Tom Bradley, 65, and Stewart Graham, 30, were exercising at the YMCA of Southern Maine when Bradley suffered a heart attack and collapsed. “What can you say but ‘Thank you’ ” when someone saves your life, Bradley said. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Tom Bradley is avid about exercising.

But the Portland resident hesitated before heading to the YMCA to work out March 20. He’d gotten in a strenuous workout the day before, snowshoeing on the Fore River Trail, which runs near his home.

Still, spring was coming and that meant tennis and other outdoor pursuits. Bradley, an assistant attorney general for the state, wanted to make sure he was in shape.

“I thought I would go to the Y and do 30 minutes on a stationary bike,” he recalled. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

He soon found out. During his workout, Bradley collapsed from a heart attack stemming from an undetected defect in a coronary artery.

Luckily for Bradley, Stewart Graham of Portland was working out on a stair machine a few feet away that Monday evening.

The gym “was pretty empty” because early evening isn’t prime time for workouts, Graham said. Unlike many people who exercise, Graham doesn’t listen to music on headphones, which might have prevented him from hearing Bradley fall off the bike.

“I just try to zone out or meditate,” Graham said. But he snapped to when he heard the crash behind him.

At first, Graham said, he thought Bradley had just fallen. But he had stopped breathing and was turning white, Graham said.

“He sounded like someone in trouble,” Graham said. “I tried to rouse him and communicate with him, but his eyes were open and one pupil was bigger than the other and that’s when I realized it was more serious than a fall.”

CPR COURSE COMES IN HANDY

Graham asked a woman exercising nearby to get Y employees to call 911, and enlisted a couple of men to help turn Bradley over.

Graham has had his own experiences with heart problems. He was born with a heart defect and has had three surgeries, including two open-heart procedures. He had a new heart valve put in when he was 18 and says it might need replacing at some point, requiring another open-heart surgery.

Graham, 30, had enrolled in a radiological technology course at a community college in Westchester County, New York, nearly three years ago. One of the prerequisites was a Red Cross course in CPR, but he had never put the skill to use.

“I thought it was more of a ‘get it out of the way’ class,” he said.

He focused on remembering the instructions given in CPR training about how hard to push and keeping his palm flat, to get maximum pressure to the heart.

Not that he thought it would do any good.

“He was dead, or so I figured,” Graham said.

Graham was joined by the lifeguard from the pool, who got all the swimmers out when she heard what happened and arrived with a breathing mask to help push air into Bradley’s lungs.

Eventually, an ambulance crew arrived and continued CPR while giving Bradley an epinephrine shot to get his heart started again.

“It felt like five minutes due to the adrenaline, but some guys who reviewed the security tape said it was 10 to 12 minutes” of CPR before the ambulance crew showed up, Graham said.

As he watched the stricken man being wheeled away on a stretcher, Graham said he wasn’t sure Bradley would live. Even if he did, Graham said, he feared Bradley might suffer brain damage after “being essentially dead for 10 minutes.”

FAMILY RUSHES TO BEDSIDE

Bradley remembers increasing the resistance setting on the stationary bike, but nothing else until two days later, when he woke up in a hospital room.

His wife, Phyllis Cohn, who works for the Red Cross in Germany providing services to members of the armed forces, said she went to bed Monday night and turned off her phone as usual. She was asleep when her husband suffered the heart attack.

The next morning, her phone was full of voice messages and texts from friends and family telling her to call home because something had happened to her husband, including a particularly disconcerting message via a message service operated by the Red Cross that said her husband’s “outlook is grim, life expectancy questionable.”

Phyllis Cohn rushed home from her job in Germany when she heard her husband, Tom Bradley, had been stricken, and was in distress because she didn’t have many details on his condition. “I was hysterical,” she said. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

She made arrangements to fly home and contacted her son, Drew Cohn, who is in the military stationed in Hawaii. He got emergency leave and flew to Portland.

Phyllis Cohn flew first to Chicago and then switched to a Portland flight, her route made longer by the lack of updates on her husband.

“I was hysterical,” Cohn said. “I had ‘outlook grim’ (in my mind) when I got on the plane.”

Cohn said doctors in Portland used a still-experimental treatment to cool her husband’s brain in order to prevent damage. Then they concentrated on determining what caused the heart attack in an otherwise healthy 65-year-old. They determined that a portion of a coronary artery was narrower than normal, a condition that Bradley may have had all his life. As plaque built up in the narrow portion of the artery, it eventually cut off the blood flow, leading to the heart attack.

His other arteries were clear, Cohn said, probably from his regular exercise and a diet in which spinach salads figure prominently.

Cohn, who has had CPR training, said she knew that whoever saved her husband’s life knew what he was doing, because he’d cracked two of Bradley’s ribs while giving him CPR. She said one of the toughest concepts to convey during training is how hard to push when doing chest compressions.

LUCKY PATIENT MEETS LIFESAVER

Bradley and Cohn finally met Graham in the hospital several days after the heart attack.

Graham had already tried to track down the man whose life he saved, to see how he was doing, but no one would tell him his name because of patient confidentiality laws. Eventually, the YMCA got them together, and he visited the hospital, where Bradley was getting visits from friends and co-workers from the Attorney General’s Office.

“I kind of had the attitude that I was happy to do a favor for someone, but they didn’t really accept that,” Graham said.

“What can you say but ‘Thank you’ to someone who does that?” Bradley said.

“It seems so trivial,” Cohn said.

Bradley underwent double-bypass surgery a week after the heart attack and was discharged from the hospital Sunday. The three plan to get together for dinner this week.

Graham said he told his parents – his father is a doctor, his mother a nurse – what happened. The family moved to the U.S. from Australia when Graham was 2 and he was attracted to Portland because its focus on the outdoors, music scene and liberal culture reminded him of the University of North Carolina-Asheville, where he attended college.

He said it was gratifying to be able to tell his parents what he’d done.

“An interest in the welfare of others has always been taught in our family,” he said. “So it was nice to be able to tell them about that.”

He said he’s grateful to have had the training he needed.

“The worst thing would be to be in that situation and be paralyzed and not knowing what to do or be fearful and not wanting to do anything,” he said. “I heard my mother’s voice in the back of my head saying, ‘People are freaking out here, but you need to keep calm.’ But it was a team effort, it wasn’t just me.”

IN RECOVERY, WIFE ADJUSTING

Helen Breña, chief executive officer of the YMCA of Southern Maine, said the response by staff and Graham to help Bradley reflects the organization’s personality.

“It’s the kind of community where people feel they belong and are cared for,” she said. “You never want something like this to happen, but if it happens at the Y, you want them to have the best opportunity to get through.”

Bradley, who was a reporter at the Portland Press Herald for a dozen years before going to law school in 1989, said he’s eager to return to work in the Attorney General’s Office, where he oversees legal issues related to the Medicare and MaineCare programs in Maine.

Since being discharged from the hospital, Bradley has started to walk around, and said he feels better every day.

“I love my work and I want to keep working,” he said.

Cohn will return to Germany briefly, but is turning down a planned reassignment to Kuwait and is talking with the Red Cross about stateside jobs. She said the position in Germany has allowed her and her husband to travel extensively in Europe, but now she wants them to be closer to each other.

Graham is looking for work, hoping to find a job in the automotive field.

“Cars have always been a passion,” he said.

Bradley and Cohn say they’re grateful that he also had an interest in the medical field a few years ago.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]


Corrections: This story was updated at 10:12 a.m., April 5, 2017, to correct the name of the YMCA, and at 12:41 p.m., April 5, 2017, to reflect the correct spelling of Stewart Graham’s name.

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