TILTON — It was a day to celebrate a life saved – and an act of duty, courage and instinct that will live forever for baby Evangeline Noelle Fontaine’s family, and the semi-retired police officer who raced across traffic to save the choking infant’s life.
On Thursday veteran Tilton Police Patrolman Richard Paulhus – the department’s longest running member, now a part-timer – received the department’s lifesaving pin for reviving a doll-size infant who had stopped breathing, in the midst of chaos, honking and bottlenecked traffic at the intersection of Route 3 and I-93 south.
“He was in the right place at the right time and fell back on his training and saved this baby’s life,” said Richard Mann, interim administrator of the Tilton Police Department, before the award ceremony. “Based on the overall way people view police, this is what people expect police to do.”
Paulhus and two deputies from the Belknap County Sherriff’s department were pushing a stopped car out of the intersection at the light near Wal-Mart on Feb. 24 when Paulhus froze and turned. “I heard a scream that sent a shiver down my spine. I knew something was bad wrong,” he said.
“When I got over, the woman on the passenger rear side of the car handed me her eight-month old baby girl and said, ‘My daughter’s not breathing.’ I just reacted with my training and instincts. I put the baby upside down on my knee, and hit her hard on the back,” giving three thrusts below the shoulder blades in the child version of the Heimlich maneuver, a lifesaving method for choking victims.
“It was partially fate and luck I was there. When I did the three back blows nothing happened. I said a quick prayer to God, ‘Please don’t let this baby die!’ Then I did three more back blows and the baby started crying” after expelling a fragment from her throat. “The mother said, ‘You just saved my baby’s life!’ If it hadn’t been for the red light at the intersection, she’d have been on 93 South. I’m just so thankful that baby’s alive,” Paulhus said after he received the pin and a citation at Tilton’s police station.
“People may want to know why I was holding up traffic that day. Sometimes it’s good to keep the people in the loop. The townspeople here treat me like a son,” he said.
Baby Evangeline and her sisters – Ava, 10, Emily, 9, and 4-year-old Alice – came to the ceremony for Paulhus with their mother, Jennifer. The family lives in Tilton.
“Is it against the law for me to ask these three girls to hug me?” Paulhus asked. “I believe that Ava was the hero” for sounding the alarm when the baby was choking. Paulhus presented the sisters with ice cream coupons for Dairy Queen.
In a uncanny conincidence, baby Evangeline was born on June 11, Paulhus’s daughter’s birthday, and Fontaine happens to be his grandmother’s name, which makes Paulhus wonder if his just-in-time presence was fate.
“I think the Lord was watching over us that day. It was such a miraculous thing that happened. If you weren’t there, I’d be at a funeral instead of here today,” said Jennifer Fontaine.
“I have never had that level of panic before. It’s a guttural fear that your daughter is dying. I screamed across four lanes of traffic. He did the Heimlich maneuver for what seemed like a thousand years. Then we looked at each other and there was so much relief. Without what he did, she wouldn’t be alive,’’ Fontaine said. “They heard me scream in Vermont.”
A Tilton EMS ambulance took baby and mother to Franklin Hospital, where the infant was fed and observed until 9 p.m. The cause of her choking was a piece of gummy worm that her mom thought she had dislodged completely at home. The family was en route to the doctor’s office when the baby choked again and her chest stopped moving. Fontaine said daughter Ava, who alerted her mom, now wants to be a police officer or a neurologist. “She can’t decide.”
“I’m immensely proud of him,” said Paulhus’ wife, Stephanie. “I know it was the right place at the right time, but his instincts didn’t freeze up. He did what he was supposed to do.”
For Paulhus, Thursday was another memory-making milestone. He joined the Tilton PD in 1984, a year after graduating from Franklin High School and has served the department for 37 years under five different chiefs, first when it was located in Town Hall, then at the station on Main Street, and now at the new headquarters on Route 132. He retired in 2014 at the rank of lieutenant, and currently fills open shifts.
He held up a framed portrait of Evangeline, smiling and crawling, with a handwritten note, “Thank you so much for saving the life of our daughter…Our hearts will be forever grateful for all you did. The Lord was certainly with us all that day. With deep appreciation, The Fontaine Family 2021.”
It marked a new year for everyone.