Pictured: Paul Liberty, third from left, was reunited with Amy Worman (far left), Lisa Lupacchino-Gilson, Laura Lee Denler, Jeff Worman and Kurt Larson in March in Old Saybrook. Chris Perras and Michael Franklin (not pictured) also were recognized by the Board of Education with a proclamation.

By Paul Augeri

OLD SAYBROOK – Paul Liberty was there, front row, when his only son got married on Leap Day. It was a joyful occasion, if nothing else, because he lived to see the wedding.

“It’s still hard to believe that this happened,” he said.

Liberty, a 62-year-old pharmacist, works the shoreline area as a Board 8 basketball official. Basketball was a staple in his life while growing up in Massachusetts and attending UConn, where he became a campus ringer in pick-up.

He got into officiating late in life, right around age 50, once the playing days of his son and daughter, Joe and Jamie, were over. He had become friends with Roger LaFrancois – their sons were Old Saybrook teammates – who was involved with the board of officials. Liberty told LaFrancois he would miss being close to the game. LaFrancois successfully recruited him into the fraternity of referees.

“Paul has been a very good official for our board and a good friend to me and I think the world of him,” said LaFrancois, who is now the board’s assignment commissioner.

Being an official kept Liberty involved in the game, and the case now can be made that basketball saved his life.

On the second Saturday of January, in the same gym where he watched his son play as a Ram, Liberty had a heart attack while officiating a Portland-Old Saybrook freshman boys game. He was working his sixth game in seven days and had been feeling a bit run down that morning.

“I remember showing up not feeling great,” Liberty recalled. “I just had some vague … I thought it was a virus, it being the middle of winter. My head was achy and I felt light-headed. I remember sort of pushing through. Then I remember running down the floor feeling woozy. The room started to spin. The next thing I remember was waking up in the ambulance.”

Liberty fell backward, with only the hardwood breaking his fall, with a couple of minutes remaining in the game’s third quarter.

“We were bringing the ball up the floor. Paul was running right in front of me and just dropped two feet from the bench,” said Kurt Larson, a Portland graduate in his first season as coach of the freshman Highlanders. “I thought he maybe had tripped, but I saw that he landed right on his back and didn’t put his hands out to brace himself.

“You see something like that, you go over and try to do what you can. He was not conscious.”

It takes a team to win basketball games. That day, it took a team of just the right people to save Liberty.

The Wormans, Amy and Jeff, were among a crowd of maybe 30 spectators watching their son play for Old Saybrook. When Liberty collapsed, Larson was at his side immediately. Jeff Worman, who had just joined the Old Saybrook Fire Department as a volunteer, joined him.

Amy Worman took on the role of emergency point guard. Multiple spectators called 911 at the same time. Worman, who works for a primary care physician, singled out Maureen Kapij, who also has a son on Old Saybrook’s team, to remain on the phone as 911’s point of contact.

“Maureen stayed on the phone with 911 the whole time,” Amy Worman said, “and (911) was feeding all of the information to first responders.”

The gym had grown quiet. People in the bleachers were comforting one another. Chris Perras, the assistant varsity coach at Old Saybrook, was there to support his freshman coach and helped usher the players back to their locker rooms. The environment allowed the team of helpers to maximize efforts in helping Liberty.

Lisa Lupacchino-Gilson, school custodian/volunteer firefighter, Michael Franklin (“a soldier and silent hero,” Amy Worman called him) and others located the automatic external defibrillator just outside the gym. Lupacchino-Gilson, a parent herself of an Old Saybrook player, rushed it to them.

There were signs of Liberty’s condition deteriorating, Amy Worman said. Laura Lee Dilson, a former EMT who had been watching the game, was quickly at Liberty’s side with Larson and Jeff Worman and started chest compressions.

“We were all very, very calm and quiet at this point,” Amy Worman said. “Laura Lee is petite and small but she was up on him, really going at those compressions like a pro.”

Just last year, Larson was retrained in CPR and First Aid and how to use an AED. Several years ago, he had been in the middle of a similarly dire situation while playing in a 35-and-over basketball league game in Wallingford. One of the players went into cardiac arrest and Larson performed compressions.

“Same thing. A kid had a heart attack right on the court,” Larson said. “He had to have a pacemaker put in. I think he was 41, but he lived.”

Once Dilson completed compressions and the AED confirmed that Liberty did not have a heartbeat, Larson applied the pads to Liberty’s chest. Jeff Worman delivered the first – and only — shock. The job was done. Liberty’s blood had begun to recirculate.

“We shocked him one time and a rhythm was established, and he started talking,” Amy Worman said. “Paul looked straight up and said, ‘I’m Paul, I’m Paul, I’m Paul.’ He was precious. He said he had not been feeling well earlier in the week. He was very aware at that point.

“I put my hand on his cheek. We didn’t want him to feel worried or frightened. I went back into (Old Saybrook’s locker room) and told the kids he was alive and going to be OK.”

Three minutes had passed between Kapij’s call to 911 and the moment when Liberty was revived. About a minute after that, EMTs were on the scene, Jeff Worman said.

“For 50 percent of the population with heart disease, we find it, diagnose it, we treat it,” Liberty said. “The other 50 percent, their first symptom is a fatal heart attack. Had these people not been there for me, that’s where I would have been.”

The outcome was “spectacular,” said Amy Worman, because an AED doesn’t mean it will prove to be a heart-saving measure in every instance.”

“When lay people are together in this situation and everyone looks at each other with big eyes, you’re waiting the first 10 seconds for the patient to respond. Paul’s body was giving signals that it was failing,” she said. “When we ran to our specific spots as if it was pre-rehearsed … it was magnificent how well we worked together.”

On March 10, Liberty, his wife Sue and some who came to his aid that day shared the same space inside the Old Saybrook Board of Education. They received a proclamation that read:

“Because of their quick action, a horrible tragedy was prevented, and one of our community members is here to celebrate with us today. We honor these citizens for their good work, fast thinking, and for the positive example they set for the entire community.”

Liberty’s recovery has gone well. He had stent insertion, has lost 22 pounds and the effects from the concussion have nearly dissipated.

At the board meeting that evening, Liberty acknowledged being thankful that he lived to see his son’s wedding. There were tears in the room.

“Fifty percent of all first heart attacks are fatal, and I was certainly headed in that direction had it not been for the fact that one, you had undertaken the training to know what to do, and two, you had to act quickly and without hesitation, you saved my life. Thank you.”

“I’d thought at length of this during my recovery,” he continued. “How do you thank people who have saved your life? Everything I thought of fell woefully short. The only thing I thought of was to pay it forward.”

In gratitude of the Wormans, Larson, Denler, Lupacchino-Gilson, Franklin and Perras, Paul and Sue Liberty will be establishing a scholarship for an Old Saybrook student and Portland student who pursue training and/or a career as a first responder.

“The thought here is that they will be able to reference your heroic deeds in saving my life as they pursue training to save someone else’s,” Paul said.

Amy Worman also has thought long and hard about that day in January. Her hope is for others to get training in CPR and First Aid.

“We’re just so happy that Paul survived and is able to live a happy and healthy life with his family,” she said. “Sue was not there that day. Someone who knew her personally called her to say that her husband was going to be OK. I know they are counting their blessings.”

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