Christine Estes was busy slicing lemons at the counter when Bill Stapleford walked into the Anna Maria Oyster Bar on Cortez Road last Tuesday morning.
“How’s my guardian angel?” asked Stapleford, 67.
Estes got up and they shared a long, warm embrace.
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“It’s so good to see you again,” said the 37-year-old waitress.
That went a thousand-fold for the retired roofer.
Estes saved his life three weeks earlier at the Lifestyle Family Fitness gym a few blocks east on Cortez Road.
“Doctor said it wasn’t my time and she happened to be there,” Stapleford said.
It was an auspicious chain of events, all right.
“I wasn’t going to go work out, but I’m glad I did,” said Estes, a single mother of two.
It was about 9:20 a.m. and Stapleford was finishing up on a treadmill.
“I remember thinking I only had 20 more seconds -- then I don’t know what happened,” said the Rockford, Ill., native.
A heart attack, is what.
It was his second in 14 years.
“I died that time, too,” said Stapleford, a double-bypass recipient.
Estes was two treadmills over -- the one in between was broken -- and fortuitously her headphones were not working on the left side.
“Usually, I have them turned up and I’m not paying attention to anything,” she said. “But I heard a noise, looked over and he was going down.”
Estes ran over, rolled Stapleford on his side, found no pulse in his left arm, screamed for someone to dial 911 and started doing CPR -- something she learned in eighth grade, yet never had to use until that morning.
She’s also the primary caregiver for her 13-year-old special needs child and has the training to give certain medical assistance.
“It came right back to me,” the Lisbon Falls, Maine, native said of CPR. “People always tell me I should’ve been doctor or a nurse.”
Among them are her Oyster Bar colleagues.
“She’s the go-to girl if anybody in our restaurant gets sick,” said waitress Lynn Kaplan.
Drew Adkinson, a veteran fitness trainer, credited Estes’s quick response in those frantic minutes before City of Bradenton Fire Rescue arrived at the gym, with saving Stapleford.
“I knew Bill’s medical history and knew we needed to move as quickly as possible, but Christine had already jumped on it,” he said.
Estes kept doing chest compressions, alternating with another woman, and then Adkinson brought the defibrillators.
Stapleford didn’t respond -- not even to ambulance crew’s defibrillators, but they gave him oxygen and rushed him to Blake Medical Center.
“He was so blue, I thought I’d never see him again except in a casket,” Estes said.
Miraculously Stapleford survived.
“When I woke up at Blake, I’m looking at this blue wallpaper and thinking, where the hell am I?” he said. “I don’t remember a thing. I got lucky again this time, that’s for sure.”
Estes’s CPR was crucial, doctors told him.
“The nicest girl -- even after she made my chest hurt,” Stapleford joked.
Estes visited him at Blake a few days later, still incredulous.
“You save someone’s life like that, it hits home,” she said. “You never know what’s going to happen one minute to the next.”
When Stapleford came to the restaurant last Tuesday morning, he brought a greeting card with a little extra something to say thanks.
Not only had Estes saved his life, but she’d saved his vacation, too.
Stapleford was leaving for 18 days at a Caribbean island.
“You better behave,” she said, hugging him again. “I’m too far from St. Maarten.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix