By Hannah Eckstein
Larry Lapham has a “good heart” in every sense of the word.
At age 75, this veteran of the U.S. Navy still works out seven days a week. So when he suddenly passed out behind the wheel of his car more than three years ago, no one would have suspected a massive heart attack. No one, but Dr. Stephanie Reynolds, who, like so many times in her life, was in the right place at the right time.
It was early one morning in December 2010, while attending Friday Mass at St. James R.C. Church in Red Bank, Lapham experienced a bad coughing fit, due to a lingering upper-respiratory infection. Given his recent illness, Lapham decided to forgo his daily trip to the gym and get some rest. However, as Lapham began to drive home, he got a sense that something was not right.
“I was coughing so hard, that it felt as if the seatbelt was pressing against my heart.”
In an effort to relieve the pressure on his chest, Lapham unbuckled his seatbelt. Soon he began to feel light-headed and decided to pull off to the side of the road.
As he was decelerating, Lapham, a Fair Haven resident, completely lost consciousness. His foot hit the accelerator, and he slammed into a telephone pole, hitting it with such force that he knocked the pole to the ground.
“The next thing I remember was looking up and seeing what I thought was an angel standing over me,” he said.
While it was no angel standing over Lapham that morning, it was Reynolds, who some might argue is the closest thing you can find to a guardian angel here on earth.
Reynolds, director of Emergency Medicine at Riverview Medical Center, is no stranger to coincidence in her medical career. As a student in med school, she saved her professor’s life by performing CPR. During another incident, she saved the life of a boy who began to choke as he walked by her apartment.
Because of Reynolds’s proclivity for finding medical emergencies, running to save Lapham’s life that morning was nothing out of the ordinary for this extraordinary health professional.
“I was at my sister’s having a cup of coffee, when I heard the crash,” Reynolds said. She ran outside to find Lapham bleeding and unconscious, and immediately sprang into action. “I began to go through a checklist in my head, assessing Larry. I realized that he was having a heart attack.”
By this time, Lapham had awoken, and was able to speak.
“I had to assure him that I was not an angel, just a doctor in normal clothing,” Reynolds said. “His first concern when he realized what had happened was that he had hurt someone else. That really speaks to Larry’s character, always putting others first.”
After being assured that no one was harmed, Lapham was able to tell Reynolds, the name of his doctor, David Drout. Drout, who is a cardiologist, also happens to be a good friend and colleague of Reynolds’ at Riverview. Reynolds called Drout, explained the emergency, and asked him to be prepared to meet and treat Lapham at the hospital.
As all of this was happening, Lapham’s wife was working out at The Community YMCA, a few blocks up the road. As a member of the YMCA herself, Reynolds was able to contact an employee at the gym, and quickly notify Lapham’s wife about the emergency.
When the ambulance arrived, Reynolds informed the EMT’s of Lapham’s condition, and he was sent to emergency care.
After all of this excitement, Reynolds carried on with her day off, thinking that nothing more would come of this story.
Thanks to Reynolds’ call, Lapham was treated for a heart attack as soon as he arrived at the hospital. He was diagnosed with cough syncope, a condition that occurs when an intense bout of coughing causes a drop in blood pressure, changing the heart’s rhythm.
“Later that day, my doctor told me that I had been at death’s door. The quick response of the medical professionals, along with my healthy heart, saved my life,” he said. “I am eternally grateful for the incredible care I received that day.”
Lapham is a man of strong faith and compassion. During serving in the Navy, he became involved with the Maryknoll missionaries, helping to build and fund orphanages. He even contemplated joining the priesthood.
“I don’t speak of God all the time, but I strongly believe that God’s mercy comes to us by ways of others,” Lapham said.
For Lapham, God’s mercy came by way of Reynolds that December morning.
“She cares more than the average person. If it wasn’t for her care, I may not be here today,” he said. “I am eternally grateful toward her, and want to recognize her for her actions that day.”
Though the incident occurred more than three years ago, Lapham has begun this year sharing his story with others. While he has sent Reynolds flowers each year on the anniversary of his heart attack, he wanted her to get recognition for what she had done.
He contacted his neighbor, Thomas Gravina, chairman of Riverview Medical Center Foundation, to put that into action.
Lapham has showed his gratitude by sharing his experience at Riverview with others, sending the message of the “professional, responsive, and effective” care he received.
For Reynolds, and the team at Riverview Medical Center, this kind of response from patients is exactly the kind of message they hope to spread in the community.
“Mr. Lapham has brought a lot of awareness to the cardio program at Riverview, as well as the hospital’s ties to the community,” Reynolds said. “If you’re faced with an emergency, it’s comforting to know that you will be treated by someone who could be your next-door neighbor.”
Lapham, who cannot say enough good things about Riverview, feels that being near the medical center is not only comforting, it’s lifesaving.