Fred Para had his second heart attack in a vulnerable situation Saturday: on a fishing boat in the Atlantic, 59 miles east of Charleston.
Thanks to a helicopter lift from the Coast Guard and a quick procedure at the Medical University of South Carolina, he is alive and home today.
"The part that makes this exciting is the coordination of everything," said Dr. Daniel Steinberg, the interventional cardiologist who cleared the clot in Para's right coronary artery at MUSC.
It was a busy weekend for Coast Guard Sector Charleston, which dealt with 12 cases, including the search for a 15-year-old boy who fell off a dock into the Intracoastal Waterway.
Para, 67, left Georgetown aboard Bigg Smiles, a 42-foot fishing yacht, at 4:45 a.m. Saturday. He had come from his home in Whispering Pines, N.C., to go deep-sea fishing with friends. When they arrived at Georgetown Hole, a sharp underwater drop-off, they cast their lines and did what fishermen do best: They waited.
Finally, Para got a bite, and he started reeling. Para said it took 20 minutes to haul in what turned out to be a 50 pound-plus mahi-mahi. Standing up afterward, he felt an intense pain in his chest.
"I said, 'Damn, that feels like a heart attack,' " Para recalled. He knew the feeling from a previous attack, which he had 12 years ago while working as a chauffeur for Donald Trump in Atlantic City, N.J.
After the first heart attack, one of Trump's bodyguards had carried him into his own limousine and driven him to a hospital. This time, he had no such recourse.
Para's friend Jim Murray, who was with him on the boat, said he soon realized Para would not have survived the three-hour boat ride back to shore. At 9:45 a.m., one of the men onboard alerted the Coast Guard via marine radio.
A rescue helicopter left Air Facility Charleston at 10:27 a.m. and arrived at the scene at 10:42 a.m. Lt. Commander Ryan Rhodes said the one-hour response was not unusual.
"You don't just jump in a helicopter and start it up; they've got checklists and things to make sure they're ready," Rhodes said.
A rescue diver dropped from the helicopter, boarded the boat and, with Murray's help, moved the immobile Para into a lift basket.
"At the time we put him on the basket, he was the color of gray ash and we couldn't find a pulse," Murray said.
As the basket cable was drawn up into the copter, the basket began to spin, pushed by air from the rotors. Para, who had endured high-stress situations in the Air Force during the Vietnam conflict, said he focused on keeping his heart rate down.
Para arrived at MUSC's Heart & Vascular Center at 11:34 a.m., where Steinberg performed the catheterization that helped save his life.
"See where the blood stops there?" Steinberg said later on Tuesday, pointing to X-ray footage from the procedure that showed a clear dead end to the blood flow in Para's right coronary artery, which supplies blood to the heart.
On Saturday, Steinberg inserted a catheter in a part of the artery near Para's groin and threaded it up toward the heart, sucking out the clot. He used a balloon catheter to place a stent, a tiny scaffold to hold the artery open, restoring blood flow to the heart.
During the procedure, Para's wife, Barbara, got a call on her cell phone in Lumberton, N.C., from someone at the MUSC Chest Pain Center.
Barbara, 64, said she was surprised first by her husband's heart attack and second by how quickly it was remedied. She said the man on the phone was calm.
"He made it sound like a tonsillectomy," she said.
Fred Para was discharged Tuesday, and his wife drove him home.