St. John Valley

Against all Odds: 88-year-old resident thwarts medical crisis

FORT KENT, Maine — Never happier to be alive at 88 years of age, Roy Gardner has an amazing story to tell.  One of 14 children, he is thankful for the chance he was given recently when he experienced a medical crisis.

While working in the area of Walker Brook, Gardner experienced something like never before. Against all odds, he survived an event that less than 5 percent of people live to talk about.

It started out like any other day, out on the back roads of the North Maine Woods, in his favorite area and doing what he loved best. He was getting ready to collect snow and water samples for the U.S. Geological Survey at Walker Brook, something he has done for years.

Suddenly he felt nearly incapacitated, unable to move any part of his body or even speak. He said he somehow managed to get back to his truck, where he vaguely remembers calling for help from his radio.

The first people to respond were Allan Gardner and Leighton Kelly, who immediately made contact with Emergency Medical Services when they came upon Roy at Walker Brook. Once on the scene, the EMS crew worked quickly, recognizing that time was of the essence, to get him to Northern Maine Medical Center (NMMC).

When Gardner arrived in the emergency department, he had tearing back pain and critically unstable vital signs. The ED team, led by Dr. John Joseph, quickly determined he had a ruptured thoracic aneurysm.

An aneurysm is a bulge in a section of the aorta, the body’s main artery, and most commonly occurs in the abdomen or belly but can also occur in the chest. Certain medical problems such as high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries, along with wear and tear that naturally occurs with aging, can cause weakness of the blood vessel walls.

The aorta carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Because the section with the aneurysm is overstretched and weak, it can burst. If the aorta bursts as Roy experienced, it can cause serious bleeding that can quickly lead to death.

With grim survival odds, Roy and his family were given two options: he could be admitted to the hospital and made comfortable for the inevitable prognosis or play the odds and be transported to Boston for surgical intervention. With a smile on his face, he said, “Let’s go to Boston.”

The ED team prepared him for the trip using best practice protocols and plenty of support and encouragement. With stormy weather to contend with, getting to Boston proved to be an additional obstacle, making it impossible for LifeFlight of Maine to transport him. Arrangements were made to rendezvous with a fixed-wing aircraft at the Frenchville airport.

On departure, Gardner said to Joseph, “I’ll let you know what happens either way,” knowing he had a very good chance of dying en route to Boston.

He not only survived the flight to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, but with the skill of the Vascular Surgery Department and his will to live, he survived the surgical repair of his aorta.

Joseph said, “I was sure Roy would die on the way to Boston, but I was never so glad to be wrong.”

After the surgery and an acute period of recovery, Roy spent several weeks with the rehabilitation team at Harvard’s Spaulding Rehabilitation hospital. Paula Carson-Charette, FNP-C, Gardner’s primary healthcare provider, said, “Roy came home as sharp as ever. We are so happy to have him home.”

A few weeks after his return to his home in Allagash, Joseph, Charette and other members of the NMMC medical team visited Gardner and his daughter Betty in their home. He and his daughter welcomed the visitors with smiles and open arms, ready to talk about the incredible experience.

“They were good to me in Boston, but when my doctor asked me if I felt ready to take the trip home, I told him I thought I would do a lot better recovering in my own home.”

Though Gardner missed his family, he also missed his 6-year-old dog, Willie.

Although he is not yet strong enough to go out in his yard to feed the deer, he is able to see them from his window, and is already beginning to think about planting a small vegetable garden this summer.

Looking Dr. Joseph in the eye and shaking his hand earnestly, he said, “I will never forget you for saving my life.”

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