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'He's pretty lucky': Friday Harbor man credits assistant harbormaster with saving his life after cardiac arrest

Steve Cartagena walked up the stairs to the Port of Friday Harbor office so he could pay his moorage. It was July 1. He woke up four days later, on July 5, at St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham.
Steve Cartagena walked up the stairs to the Port of Friday Harbor office so he could pay his moorage. It was July 1. He woke up four days later, on July 5, at St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham. 'He's pretty lucky,' daughter Kayla said.
— image credit: Richard Walker

Steve Cartagena walked up the stairs to the Port of Friday Harbor office so he could pay his moorage. It was July 1. He woke up four days later, on July 5, at St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham.

What he doesn't remember is his heart stopping and his lifeless body rolling down the flight of 15 stairs. And eight people carrying him up the stairs and summoning help. And Assistant Harbormaster Jeremy Talbott — who is also a volunteer firefighter and EMT — getting his heart going again. And the ambulance arriving, and the medflight to St. Joseph.

"I should be dead," Cartagena said.

Cartagena and his daughter, Kayla, are thankful that he wasn't alone on his boat when his heart stopped. And they are thankful that about eight people were nearby when his heart stopped, and carried him to the port office and summoned help.

"He's pretty lucky. He was right where he needed to be," Kayla said.

But they are particularly thankful for Talbott's quickness and know-how that got Cartagena's heart going within three minutes of stopping. With cardiac arrest, brain injury is likely if it goes untreated for more than five minutes.

Cartagena says Talbott saved his life.

"He got to me quick. He should be commended," Cartagena said. The former combat Marine, who lost much of his hearing during a tour in North Vietnam from 1968-69, teared up when he talked about how precarious life is. "I'm kind of emotional right now."

"Jeremy was on the spot instantly," Port Executive Director Marilyn O'Connor said. "I have never witnessed something like that first hand. It was overwhelming. The response was so professional and so immediate." Of Talbott and the other medical responders, O'Connor said, "They did save his life."

O'Connor said the incident has compelled her to learn CPR and first aid. "We need to go out there and have more CPR and first aid training."

Cartagena, 60, said his heart was giving him warning signs about a month earlier. He said he had aching and pain in his arms and saw a Veterans Administration doctor about it. "They ignored it," he said. "They told me to take two aspirins and call EMTs."

That couldn't be confirmed with VA. What is known, however, is that Cartagena's heart was about 85 percent blocked. Doctors at St. Joe's got his blood flowing with stents.

The Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association has information about cardiac arrest. Visit the association's website.

Each year, between 250,000 and 450,000 Americans have sudden cardiac arrest, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Sudden cardiac arrest is a condition in which the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating. When this happens, blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs. This usually causes death if not treated within minutes.

Cardiac arrest occurs most often in people in their mid-30s to mid-40s and affects men twice as often as women, according to the institute.

Local artist and gallery owner Doug Bison suffered cardiac arrest on May 12, 2004 while working in a local restaurant. Fortunately, an EMT with an automated external defibrillator, or AED, was nearby and revived him. The incident called attention to the importance of AEDs and led to a campaign to place AEDs in many public places on the island.

O'Connor said AEDs are located at the port office, at the marina and at Friday Harbor Airport.

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