One June evening last summer Searsport's Mike Garcelon had just finished a great
stretch of basketball. He left the bucksport gym to get a drink of water, and it
hit him again. Just like his heart attack four years earlier, he couldn't catch his breath. A friend took him to a nearby health center, where he was started on oxygen and administered a total of eight nitro tablets to dilate his arteries and airways.
"I really thought I was dying. When I got into the ambulance, I could barely breathe," Garcelon, 36, recalls. With its lights flashing and its siren blaring, the medical vehicle headed out on the road toward Bangor and the Eastern Maine Medical Center.
Garcelon was not sure he would ever see another sunrise, much less be alive for another Thanksgiving. But the dreams of the Searsport coach and teacher did come true, and he has a lot to be thankful for when he sits down with his family for his holiday meal on Thursday.
Garcelon survived the angina attack last summer and came through the three-and-a-half hour bypass procedure on Aug. 31 to correct some arterial blockages. With the arteries removed from his leg and chest now transporting blood around the blocked passageways, Garcelon's life is returning to normal, and his prognosis for a long - and normal - life is good.
The events of the proceding months of 1997 have been, to say the least, trying for Garcelon. In the best tradition of small-town life, Garcelon's friends and neighbors rallied around him and his family, raising money with a public supper and lending a neighborly hand during Garcelon's difficult times. From the friend who came over nightly both before and after the operation to do what chores he could, to the two men who took over coaching duties of his Viking girls' soccer team, people have done what they could to ease the burden, and Gracelon is a grateful recipient of the support that has helped him through his time of crisis.
Garcelon's first scare was four years ago, and it came without warning. Though there had been heart problems in his family, they had come to relatives later in their lives, and the 1980 Searsport District High School graduate had no reason to believe that as a 32-year-old he had anything to worry about.
It was Oct. 31, 1993 - Halloween night - and the former Searsport and University of Maine-Ft. Kent basketball player was taking part in a YMCA pick-up game in the gym at Belfast Area High School. Butch Richards lofted a long pass toward Garcelon, who was breaking toward the basket. "I couldn't reach up for it. I was gasping for air," remembers Garcelon. "I didn't realize what was happening."
He decided to return home, and on Route 1 about the time he passed Moose Point, "I realized, 'Oh my goodness, I'm having a heart attack.' " He drove to his mother's house and called 911, and was taken by ambulance to Waldo County General Hospital where an administered injection relieved his symptons. He credits Pam Gerrish and Dr. James Delehanty for their life-saving measures.
Garcelon felt so much better that he even considered keeping his interview appointment the next day for the vacant BAHS girls' varsity basketball coaching position. But the morning after his episode, when the effects of the shot wore off, he realized that medical personnel had been correct in their assessment he would be in no shape to do so.
Three days after his mild heart attack, tests in Bangor revealed two blockages in two arteries. He was given a diet and exercise plan and placed on medication, and during the ensuing years things seemed to be under control. "I thought I was doing pretty good, until last summer," Garcelon says.
His second attack came under much the same circumstances as had his first, only this time he was in Bucksport and not Belfast. While retaining his girls' soccer postion in Searsport, last year during basketball season Garcelon was assisting with the Bucksport girls' program. Last June an alumni game was taking place at the school. With the alumni squad a little short-handed, Garcelon and one of the parents were filling in.
"That was the best game I've ever played. I was scoring up a storm," says Garcelon of the ironic twist of events. "I felt incredibly good." However, when he stopped to get a drink of water, he felt that same shortness of breath he had four years earlier. This time, he says, "I knew instantly what was happening."
Garcelon went back inside the gym and grabbed Richard Downs, who took Garcelon to the health center. While it generally takes three nitroglycerine tablets to stabilize a heart patient, Garcelon said it took nine that night for him. He was rushed to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, and his family was summoned. Garcelon remembers vividily the look he saw on the faces of wife Michele and daughter Taylor when they came into the hospital room and saw his condition.
He made a vow at that time. "Whatever I had to give up or change, I was going to do it, to make life normal for them and for myself."
After consultation with doctors, Garcelon decided to have bypass surgery at maine Medical in Portland, and the procedure was scheduled for Aug. 31. With the knowledge that he had considerable blockage in his arteries, the weeks preceding the late August surgery date were not easy ones for Garcelon. "I was afraid to anything because I didn't want to have another heart attack." Two of his teaching buddies at Searsport Elementary School, Bill Wiley and Richard Pasvogel, checked every day on their friend to see how they could help out.
Garcelon passed some of the time by watching movies, though he says he can't remember that much about them. "I was in such a fog." He also spent as much time as he could with his wife and child, not knowing if these would be his last days with his family.
Sports have always been an important part of Garcelon's life, and he followed up his high school and college playing days with a coaching role. He initiated the high school girls' soccer program at Searsport in 1987, and in the '90s his Viking teams have regularly made playoff appearences. With the blessing of then-interim SAD 56 Supt. Tom Marx and Viking girl soccer players, Garcelon worked out a tri-coaching arrangement for this season, with his brother Peter and his friend Pasvogel filling in for him. Pre-season practice started Aug. 19, and Garcelon attended for the first week, though, he admits, "I was there more physically then anything else." As his surgery date drew near, Garcelon turned over complete control to his brother and Pasvogel.
The thought of bypass surgery brought back some unhappy memories for the Garcelon family. Precisely a year and a month prior to Garcelon's '93 heart attack, his 62-year-old father Harold had died on the operating table during a bypass procedure. "That's why it was a traumatic experience. As good as the odds were they were giving me, it was a scary experience."
During the extensive procedure, his heart was stopped and a machine took over the process of pumping blood. Arteries were taken from his leg and his chest area and used to create five bypasses around the clogged arterial sections.
In the hours prior to his surgery, Garcelon remembers thinking, "Am I going to come outout ofthis?" his last pre-operative memories were of being wheeled into the operating room. his first conscious moments after the procedure were indeed joyous ones. "It was a dream come true to open my eyes and see my wife holding my hand."
Not only was wife Michele a comfort, but also a strength in the difficult months before, during and after the surgery. "My wife handled it incredibly well. She is very, very strong," says Garcelon of Michele, who works as an EMT and as an emergancy room receptionist. "She held the family together."
Garcelon says he flet fortunate to have the doctors he did, from the family physician Delehanty to heart surgeon Edward Nowicki. Delehanty, he says, "was so upfront and honest about what I needed. I can't say enough about his personality of caring. He makes you feel like your one of his friends as well as one of his patients." Nowicki, he says, "is an incredible heart surgeon," whose confidence helped calm Garcelon going into the procedure after his father had not survived.
Many teachers and other friends made the trip to Portland on the day of the surgery and afterwards to offer support to Garcelon and his family. Just as he had done prior to the date of the operation, Wiley came by every night after Garcelon returned home to help with chores in the Garcelon household.
Teacher Mary Alden "was a terrific friend all the way through," says Garcelon, and Frankfort instructor Tenney Spiegel lifted his spirits "with her greta sense of humor that kept things on the light side."
Though he was born in Houlton, Garcelon's family moved to searsport when he was in kendergarten. With the exception of his university days in Ft. Kent, he's lived in the midcoastcommunity ever since. "I had an incredible amount of support from throughout the community," says a grateful Garcelon.
In late Septemeber, the Methodist and Congregational churches in Searsport, along with SAD 56, held a public supper to raise funds. It was held at the Congregational church, and in charge of the supper were that church's Clayton Blood, Charlie Plourde, and Bill Zito.
Garcelon was touched by the huge turnout and by the number of people who came over to him to wish him well. Not only the emotional support was appreciated, but so was the financial support that made things easier on the family.
AS soon as he was able, Garcelon involved himslef on a limited basis with the Lady Vikings' soccer program, attending practices and games. "The kids were very, very good around me," their coach says, making sure he was not hit by a flying soccer ball and cautioning him when they felt he was getting too worked up over a game. "I had to remember to sit back in my folding chair," he says.
During the recent playoffs, in whcih the Vikings made it all the way to the Class C Easr finals, Garcelon says he did very little coaching, with brother Peter and Pasvogel continuing to handle those duties. The two deserve a lot of handle those duties. The two deserve a lot of credit, he says. "They had to give up a lot," notes Garcelon of the times the two men had to leave work early and of the late nights they had to put in.
Garcelon is right on scedule with his rehabilitation. He praises the cardiac rehab program at Eastern Maine Medical, where he has been doing daily workouts. He also takes an hour-long walk daily, watches his diet, and is on a new medication that drastically reduces the cholesteral count that his genetics had given him. On a part-time basis, Garcelon has gone back to the position he has held for 11 years as a migrant teacher in the Stockton, Frankfort and Searsport schools.
Since the operation, each time he does a physical activity for the first time, there are some fears attached. He remembers the first day he walked again. "It was very traumatic," he recalls as he wondered, "Am I going to lose my breath?" At this point I can feel fairly comfortable getting winded, and that's a huge step.
School and soccer have helped incredibly, he says, getting his mind off his physical concerns.
The future looks promising for the 36-year-old, who has been told he can live a normal active life. In a time span anywhere from 10 to 20 years, he may have to have more surgery. While the replacement arteries from his chest will last a lifetime, those transplanted from his leg may wear out eventually and have to be replaced. With new medical advances occering all the time, even that may not be necessary.
Thanks to modern medicine and the efforts of his family and his community, Garcelon has made it through a difficult time in his life.
First photo: Mike Garcelon
Second photo: Mike and daughter Taylor
Third photo: Mike and Taylor (right), with brother Peter and Peter's daughter Kayla (left)
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Photos by Shorette.
This article originally appeared in the November 27, 1997 issue of The Waldo Independent.