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Grief and questions after wife's death

No aid was available to a heart attack victim at the San Juan

March 29, 2009|Sara Olkon and Andrew L. Wang

CHICAGO — On the worst day of his life, Bob Small lost his wife of 44 years to a heart attack at the San Juan, Puerto Rico, airport.

The couple had just gotten off a plane on March 7 to embark on a Caribbean cruise leaving the next day. Bob Small, who had stepped away to use the restroom, returned to find his wife, Barb, slumped over and unconscious in her chair.

He wonders if his wife might have lived had she gotten proper medical attention.

The widower, a semiretired emergency management official for Oak Forest, Ill., said he screamed out, "Get me an AED!" -- emergency parlance for an automated external defibrillator.

No emergency medical personnel rushed to help her, no airport workers could administer CPR, and no one could immediately find a defibrillator, Small said. Twenty minutes passed before paramedics arrived, and when they did, he said, their equipment was low on power and they could do nothing for his wife.

To make matters worse, when a lone morgue employee arrived six hours later, Small said, he had to help move his wife's body to the stretcher from the floor, where she lay covered with an airline blanket.

"I don't understand," said Small, 72. "This is not a Third World country."

At least one island lawmaker has said he will look into the death. Hector Martinez, head of the Puerto Rican Senate's Public Safety Committee, told the Associated Press that he intended to seek an explanation as to how paramedics responded. According to other reports from Puerto Rican news agencies, the island's Emergency Medical Corps has said paramedics acted in accordance with protocol.

In a news report in El Nuevo Dia, a Spanish-language newspaper in Puerto Rico, the executive director of the Port Authority in San Juan said the agency had assembled a task force to determine how emergency medical services in the airport can be improved. Another official, with the Assn. of Airline Managers at the airport, is quoted as saying that airline employees at the facility are not required to be trained in CPR.

As Small tells it, the harrowing day brought out the best and worst in humanity. He laid his 71-year-old wife on the floor as other passengers gathered around to help. One of them administered CPR, to no avail. Strangers embraced him and made the sign of the cross over his wife's body.

Days later, Small pored over photos of his late wife, a woman he met at an ice skating rink in Chicago and married in 1965. They took their honeymoon in San Juan, where they spotted their first cruise ship.

In the last 15 years, the couple went on at least 40 cruises. They called themselves "cruisers" and were members of cruise lines' frequent travelers clubs.

The had lived in the same tidy Oak Forest home for about 40 years. Barb was a retired elementary and middle school teacher who still occasionally served as a substitute.

They raised a son and a daughter and doted on five grandchildren.

The family hasn't yet decided whether to pursue legal action. "If all of this comes so we can save someone else, then I think that's fine," Small said.

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solkon@tribune.com

alwang@tribune.com

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