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How a Horizon nurse from Fredericton became a hero … at 35,000 feet

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As Paula Colter boarded a United Airlines plane at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston last August, the last thing she expected was to be drawn into a life-or-death drama in the skies.

The Horizon Health Network nurse and her two grown daughters were heading to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, for a week of volunteer work with UNB Global Brigades, a New Brunswick chapter of a student-led humanitarian organization.

After takeoff for the three-hour flight, Paula relaxed in her seat near the back of the plane and started watching a movie.

But somewhere over Mexico, something went wrong in First Class. Using the intercom, a flight attendant asked whether there was a doctor on board.

When no one responded, Paula rushed to the front of the plane. A frail woman in her 70s was unconscious in her seat. Her distraught daughter was pleading for help.          

"For a second, I was in disbelief," says Paula, who works in Employee Health Services at Horizon's Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital (DECRH) in Fredericton. "Is this really happening? Am I really seeing and assessing what I think I am?"

She quickly pulled a stethoscope from her bag.

"Her heart had completely stopped," Paula says. "She was very cold. Her nose was running. There was just nothing there."


Paula knew she had to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but she wasn't able to move the lifeless woman to the floor.

"I wiped her nose and I started giving her breaths in her seat," she says. "I thought maybe some rescue breathing might help. At least I was doing something." 

Paula told a flight attendant to go find her daughter, Lauren, a 21-year-old Bachelor of Nursing student at the University of New Brunswick's Moncton site.  

"I knew she had the skills," Paula says. "And being my daughter, I knew she would listen and do what I needed her to do."

Lauren helped her mother move the woman onto the floor. Then, as a flight attendant brought out a heart defibrillator and an oxygen tank, Paula started CPR.

"Lauren got the defibrillator placement ready," Paula says. "And while I was giving compressions and everything, we were getting ready to give her a shock."

Meanwhile, Paula's other daughter, 19-year-old Grace, was watching from her seat. 

"I couldn't really see what was happening," says Grace, who

is studying to become a licensed practical nurse at the New Brunswick Community College. "But it was pretty disrespectful because some people were taking pictures and video. I was just so annoyed with that." 

When a few passengers asked whether they should try to help, Grace urged them to stay put.

"I find Mom always has things under control - it doesn't matter what the situation is," Grace says. "So basically, I just stayed in my seat and made sure everyone else did too."

Paula continued CPR. And just as she and Lauren were about to give a shock with the defibrillator, the woman started to breathe and opened her eyes.

"After we got her stabilized, she wanted off the floor," Paula says. "We were able to get her into the seat. I stayed with her. Her vital signs were good at that point. She started to pinken up."

The woman, who spoke only Spanish, kept squeezing the hand of the Canadian stranger who had just brought her back to life.  

"She was looking at me and she was trying to talk," Paula says. "And she was saying, 'Angel, my angel.' And I thought that was just a beautiful thing."

Paula3(Daughters)Paula, Lauren and Grace Colter during their week of volunteer work in Honduras, August 2018.


Because of Paula and Lauren's life-saving actions, the plane didn't have to make an emergency landing and was able to continue to Honduras. And as mother and daughter walked back to their seats, something amazing happened.

"The whole plane just erupted in cheers and calling me an angel and just saying how wonderful that was," Paula says. "And I felt proud - proud that I had the skills that I developed in New Brunswick. I got them here in Horizon, and I got to use them somewhere else. And it was pretty cool."  

Grace looked on with pride.

"I swear it was like out of a movie or something," she says. "Like you just don't ever think that it's going to happen in real life. And sure enough, my mom saved the day. She inspires me. She's pretty amazing."

Grace wasn't the only young person feeling inspired on that flight. Jenna Curwin, a third-year UNB biology student who aspires to work in health care, watched the whole thing unfold.

"It was incredible how quickly she was able to control the situation and help this woman while remaining calm," Jenna says. "It definitely showed that her job is very important to her - inside and outside of the hospital."



Paula graduated from UNB with a Bachelor of Nursing degree in 1995 and started working at the DECRH soon after.

"Horizon has always invested in keeping my skills up," she says. "Year after year, I've taken CPR, and I never needed it until being on that plane. I didn't panic. I just knew it. I just did it. I always wondered if I could, and I did, and it was a beautiful thing. I was showing empathy and compassion and respect to this family."

Paula's Horizon colleagues have heard the story of the unforgettable flight - and they're not surprised she helped a passenger in crisis. 

"Her actions on the plane exemplify her desire to help those in need," says Marilyn Babineau, Horizon's Regional Manager for Employee Health and Wellness. "We are all proud of her actions and very proud to have her on our team. She is a true Horizon hero."    

In the days after the flight, Paula worked alongside Lauren, Grace and 14 other New Brunswick students in an impoverished village in Honduras. They helped organize clinics where more than 600 people saw physicians, optometrists and dentists. They also laid pipe to bring water to homes - and even helped install wood-burning "eco-stoves" with chimneys.

At the end of the week of volunteering, Paula and her daughters boarded a United Airlines plane in Tegucigalpa to head home. To their surprise, the crew was the same one who had been on that fateful flight.

"I put out my boarding pass for the flight attendant to look at, and instead he looked at me and gave me a big hug," Paula says. "The attendants were all so kind and came to us wanting to hear about our experience in Honduras."

United Airlines went on to contact Paula by email.

"I'd like to thank you and Lauren so much for offering your assistance on your recent flight," a company representative wrote. "We're grateful you were so generous in sharing your personal time, compassion and expertise with a passenger in need."



Now, months after those intense moments in the sky, Paula has no way of reaching the passenger whose life she saved. They didn't exchange names and contact information.

Still, the Horizon nurse and the anonymous woman in Latin America are, in a way, linked for life.

"I wish I knew her name and where she lived," Paula says. "I would love to send her a Christmas card and find out how she's doing and if she's all right. I do think of her, and she probably thinks of me too."

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