Published December 24. 2010 4:00AM Updated December 29. 2010 10:38AM
Correction: Richard Kramer traps nuisance wildlife. A description of his activities as a wildlife trapper was incorrect in an article that ran in Friday’s edition.
Editor's note: When we asked readers to share their favorite
memories of Christmas and the holidays, we were flooded with stories. Some will appear over the next week on Page 1 and others can be found online at www.theday.com/holidaymemories and in Saturday's Daybreak section.
Griswold - His cap of snow-white hair notwithstanding, Richard Kramer tonight will mark a milestone that's typically reserved for the elementary school set.
"We'll have his eighth birthday party on Christmas Eve," says Maria, his wife. "It's his second time around."
A ruddy-faced, vigorous, 84-year-old outdoorsman, Kramer spends many of his retirement days trapping nuisance wildlife for local farmers, like the coyotes he was snaring one day this month when he ended up helping to haul a cow out of a pond, wading thigh-deep into the icy waters.
He sports a rugged style in his attire, too - a camouflage jacket or a sweatshirt that reads: "Alaska: the great outdoors" - although Maria is quick to brag that when it's time to dress up, her husband looks pretty spiffy.
Clearly preferring action to reflection, Richard seems content to let his wife of 16 years tell most of the story of Christmas Eve 2002.
But he does provide the essential background: In July of that year, he was trapping beavers when he took a hard fall onto some tree stumps the rodents had gnawed to a point. He ended up needing stitches on his upper lip. One of the stumps smacked into his chest, but no injury was visible at the time.
"The next five months, he just wasn't right," Maria Kramer says.
His doctor gave him two days' worth of heart tests, but the aortic tear that would later reveal itself stayed hidden.
Then, in late afternoon on Dec. 24, he drove Maria to her job at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, where she is a licensed practical nurse. An hour after beginning her shift in the emergency department, her son-in-law called to say Richard was having chest pains and would be coming to Backus in an ambulance.
The tear had burst open. There was heavy internal bleeding.
"He was mottling - his skin had turned white with blue patches," she recalls. "The doctor says he would be dead in 10 minutes."
Only immediate surgery at a hospital equipped to do open-heart procedures might save him, she was told, but Backus didn't do that procedure. Hartford Hospital did, but the Life Star helicopter that could whisk him there was out on a call and repeated attempts to reach it had failed.
"Then we heard the whirl of the bird, in the freezing rain," Maria says. "The helicopter crew was coming in for supper."
Instead, the crew quickly called for six units of blood to begin a transfusion that would stabilize Richard until he arrived in the operating room at Hartford Hospital.
"I told them, 'This is my husband, and don't you let that white hair fool you,' " Maria recalls. "This is the toughest man you're ever going to take."
Maria and her son-in-law watched the helicopter take off, then started the drive to Hartford. Almost there, they realized that neither of them knew how to get to Hartford Hospital.
"Then we looked up, and there was Life Star, so we followed it, just like the wise men followed the star," she says.
It turned out it was the state's second Life Star helicopter, heading to the hospital with a different patient, but it served as a trustworthy compass nonetheless.
Ten hours of surgery later, Richard, who'd spent his working life as a textile printer, commercial fisherman and hunting and fishing supply shop owner, was brought to the intensive care unit to begin his recovery.
"I had a 14-inch graft metal pipe put in," says Richard, motioning along the middle of his chest. "I used to take one of the docs fishing, but I had to sell my boat after this. I'm supposed to take it easy."
His cardiologist warned him that if he jerked a rod too hard to haul in a fish, the pipe might burst and "Life Star does not land on the ocean." He's also given up ballroom dancing on his doctor's advice. It was one of his favorite activities, one that he and Maria enjoyed often during their five-year courtship.
"This guy could jitterbug, you could not believe," Maria says.
One point Maria insists on making: Her husband got no special treatment at Backus because she worked there. It was the skill of the doctors and the Life Star crews on hand that would have gone to any patient - and a dose of fortunate timing - that made the difference.
"The timing was everything," she says. "So many things could have gone wrong."