Jeannette Strickland spotted something unusual while lifeguarding the early morning lap swim at the Riverton Pool in Portland one day in December – a woman flat on her back, her arms positioned in an odd way above her head.

Strickland’s instincts from 35 years of being a lifeguard kicked in – she knew immediately from the woman’s position and the fluttering of her hands that something was wrong. Marcia Howell, 81, of Portland, a regular at the 7 a.m. lap swim, had suffered a heart attack while swimming in lane two on Dec. 9.

“I saw Marcia on her back, I thought ‘Oh my God.’ I flew off the lifeguard chair, blew my loud whistle, scooped her into my arms and yelled for people to help,” said Strickland, 60, after a ceremony honoring her at the Riverton Pool on Friday. “I knew I had three minutes to get oxygen into her.”

Five lanes over, in lane seven, Lydia Carson, a retired emergency room nurse, saw what was happening and immediately knew Howell was in trouble.

“It was the fastest assessment and response to a cardiac arrest I have ever seen outside of a hospital,” said Carson, 73. “I heard a splash and saw Jeannette next to Marcia a second later.”

Carson swam over and, with the aid of a man on the pool deck, they pulled Howell from the water. Strickland immediately began chest compressions and Carson joined in the CPR by performing rescue breathing. Others, reacting to Strickland’s shouted orders, called 911 and brought Strickland a defibrillator that was hanging on a nearby wall.


Strickland used the defibrillator – which gives an electric shock to the heart, giving it a chance to reset a normal rhythm – and continued with chest compressions until Portland firefighters arrived.

“I kept thinking, “Don’t stop, I can’t stop the compressions.’ When I was at 22 compressions, I heard a firefighter tell me they were taking over at 30,” Strickland said. “It was like an angel in my ear.”

Marcia Howell says goodbye to James Westburg, a Portland firefighter EMT, at the Riverton Community Center on Friday. Westburg was one of the first responders who took over from lifeguard Jeannette Strickland and saved Howell’s life after she had a heart attack while swimming in December. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Lt. James Westburg of the Portland Fire Department took over, assisted by other firefighters, to revive Howell and bring her to Maine Medical Center. Westburg said Strickland’s quick action and the help of other bystanders likely saved Howell’s life because every moment is crucial when responding to a cardiac arrest.

Howell and Strickland had spoken by phone since the life-saving incident, but had not seen each other in-person until an emotional reunion Friday.

Howell said all she remembers is blacking out in the pool, a vague memory of being in the ambulance and then spending 29 days in the hospital recovering. She said she has no underlying heart condition, so doctors are not sure why her heart suddenly stopped.

“If I had been home in the kitchen I wouldn’t be here right now. Or in the grocery store, how many people would have known what to do?” said Howell, a retired teacher. She hopes more people take basic life-saving courses and pay attention to where defibrillators are located.


Howell said being back at the pool for the first time since her heart attack is “truly a little bit surreal.”

“It’s miraculous. I still don’t completely understand it in a spiritual or cosmic way,” Howell said. “I just feel super lucky to have been in this particular spot with these particular people.”

Marcia Howell hears Jeannette Strickland recount how she rescued Howell. Strickland was honored Friday for saving Howell’s life. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Strickland, a South Portland native who now lives in Westbrook, had never rescued anyone during her 35 years of lifeguarding until she saved Howell. The prevention methods she was taught to keep swimmers safe had always worked ever since she took lifeguarding classes in the summer after her senior year at South Portland High School and became a lifeguard.

“I was hyper-focused that day,” Strickland said. “To this day, I don’t know how I did it, how I pulled it all together. We all pulled together.”

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