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From left: Birmingham attorney James F. Walsh, Gen. Darryl A. Williams, superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Rainier Walsh, James Walsh's grandson.

James Walsh, a 73-year-old Birmingham, Alabama, attorney, has a few good Samaritans he needs to thank for saving his life.

Walsh recently sent a letter to the editor thanking everyone who helped him during a scary episode on the Hiwassee River last spring. We telephoned him to get the full story.

A Vietnam combat veteran originally from Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, Walsh was rafting on the Hiwassee on June 14 with his 10-year-old grandson Rainier and a group of adult friends when the experience went terribly awry.

Walsh said he was steering a raft with six people aboard around a bend in the river when the back of the boat got stuck on a rock. While attempting to push the raft free, Walsh said, he instantly began to feel himself losing consciousness.

"I was out cold — in mortal danger," he recalled.

He would later learn that the aortic valve in his heart had malfunctioned, pushing him perilously close to death. Over the next few minutes, he drifted in and out of consciousness while his companions tried frantically to deliver help.

As a former soldier, Walsh said he has long held the belief that everyone's death is part of a divine script. While kneeling on the floor of the raft, Walsh repeated over and over to himself, "Today, is not my day [to die]."

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Next came a series of events that were either fortuitous or divinely inspired.

As the adults in the boat scrambled to help him, Rainier remained brave, his grandfather said. The boy had recently confided to his grandfather that he wants to follow in his footsteps to the United States Military Academy at West Point, and June 14 was the day he proved he has the right stuff.

Rainier would later say that he was able to hold his emotions in check (and paddle like an adult, by all accounts) because he didn't want to distract the other grown-ups that were trying to help his grandfather.

For his part, Walsh remembers the pain inside his rib cage intensifying. The feeling was like "three elephants sitting on my chest," he recalled.

With directions from other rafters, Walsh's companions were able to paddle the boat to a take-out point. There, a retired nurse came to his aid. Then a retired doctor materialized to help. Next, out of nowhere, a man dressed in white appeared and offered two aspirins and doses of nitroglycerin.

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James Walsh's letter to the editor thanking the people who helped him. / Photo by Mark Kennedy

"Rainier swears it was an angel," Walsh said.

Soon a group of EMTs arrived, cut away his shirt and zapped Walsh with a defibrillator to jolt his heart back into rhythm.

"It hurt and it was very loud," Walsh remembered. But without the help, he would have died within a few seconds, he was told.

Soon, a helicopter arrived to transport him to Erlanger hospital, where doctors explained that he had experienced something called "aborted sudden cardiac death" — a fancy term for a miracle.

While he was at Erlanger, Walsh was joined by an FBI agent who was a friend of his son's. Two of his former classmates from West Point also arrived, as did members of his family from Birmingham.

He was later transported to Birmingham, where his heart was surgically repaired. The defective valve was removed and replaced with a valve from a cow's heart, he said.

"I learned a long time ago that you only get one day at a time in this life," Walsh said in an interview last week. "I wouldn't be here [today] without all the people who helped me."

To suggest a human interest story contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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