-term relationship, they had just married in July 2012. Since Paul was born on Christmas, it was common for them to open presents on Christmas Eve with children, grandchildren and other family so that they could spend a bit more time paying attention to his birthday on Dec. 25.
Just after the family finished their gift exchange, however, Jeanine Watson said she began to feel ill.
“I just had this pressure in my neck,” she said. “It started out not being too bad but then it got worse, this total heaviness. It started to go down my arms and then it went lower, all the way down my arms and into my chest.”
Her husband, a registered nurse, immediately recognized the symptoms as a potential heart attack. Within six minutes, he had her at the emergency room at Cary Medical Center in Caribou.
“I got the first clue that it was a heart attack when I got to the emergency room and they were putting a nitroglycerine tablet under my tongue,” she said, speaking of a medication that can be used to treat episodes of chest pain. “Then the pain got worse and I was given pain medication. It was between 8 and 8:30 p.m. when I got to the hospital.”
The emergency staff diagnosed her as having a massive heart attack. Paul Watson, who had just gotten out of the hospital after a brief stay himself the week before, called family for moral support and to drive him to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where they were told Jeanine needed to be taken.
Doctors stabilized her and called Crown Critical Care Transport to bring her to EMMC.
Darrell Spooner, supervisor of CCCT and a critical care nurse, was the flight nurse on duty that Christmas Eve, along with Critical Care paramedic Travis Ginn. In a rural area, hours away from hospitals with specialized equipment and staff to treat certain serious medical events, the service is crucial to getting critically ill and injured patients to hospitals better equipped to meet their needs.
“We transport critically ill and injured patients out of everywhere in Aroostook County to anywhere from Bangor to Boston, usually for a higher level of care,” explained Spooner. “Any specialized, interventional, definitive treatments that may be lifesaving are usually two to four hours away from the County, Bangor being the closest.”
Spooner and the CCCT team flew Watson in one of the two fixed-wing planes that are called upon for such missions. One plane is stationed in Caribou and the other in Presque Isle, and they are contracted from Fresh Air out of Caribou. Owner Bill Belanger provides the staff to fly the planes.
“I remember them putting me on the stretcher in the plane in Caribou,” Watson noted. “I remember seeing a nurse at my head. After that, things get a bit blurry.”
She has counted on Spooner to help her “fill in the blanks” for what came after.
At approximately 11 p.m. Christmas Eve, at a time when she was roughly six minutes by air from EMMC, she went into cardiac arrest and lost consciousness. Spooner shocked her stopped heart with a defibrillator and administered medications that worked to revive her.
“I don’t remember that, but he told me that when I regained consciousness, I reached out and grabbed his hand,” she said. “And I do remember that flash of memory of not wanting to let go. I was petrified. And somehow he knew that. Even though I could not speak to him, he knew that I needed him to hold my hand. And he did. Right from that moment on until that plane landed and he absolutely had to let go in order to get me out of that plane, he never let go of my hand.”
The crew called ahead to the hospital to have a team waiting when they arrived. Doctors at EMMC performed surgery to repair the total blockages that were preventing her heart from working properly just before midnight and she awoke in the cardiac intensive care unit to see her husband walking into the room. It was very early on Christmas morning.
She was released from the hospital on Dec. 26 and began cardiac rehabilitation at The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle a few weeks later.
“They really helped me feel less afraid there,” she said of her three-month experience at cardiac rehab. “They helped me understand what had happened to me and not to be so afraid. At first, if I even had a little pain in my chest or if my heart skipped a beat, I was afraid I was having another heart attack. They let me know it was important to pick up my life and keep going and move on.”
Watson returned to her job as a secretary in February 2013 and said that while she has “good days and bad days,” she is now doing better. She said that she “hates to think” about what would have happened to her if the CCCT team hadn’t been in existence to help her that night.
“If I had to go by ambulance to Bangor, I don’t know if I’d be here,” she said, noting that the plane trip got her there an hour and ten minutes faster than an ambulance typically would. “They saved my life in that plane that night. I can’t say enough about the highly skilled care I received.”
After the events of last year, Jeanine Watson told herself that she wouldn’t “go all out” for the holidays this year. But on Dec. 23, she was back in front of her stove, cooking and baking amidst commotion all around her, preparing for the 17 people that were coming for Christmas Eve and the between 20 and 25 people that were going to be with the couple for Christmas.
But she really didn’t mind a bit.
“We said we wanted a calm Christmas this year,” she said. “And I think it will be. We didn’t really get to have the Christmas we wanted last year. But in the end, we still had each other. And that’s all that really matters.”