Retired New Hampshire State Trooper James “Chris” Decker believed his back pain signaled an injured disk — a suspect he had been warned to watch.
Decker, then 50 — fit, healthy, and an active outdoorsman — never considered it could be coronary artery disease, let alone a medical emergency that would test the boundaries of life and death.
Several years after surgery, one of his friends remarked: “You weren’t just knocking on Death’s door. You went into the kitchen and made a sandwich and somehow got out before he knew you were there.”
The sequence of events that ultimately saved Decker’s life was nothing short of miraculous — a confluence of extreme good luck, the right experts at the exact time and perhaps a heavenly blessing.
“They gave me a gift and I don’t want them to think it’s being wasted,” Decker said of his medical team — a cardiologist in the catheter lab at Concord Hospital who inserted a minuscule heart pump, the nurses and surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital who cared for him for 10 days, and the EMT who tended him during his emergency airlift to Boston and then called his wife to say he had survived the helicopter ride.
When Decker emerged from the operating room in May 2017, his heart was set on a single goal – one that would also propel him back to health : Decker vowed to summit Mt. Washington 100 days after quadruple bypass surgery.
In the photograph from that day in August 2017, when the summit was muted by low-hanging clouds, Decker stands atop New Hampshire’s tallest peak next to his daughter Jayla, who is wearing braids and an American flag sweatshirt. “She was tough,” Decker said.
He had last climbed the windblown peak 15 years before. Spurred on by his daughter in high school, with rest stops every hour, “It took me four hours and 30 minutes, my longest time ever.” During the climb he pondered his re-engineered heart and told himself, “I’m just going to keep pushing. We’re going to find out how well this thing works.”
Worry turned to duty, then to drive. “The more I climbed, even though I was getting tired, the better I felt and the more confident I was,” he said.
He returned to active duty one month later.
Repaying a debt
In November 2017, he volunteered to go to Puerto Rico with a group of New Hampshire state troopers to help relief efforts after Hurricane Maria, the island’s most powerful and devastating storm in 90 years.
When he went home to tell his wife, she said, “You and your heart need to go to Puerto Rico if you really want to do something good.”
Over the course of the next six weeks, the 20-trooper unit did everything from traffic control to assisting local police with service calls and delivering food, water, diapers, baby formula, generators and medical supplies. Looting occurred everywhere in the storm’s wake.
A call came in from a makeshift hospital set up in an empty arena on the island’s south end, which had lost its building security. Staff feared the clinic’s controlled drugs would be stolen.
Decker and his group arrived by jeep around 1 a.m. State Police Major Russ Carter, the officer in charge, was the first to make contact with the people inside.
He came out, looking amazed, and beelined to Decker. “It’s the Mass General Hospital Relief Team. The same people who saved your ass are in there.”
“I walked over to the jeep, pulled out my vest and rifle and rucksack and said, ‘They have security now!’ It meant a great deal to pay that back in a small measure,” Decker said.
Staying in the game
After his month and a half on the island, Decker wrote a thank-you note to a Mass General nurse who had almost gone on the hospital’s relief trip — Nicole Harrington, the nurse who coached him minutes before the surgery he never thought he would survive.
“That nurse meant so much to me,” he said recently at his home in Epsom.
In the hospital, while he was being prepped for surgery and fading in and out, convinced he was close to death, he asked Harrington to deliver a note to his wife, Michelle. It was about how much he loved her and their two girls and how sorry he was for leaving them without a husband and father.
“I was convinced I wasn’t making it. I felt that bad.”
The nurse eventually complied and stuffed the message in her pocket. Then she said, “Now you listen to me. You’ll be in surgery for six hours. When you come out, you’ll have a tube in your throat. Don’t fight it. We can’t take it out for 30 minutes. I’ll take your silly little note, but you are going to be here in six hours.”
“It was almost like having a coach give you a pep talk,” Decker said. “That was the first moment I thought I had a chance. I thought if I have a chance, I’m going to take it.”
When he came out of surgery, Decker felt like he had been slammed by a truck. Everything hurt. But it reminded him of how alive he actually was — a realization that still inspires him.
Doubling down on life
Now 56, retired and contemplating his next chapter — he currently teaches law enforcement classes and fosters shelter cats and dogs with his wife — Decker tries to go where he’s called.
“The running joke around my friends is, ‘Who ever knew Chris even had a heart?’” Decker said.
He and his wife bought a wraparound living room couch and positioned it under the painting of African wildlife they brought back from their 25th anniversary safari in Tanzania and Zanzibar, which involved sleeping out in tents 100 yards from the animals in national wildlife preserves.
More than a sofa, the velveteen surface serves as a wraparound bed for their adopted pets. Decker points to one, a black Labrador retriever curled on the couch.
“This is my antidote to empty nest syndrome. More animals,” Decker said. “The population started getting bigger once the girls moved out.” The couple is fostering one dog, after adopting two dogs and a cat.
Asked what he has learned about life after facing death, Decker is contemplative and humbled.
“I’ve been very fortunate to do neat things and positive things. The big thing for me is I hope they (the medical team and makers of the heart pump) don’t feel I’ve wasted it.”
One of his daughters recently got married. “I can’t imagine not being here to walk Jonatha down the aisle. I can’t imagine missing that,” he said.
He got to see the X-ray video of his heart before surgery.
“The only thing moving is the tiny heart pump,” Decker said.
“I’ve been very, very blessed. I’ve been given an awful lot. I have a very, very lucky story. I could have dropped dead that weekend. Some of it was luck. Some of it was just the right people — at the right time.”