Veteran Saves Fellow Veteran from Deadly Heart Attack

A heartwarming Memorial Day story of an Army Veteran turned paramedic saving another Army Veteran's life from the most dangerous type of heart attack.

Cardiac arrest and heart attack survivor James Whalen, 70, of Bristol served in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1971 including in Vietnam (Photos courtesy of Whalen family).

Army veteran James Whalen, 70, of Bristol is extra thankful this Memorial Day for his fellow veterans, especially Army Vet turned paramedic Taylor Gonzalez, 31, who helped save him from a life-threatening heart attack.

On the morning of May 22, Whalen was once again placing American flags on the graves of fallen soldiers in advance of the Memorial Day holiday with his veteran friends. Whalen has annually performed this honor since 1971 after serving in Vietnam.

He then headed to the pool for some afternoon exercise. “I got in the pool, and could tell I just didn’t have my usual energy,” reports Whalen who started to feel extremely short of breath post-swim.

“I said to the lifeguard ‘I can’t breathe’ and the lifeguard team quickly called the ambulance,” recounts Whalen. “I suddenly passed out from my heart attack. When I woke up, all I remember is being put on a stretcher, and the EMT shouting ‘we’re going to UConn!’”

Paramedic Taylor Gonzalez, 31, of Bristol EMS, served in the U.S. Army from 2007-2013 including in Iraq.

Gonzalez, who served in the Army infantry including in Iraq and a Bristol EMS paramedic responding to Whalen’s cardiac arrest, recalls his shouting of the same message.

“We headed to UConn because that’s the closest Cardiac Catheterization Lab best equipped to deal with and open up the type of serious STEMI heart attack blockage our 12-lead electrocardiogram on the scene showed Mr. Whalen was experiencing.”

A STEMI (ST-elevation myocardial infarction) is the most life-threatening heart attack. It occurs when blood flow to a portion of the heart is completely blocked. Unless the blockage is removed quickly, the patient’s heart muscle begins to die, and their health and life are in serious danger.  UConn Health’s Emergency Department and its Calhoun Cardiology Center are known for their fast and lifesaving care of heart attack patients, especially those experiencing STEMI.

Gonzalez added: “In the middle of my care of Mr. Whalen, my colleague kept him talking. She asked him to tell us about himself. He replied ‘I’m a veteran’ and she informed him ‘Well the EMT working on you right now is a veteran too!’”

“Saving the life of a fellow veteran was quite surreal,” says Gonzalez. “I never thought I would ever be doing that.” Gonzalez was inspired to enter the health care field and become an EMT/paramedic five years ago following his experience in Iraq.

Bristol EMS ambulance team, in addition to Gonzalez, included Rachel Guillemette, Boblee Bruce and Jessica Caccomo.

It was a team effort saving Whalen’s life. Lifeguards initially performed CPR and used a life-saving AED to shock Whalen’s unresponsive heart back to beating. But Whalen’s heart stopped again and EMS shocked him again to return his pulse. The Bristol EMS ambulance team, in addition to Gonzalez, was Rachel Guillemette, Boblee Bruce and Jessica Caccomo.

From the pool the EMS crew radioed in advance UConn John Dempsey Hospital of the STEMI patient alert. Once Whalen arrived to Emergency Department the Cath Lab team was already activated and awaiting to open up his blocked heart arteries. They placed a few cardiac stents to restore healthy blood flow back to his heart, and ensure his survival.

“Thanks to UConn Health here I am,” says Whalen. “I would recommend UConn to everybody.”

When Whalen learned it was Gonzalez, a fellow Army infantry veteran who was instrumental in saving his life he was overcome with emotion sharing: “It really makes me feel happy. This is good news to me. He’s the guy who saved my life!”

Whalen’s message to others this Memorial Day: “Keep thanking the veterans.”

Taylor Gonzalez, Bristol EMS.

And Gonzalez’s message: “Memorial Day is about the men and women that died, and remembering those who fell for our country,”

“This is a heartwarming Memorial Day story,” shared Dr. Michael Azrin, director of Cardiac Catheterization and Interventional Cardiology at UConn Health, who successfully opened up Whalen’s heart blockages with his team of doctors and nurses. “UConn Health is on standby 24/7 to offer patients lifesaving heart attack care and treatments at a moment’s notice.”

“Today, hospital care starts in the street,” shared Peter Canning, EMS Coordinator for UConn John Dempsey Hospital. “Thanks to great practitioners like Taylor Gonzalez and his partners at Bristol EMS, we have a better chance of providing outstanding outcomes once the patients come through our hospital door.”

Three days after his heart attack Whalen walked out of UConn John Dempsey Hospital.

While he plans to be resting at home this Memorial Day, his fellow veteran friends will be handing out their annual red poppies in the town of Thomaston outside Adams Hometown Markets on Saturday, May 29. Wearing a red poppy symbolizes the honoring of fallen soldiers and support for living veterans.

Whalen concludes: “This heart attack happened on my late Mother’s birthday. Mother sure was looking over me too.”