YAKIMA, Wash. — As a man of faith, Alan Baird has much to celebrate today.
Beyond that which so many celebrate on Christmas, Baird is thankful for having family and friends who love him, for having a job — he’s retiring from one law enforcement career to enter another, in fact — for having positively impacted the lives of strangers, for having his health and, well, for being alive. Again.
Because for about 45 seconds on the day that forever changed his life and its priorities, he pretty much wasn’t.
Baird had not flatlined. He wasn’t brain-dead. But the state wildlife enforcement officer had suffered a heart attack, the symptoms slowly hitting him as he hiked uphill to a bear-baiting site in the Bumping Lake area. Then, in the ambulance speeding him to the hospital, his heart just ceased to function.
And the excruciating pain in his chest — “the worst I’ve ever felt in my life” — went away.
“It was like, boom. No pain and I felt wonderful. A warm feeling,” recalls Baird, a Naches resident. “There was no ethereal light overhead, no angels calling to me or any of that kind of stuff. It wasn’t like I was floating above myself or anything like that, but it was a feeling that I’d never experienced before. Or since.”
Then, as the EMTs were preparing the defibrillator, the searing pain returned. His heart had begun beating once again.
In his career, he had seen life and death — had, in fact, seen them come full circle once, in a very personal way. But if death had indeed come calling for Alan Baird that day, it hadn’t gotten past the door.
Which is one of two reasons why this 55-year-old man considers Sept. 8, 2008, his second birthday.
Making a connection
That experience is also part of why he’s leaving the WDFW to take a position as a federal court security officer for the U.S. Marshals Service in Yakima.
His retirement as a wildlife officer won’t be official until the end of the year, but it’s a done deal. To a certain extent he’s doing it because, after 30 years in squad cars and radio units on the road, he’d like a little more stability in his life.
And, perhaps to a greater extent, he just doesn’t want his wife to wonder, when he’s out of cell phone range, whether he’s actually all right.
To truly understand Baird’s reasoning and the man himself, though, one need look no further than two seemingly unrelated cases many years ago, when he was working his way up through the ranks of the Selah Police Department.
More than two decades ago, Baird pulled a car over one night on South First Street in Selah and, upon determining the driver was intoxicated, took him to the Yakima County jail for a Breathalyzer test. Afterward, because the man was single and had no one to come pick him up, Baird gave him a ride home.
Maybe the man was talkative, seeking counsel, and perhaps Baird offered some. Or perhaps Baird simply treated him with dignity. He doesn’t know; he doesn’t remember the incident.
But, as he would learn years later, the man never forgot.
Calling the cavalry
Sept. 8, 2008, actually was Beth Wilbanks’ birthday.
Wilbanks, a dispatcher with the Washington State Patrol, was on duty at Yakima County’s emergency communications center when the call from Baird came.
“Wildlife one-oh-six Clemens,” he said, a reference to his badge number and radio zone. “At Bumping River American Forks campground, I’m clear. Also — ”
At also, Wilbanks froze. She wasn’t at her desk; it was a light dispatch day, a week after Labor Day with school already in session. When Baird called, she was laughing and chatting with co-workers over an ice cream cake they had brought for her birthday.
But Wilbanks still had her headset on, keeping apprised of the Yakima units.
“We had literally just cut the cake and just barely had our forks into it,” she recalls, “when he said that.”
It’s not a code word, but any dispatcher knows whatever is coming next isn’t likely to be ordinary.
“When anybody says ‘also,’ it gets everybody’s attention,” she says. “Even a trooper at a traffic stop.”
Baird then asked for an ambulance, adding, “I’m having cardiac problems.”
That was enough. Wilbanks had known Baird for most of her life, having long been close friends with his wife, Lauri — one of her bridesmaids, in fact. And she and the other dispatchers swung into action doing, as Wilbanks says, “exactly what they’re supposed to do to get the cavalry going.”
By the time any of them remembered Wilbanks’ birthday, the ice cream cake was a puddle.
The widow maker
People in the medical field often refer to the kind of heart attack that happened to Alan Baird a “widow maker,” primarily because in the case of countless middle-aged married men, it has so often left one.
Ironically, the widow maker is the result of the body’s natural defense mechanisms reacting overzealously to the rupture or breaking off of a tiny particle of arterial plaque. Platelets in the blood race to the damaged area to prevent excessive bleeding, but in so doing block the blood vessel itself, restricting blood flow to the heart.
The person begins to feel lousy, though not necessarily in the ways one might associate with a heart attack. It can feel like nausea or the flu; the person might feel a shortness of breath or several seemingly unrelated areas of pain. It can even feel like food poisoning, and is occasionally even misdiagnosed as such.
“I was diaphoretic” — heavy sweating often associated with shock — “and I was not really nauseated but dizzy and weak. I didn’t have the arm pain,” Baird says.
With his law enforcement training, though — he’d been Selah’s police chief before joining the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2002 — Baird knew enough to put the pieces together and, in Wilbanks’ parlance, to call for the cavalry.
Solving the case
Five weeks later, Baird was back on full duty. But even before he was out of the hospital, he was already trying to solve the bear-baiting case.
When Sgt. Mike Sprecher, his supervisor, visited him in the intensive-care unit, Baird’s entire focus was on seizing the trail camera he’d seen above the bear-baiting site, presuming it to have been installed by the suspect.
“I believe he was more concerned about me getting some guys in there to get that camera than he was about his heart attack,” Sprecher says. “I’m telling him, hey, we’ve got it covered, you just take care of youself, but he was all about, ‘Hey, we need to do this.’
“I’m thinking, ‘OK, this is some dedication.’”
Since trail cameras typically take a photo of the person who installs it, Baird wanted to see if he could use that to solve the case. As it turned out, the only helpful photos were one partial profile and another photo that showed a portion of the man’s truck — though not, unfortunately, the license plate.
Still, Baird used those photos as he narrowed his search and finally tracked down the culprit, who received a hefty fine and a temporary revocation of hunting privileges.
Solving the case so closely linked to his heart attack matters to Baird, even though he’s quick to minimize his own achievement in breaking the case.
“I’ve learned in over 30 years of police work,” he says, “that blind luck beats intuitive investigative skill any day of the week.”
Life and death
So, too, does compassion.
A dozen years before his heart attack, Baird testified in the case of a teenager killed in a manslaughter case. Baird had been the first responder to the 911 call, and he had done everything he could to stabilize the boy before EMTs arrived, to give him a chance at life.
After the trial, a man came to the police department, asked to see Baird and, when the two were face to face, asked the policeman, “Do you remember me?”
Baird did not, though there was something familiar about the visitor.
“A number of years ago you stopped me for DUI and took me to jail, did the Breathalyzer,” the man said to Baird, “You let me go home. That changed my life. I went to rehab, got my (stuff) together, and because of that I met the most wonderful woman and we got married. She had kids, and they became my kids.
“‘I was sitting in court the other day when you were testifying, and I wanted to come in to thank you.’”
The man, as it turned out, was the stepfather of the young man who’d been killed. And Baird’s life-saving efforts, while ultimately in vain, meant a great deal to the man and his wife. Their son had remained alive long enough, the man told him, for them to say their goodbyes to him.
Needless to say, that poignant moment was one Baird will not soon forget.
“Here’s two grown guys,” he says, “one in uniform, one not, hugging each other.”
What does matter
Which brings us to the second, even more important reason Alan Baird calls Sept. 8, 2008, his second birthday.
The events of that day, he says, “completely reorganized my priority list. And I’ve talked to a lot of people who have gone through similar situations to where what used to matter doesn’t matter anymore.”
So, then, what does matter?
Period. End of answer. End of priority list.
There’s a long silence as Baird considers a postscript.
“After what I went through that day,” he says finally, “death doesn’t scare me. Leaving my family behind does.”