Call it luck, divine intervention, or the superhuman skills of the angels on earth who work in emergency services. Maybe it was all three. But by any measure, Jim Donovan of Wading River shouldn’t be here today to tell his story.
The 49-year-old father of five had just sat down at his desk in his home office on Sunday, Oct. 8. It was about 11 a.m. He was going to drink a cup of coffee and do a little work, he recalls.
The next thing he knows, he’s on a hospital gurney somewhere, wondering “What the — happened?”
They call the type of heart attack Donovan had that Sunday morning a “widow maker.” It is aptly named. A critical blockage of a main coronary artery often leads to sudden death.
A few minutes made all the difference for Donovan. His wife Tara happened to walk into his office right after he slumped at his desk. She saw he was struggling to breathe and immediately called 911. The emergency dispatcher instructed her to get her husband on his back on the floor, so she could perform CPR. Tara Donovan called out to her mother for help and the two women got him out of his chair and onto the floor on his back.
Tara saw her husband’s color change right before her eyes; he went gray, she said.
It was 11:03 a.m. when the call went out to Wading River Fire Department for an adult male in respiratory distress. Paramedic Nick Calace was on his way to headquarters from a standby assignment at Wildwood State Park. He was on North Wading River Road, just past Crescent Court, where the Donovans live. Calace turned his vehicle around and raced to the house. The first thing he saw was Jim and Tara’s terrified nine-year-old twins in the doorway.
“I knew then we had something more than what went out [on the radio],” Calace said.
It was 11:06 a.m.
By the time Donovan was on a gurney in the cardiac catheterization lab at Southside Hospital, paramedics and doctors had applied defibrillator paddles to his chest 17 times — that’s nearly twice as many times as the normal protocol, Donovan says his doctors told him afterward.
As it happened, Donovan’s heart attack came just days before a cardiac catheterization lab opened at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, so the only option for Donovan was a trip to a distant hospital. WRFD rescue rushed him to Peconic Bay, with Calace and EMTs performing CPR along the way. Emergency room doctors stabilized Donovan and packed him into a waiting transport ambulance. Paramedics applied the defibrillator paddles twice more on the way to Bay Shore, Calace said.
Donovan was taken to the cardiac lab for a life-saving stenting procedure that included the use of a special device to pump blood to the body’s organs when a patient’s heart is failing.
Tara Donovan, her children and mother watched in horror as Calace and a team of EMTs swooped in and took Jim from their home.
She remembers telling her children to pray and family members dropped to their knees as she reached for her Bible and read Psalm 91 aloud: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
“It’s a prayer for protection,” Tara Donovan said.
She refused to believe this could be happening to her again, that she might lose another loved one so suddenly in this way. At age 22, Tara Donovan found her father dead of a massive heart attack at age 59. “He was blue,” she recalled. “Jim still had color and that was good.” She held onto that thought as they whisked her husband away.
They would later learn that Jim’s heart had stopped and he was gone.
“But they never gave up on me — they didn’t quit,” Donovan said.
Tara Donovan wasn’t the only person reliving a nightmare that Sunday morning. The paramedic credited with saving her husband’s life had, at age 11, lost his own father to a massive heart attack. Nick Calace’s dad was just 48 — a year younger than Jim Donovan.
Calace said he saw the fear and bewilderment on the faces of Donovan’s young twins, James and Sierra, and vowed to himself he would do everything he could to assure a different outcome for his patient’s children.
“They never gave up,” Donovan said.
“You know, you don’t expect this. I sat down to do some work for the day and it was quick and I didn’t feel anything and I literally died in my house. But they never gave up on me and I’m so grateful,” Donovan said.
“I have five children I provide for — my wife, my kids, all those things that you work for, gone in an instant,” he said.
Yesterday, Donovan, his wife and three of his five children — ages nine to 21 — along with his brother and niece, went to the Wading River Fire Department to thank the people who saved him. The family had pizzas delivered to feed the whole department, whose members gathered for their regular monthly meeting.
Donovan, suffering temporarily paralysis in his left leg due to the insertion of an impella and pump — sophisticated life-saving equipment – by cardiac surgeons, now relies on a wheel chair to get around. For now, he says adamantly. He suffered other complications, too, including kidney failure. He spent more than five weeks in the hospital.
Seated in his wheel chair in the firehouse dining room, he took the microphone and thanked the volunteers, telling them how much it meant to get a new lease on life.
“You didn’t just save a person that day,” he told the hushed room. “You changed a person.” The 60 or so vollies in the room gave Donovan a standing ovation.
“This is why we do what we do,” Wading River Fire Chief Kevin McQueeney said afterward. “If you need positive reinforcement, this is it.