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Death at Airport a Case of What Ifs

CHICAGO -- On the worst day of his life, Bob Small's wife of 44 years suffered a heart attack at the San Juan, Puerto Rico, airport.

The Oak Forest couple had just gotten off their plane at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport on March 7 to embark on a Caribbean cruise leaving the next day. Bob Small, who had stepped away to visit the restroom, returned to find his wife, Barb, slumped over and unconscious in her chair.

Small wonders if his wife might have lived had she gotten proper medical attention.

Small, a semi-retired emergency management official for Oak Forest, said he screamed out, "Get me an AED!" -- emergency parlance for an automated external defibrillator.

No emergency medical personnel rushed to help her, no airport workers could administer CPR, and no one could immediately find a defibrillator, Bob Small said. Twenty minutes passed before paramedics arrived, and when they did, he said, their equipment was running low on power and they could do nothing for her.

Then, when a lone morgue employee arrived six hours later, Small said he had to help move the body to the stretcher from the floor.

"I don't understand," said Small, 72. "This is not a Third World country."

At least one Puerto Rican lawmaker has said he intends to look into the death. Hector Martinez, the head of the island Senate's Public Safety Committee, told the Associated Press that he will seek an explanation as to how paramedics responded to the situation.

Alvaro Pilar, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Ports Authority, said in a prepared statement late Monday that the agency is reviewing the case. He added that an evaluation of emergency response at the airport had been under way before the "regretful incident we wish had never happened."

As Bob Small tells it, the harrowing day brought out the best and worst in humanity. He lay his 71-year-old wife on the floor as other passengers gathered around to help. One of them administered CPR, but couldn't resuscitate his wife. Strangers embraced him and offered blessings.

On Monday, Small pored over photos of his late wife, a woman he met at an ice rink at 76th Street and Racine Avenue and married in 1965. They took their honeymoon to San Juan, where they spotted their first cruise ship.

In the last 15 years, the couple went on at least 40 cruises. They called themselves "cruisers" and were members of cruise lines' frequent travelers clubs.

They lived in the same home in Oak Forest for about 40 years. Barb Small had retired several years ago after working as an elementary and middle school teacher in Oak Forest schools. She still occasionally served as a sub.

They raised a son and a daughter and doted on five grandchildren. Memorial services were held on Friday.

The family hasn't decided whether to pursue legal action. "If all of this comes so we can save someone else, I think that's fine," Small said.

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