Nelson Ballou, 57, of Arundel, died for six minutes. The fact that he is alive today is due to a series of fortunate circumstances, correct choices and the emergency pre-plan in place between the local fire rescue units, Southern Maine Medical Center and Maine Medical Center.
Late in the afternoon on Friday, September 23, 2011, Ballou, a math teacher at the Middle School of the Kennebunks, was preparing for the annual 8th grade bike trip by jogging on his home treadmill. After some running and weight lifting, he felt a burning in the upper center of his chest. It hurt to breathe. After an attempt to “walk it off” by strolling around the back yard, he told his wife Donna that he was going to lay down for a few moments. Fortunately, after she heard him moaning, she decided to call 911.
Five minutes later, Justin Cooper and his crew from the Arundel Fire Rescue arrived to find Ballou in significant pain and ashen gray.
“I knew the second I saw him that his condition was extremely critical,” recalls Cooper, a paramedic with extensive rescue experience. “I was concerned that we wouldn’t make it to the hospital in time.”
Moments later, Ballou went into cardiac arrest. The rescue team immediately began CPR and prepared to use the defibrillator to jump start Ballou’s heart. The paramedics worked with calm assurance to revive Ballou. He awoke to find Jason Nedeau, an EMT and one of his students from 20 years before, applying chest compressions. In his foggy state of mind, he was actually struggling against Nedeau’s attempts to save his life.
“I couldn’t figure out why anyone was pushing so hard on my chest,” recalls Ballou. “My ribs were hurting. I wasn’t sure what was going on. And then I open my eyes to see one of my former students over me pushing on my chest. I didn’t know what was happening.”
In fact, Ballou’s heart stopped for almost six minutes. In this vital stretch of time, Cooper, Nedeau and the other Fire Rescue team members kept Ballou’s blood pumping to critical organs of his body. Once he revived, they performed an electrocardiogram, which identified an acute blockage of one of the blood vessels in his heart as the reason for his heart stopping. While the ambulance raced to SMMC, these men saved Ballou’s life.
After being notified of his condition, SMMC’s Emergency Department swung into action preparing to stabilize Ballou immediately upon arrival and activating their colleagues at MMC’s Maine Heart Center in preparation for emergency heart surgery. Dr. Larry Haith and SMMC’s ED team quickly stabilized Ballou and prepared him for the surgery at MMC. They would later learn that Ballou had a 100 percent blockage of his Left Anterior Descending Artery, which is the main blood supply to the portion of the heart that pumps blood to the rest of the body. This condition, nicknamed “the widow maker,” is the cause of the classic heart attack for men between the ages of 55 and 65. It has only a five percent survival rate. Ballou was fortunate.
“Mr. Ballou’s survival is the result of a well-planned system of emergency care that begins with his wife choosing to call 911,” notes Michael Schmitz, DO, an emergency department physician and EMS coordinator at SMMC. “The quick response of the paramedics with the appropriate equipment, their correct assessment of the situation, prompt defibrillation, fast stabilization at SMMC, and the emergency surgery to open his blocked artery at Maine Medical are all part of a comprehensive system of emergency care that is focused on accurate assessment and immediate treatment of this type of illness. The results show clearly in a case like Ballou’s. The prompt response and intervention by the Arundel Fire Rescue team clearly saved his life and activated the system of care that was able to fix the problem so quickly.”
According to Cooper, Ballou was also the recipient of another bit of good fortune: the town of Arundel’s decision to have two Fire Rescue personnel on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “The response time prior to our current program ranged from ten to twenty minutes,” notes Cooper. “Now, our average response time is four to five minutes. Those few minutes are critical to saving lives.”
Within a month after heart surgery, Ballou entered the cardiac rehabilitation program at SMMC. He was a bit intimidated to begin exercising again. “I was apprehensive to start any exercise because of the incident,” recalls Ballou. “But the cardiac rehab team at SMMC were great. They were very thoughtful and reassuring.”
The cardiac rehabilitation program at SMMC provides medically supervised and monitored exercise, education, and support in the Joseph A. and Anna M. Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Gym that is designed to guide patients through the recovery process following a heart attack or other cardiac problem. Each patient’s program is custom designed based on specific health situations and goals. A team of cardiologists, exercise physiologists and nurses provides an environment in which participants confidently increase their activity. In addition to exercise, patients learn about a heart-healthy lifestyle and receive support to change unhealthy habits. A complete educational program accompanies the monitored exercise with topics including heart disease, physical activity, blood pressure, cholesterol, medications and nutrition. To complete the program, participants are offered a one-on-one learning experience to ensure healthy changes continue long after the program ends.
“Each time I visited, I felt more secure,” adds Ballou. “By the fourth week, I was back to enjoying exercise full time. I have no fear of working out now.”
Ballou has since returned to teaching school, a position he notes that he is as passionate about now as when he started over 35 years ago. But today one of his best lessons is reserved for men his age. “Don’t wait until any chest pain gets severe,” he warns. “Don’t take the chance. Call 911. I owe my life to the Arundel Fire Rescue team and the doctors at SMMC and MMC, but I wouldn’t be here if my wife Donna hadn’t called 911. I’m forever grateful.”
PHOTO CAPTION: (from left) Donna and Nelson Ballou with Jason Nedeau (at top) and Justin Cooper of the Arundel Fire Rescue team. Jason, a student of Nelson’s 20 years ago, helped administer life-saving CPR. (Courtesy Photo)