Heart attack drama: Nurse, Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter crew save man’s life

It wasn’t hard for Jane Caldwell to think the worst, looking at her partner Graham Jones as he lay face-down on a remote walking track.

“I’ve seen a lot of dead people. He looked like a dead person,” Caldwell said.

At first, she thought he was “looking at spiders” but then realised he had collapsed.

“My head was, ‘He’s dead. How am I going to tell his children – who are 17 and 20 – he’s dead?”

It was late November and the Swanson couple were on Te Henga Walkway, a track overlooking the Tasman Sea in West Auckland, boosting their fitness ahead of a planned tramp of the South Island’s Heaphy Track.

Cellphone reception is patchy and there’s no way an ambulance could get anywhere near the cliff-top walkway.

But help – or as Jones would describe her, an angel -was just around the corner.

As Caldwell checked on Jones and a passerby called 111, Middlemore Hospital emergency nurse Tori Prendergast walked into the unfolding drama.

“And she said, ‘Is everything all right? I’m a nurse’.”

Caldwell is also a nurse, but she was too close to this one.

“At work, I’m Captain Calm – mentally unwell, guns, anything. But I thought it was all over. He’s having a heart attack, how do you resuscitate someone here?”

There was also no more qualified person to wander into Jones’ medical crisis.

As well as being an emergency nurse, Prendergast has lectured nursing students in acute assessment and is halfway through training to be a doctor.

She was also lucky to be there – still recovering from a dislocated shoulder suffered while doing CPR, the 30-year-old had almost turned back earlier.

By now, Jones was conscious.

His pulse was good and he was even able to muster a laugh from those around when Prendergast, testing if the 67-year-old was confused and potentially suffering a cardiac or neurological medical event, asked Jones what international crisis was going on.

“I loved his answer. In my head, I was thinking [the crisis] was Covid and he said, ‘Trump’, which made everybody laugh.”

Jones, who felt only dizziness before he collapsed, didn’t seem in immediate risk and, after consulting by phone with another health professional, it was decided he should try to walk to an ambulance.

But the brief attempt failed, and Jones’ pulse rate became concerning.

Still, he continued to answer “no”to questions which might indicate he was suffering a heart attack, Prendergast said.

The turning point came when she asked if he could feel a heaviness in his chest.

He started to say no.

“Then he said, ‘Heavy’s a good word, isn’t it?'”

It was time to ask for a rescue helicopter.

Prendergast had already given her two friends a stark warning – out of Jones and Caldwell’s earshot.

“I said, ‘Take your backpacks off and be ready to do CPR if I ask you to’. And that’s a really grim place to be, by yourself, on the side of a cliff.

“He’d need a defibrillator – a shock – and we don’t have that. But once these [helicopter] guys arrive and they’ve got drugs and defibrillators, he’s got a better chance. And what he really needed was to be in Auckland City Hospital having his stent in, and that’s what these guys can provide.

“I was pretty relieved to hear those rotors.”

Eighteen minutes after taking off its Ardmore Airport base at 4.11pm, Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter’s Westpac 2 was hovering above, with intensive care paramedic Ross Aitken descending by winch.

After a quick assessment and insertion of an intravenous line, the helicopter crew’s task was simple, Aitken said.

“What we needed to do was extract and get him away to hospital.”

Tests en route confirmed Jones was suffering a heart attack, and his status was changed to critical condition.

By 5pm, 16 minutes after being winched aboard Westpac 2, he was in hospital.

Jones says sometimes his close call with death feels like it happened to someone else.

A stent and medication took care of his blocked left coronary artery, he was discharged from hospital within days, is now on blood thinners and already replanning that Heaphy Track tramp.

He’s thankful to the hospital staff, rescue helicopter crew, people on the scene – including a Niuean man they couldn’t reach to thank post-rescue – and, especially, to Caldwell and Prendergast.

“I’m enormously grateful, the goodness of others really, and to services like this [rescue helicopter].

“And to nurses, who are absolute angels.”

– Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust is running a lottery for a 2021 Shelby GT-H car worth $160,000 to fundraise $600,000 – enough to save at least 100 lives. Tickets are available on www.rescuehelicopter.org.nz

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