'Guardian angel' firefighters save one of their own from cardiac arrest
By Nok-Noi Ricker
BANGOR, Maine — Capt. John Prentiss, a 23-year Bangor Fire Department veteran, says he hangs out with angels.
Those angels are the four medically trained firefighters who worked with him on Sunday and brought him back from the dead.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for those four guardian angels,” Prentiss, 55, said Wednesday while sitting in his Dedham living room. “I wouldn’t have survived. That’s for certain.”
Firefighters Melinda Caldwell, Nate Snyder, Bruce Johnson and Joe Wellman each recalled Wednesday what they experienced Sunday when Prentiss went into cardiac arrest shortly after leaving Fire Station 6 on an emergency call to the Finson Road.
Snyder was driving the fire engine with Prentiss in the front passenger seat and Johnson in the back of the cab. Caldwell and Wellman were in an ambulance behind them.
“About 1,000 feet down the street we heard a noise in the headset and it sounded like snoring,” Johnson said. “I thought the captain was messing with me because he thought I was sleeping in the back.”
Snyder also thought that Prentiss was joking with him, giving him a hard time about driving too slowly.
The snoring sound was agonal respiration, Snyder said.
“Your heart dies, but your brain wants to live so it keeps trying to breathe,” he said.
Both firefighters realized something really was wrong when a dispatcher called and Prentiss didn’t respond.
“I dove over the doghouse of the engine and he was gone,” said Johnson. “He was blue. He was just gone.”
Snyder, an 18-year veteran firefighter who has worked as a Bangor firefighter-paramedic for the last decade, immediately pulled the firetruck over to the side of Ohio Street and jumped out to flag down the ambulance and get its stretcher. Johnson opened Prentiss’ door, took off the captain’s sunglasses and headset, and unbuckled his seat belt while Wellman ran up to offer assistance. Caldwell called dispatchers to tell them Prentiss was in trouble and that another ambulance would need to be sent to Finson Road.
She then went to help. She checked Prentiss for a pulse and there wasn’t one.
“He had no signs of life,” said Wellman, who has been a firefighter-paramedic for Bangor for the last 12 years.
“We’ve all seen that look before,” Snyder said. “We know what dead looks like, and he was dead.”
Knowing that every second counts, the four started to try to revive their friend and mentor.
Johnson immediately started cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR.
“Everybody took a deep breath and we started to go,” said Johnson, a 24-year veteran firefighter and intermediate medical technician who has worked for Bangor Fire for nearly 22 years. “Everybody had a job to do and put on our serious game face. We had to step back from the emotional part of it.”
Caldwell, who has been a Bangor firefighter-paramedic for the last nine years, said her crewmates train and train for just such situations, but each heart attack is different and the fact that Prentiss was the patient raised the anxiety level.
“I was shaking putting the pads on him a little bit,” she said. “We all knew we were all feeling a million things, but we all knew we had to help each other focus.”
After two minutes of CPR, a defibrillator was used to shock Prentiss’ heart and an intraosseous access point, or IO, was put into his leg. The IO is a needle placed into the leg’s bone matter that is used to administer emergency medicines, Wellman said.
The crew then checked the captain’s heart. It was trying to work, Wellman said, so the defibrillator paddles were used a second time to get the heart beating again, and he was given 1 milligram of epinephrine, a synthetic form of adrenaline.
Then another round of CPR began. Within 30 seconds or so, Prentiss began to move and he was given a second drug, an antiarrhythmic, which is used to help keep the heart beating at a constant rate.
“It was an absolutely flawless team effort with a perfect result,” Caldwell said.
Once the firefighters got Prentiss’ heart going again, they rushed him to Eastern Maine Medical Center.
Prentiss said Wednesday that he remembers eating lunch at the fire station, which is on the Griffin Road, but nothing after that until he got to the hospital.
“I remember waking up in the emergency room, and I had asked where Barby was,” he said, referring to his wife. “I remember looking up and seeing some of my co-workers and her.”
Prentiss said his family’s medical history includes genetic heart problems, but he did not have any warning about Sunday’s attack. Doctors later told him they believe a blood clot or a piece of plaque broke off and blocked his right coronary artery, the main artery that supplies blood to the heart.
Fire Chief Jeffrey Cammack said he is very proud of his medically trained firefighters.
“Early intervention makes a difference, and John is living proof of that,” he said.
A stent was placed into Prentiss’ coronary artery on Sunday afternoon by EMMC staff and two days later he was released from the hospital. Doctors have told him there is no permanent damage.
“I’ve never seen anybody recover like that,” Wellman said. “The word miracle to me is kind of a big word. John beat all the odds. It really is a miracle.”
Barby Prentiss said the miracle is that her husband works with such a great group of highly trained people.
“They’re the ones that are the miracle,” she said. “They brought him back.”
Her husband simply said, “We’re just like family.” He added that he hopes to be back at work in the next two months after going through cardiac rehabilitation and testing to ensure he’s doing all right.
“I’m ready to go,” he said. “If I could work tomorrow, I’d be back. I honestly feel that good.”
All four of Prentiss’ angels said things could have turned out differently if they weren’t all together with him when he went into cardiac arrest, or if they didn’t have the life-saving equipment readily at hand.
The four firefighters stopped by Prentiss’ house on Wednesday and got to see him with his wife, son, grandchildren, and other loving family members.
“Seeing him this morning holding his grandbabies, sitting in front of the Christmas tree, was very sobering,” Wellman said. “There wasn’t one of us who left without a tear in our eye. It felt pretty good.”