Nelson Melendez was heading home May 6 after an uneventful work day at the Frame Factory and Gallery in Tampa. He was running about 10 minutes late, thinking about the fox trot ballroom dancing class he would teach in New Port Richey that evening with his wife, Daria. But as he climbed into his truck at 4:10 p.m., he started to cough.
"I was driving along, coughing like crazy and just couldn't stop," said Melendez, 58, who had made his way onto the Veterans Expressway. "It felt like I had something stuck in my esophagus."
After passing through the Anderson Road toll plaza, Melendez pulled over and called his wife, telling her he would be late, but on his way soon.
"I was there about five, maybe seven minutes max, when out of the blue, a road ranger pulled up behind me," Melendez said.
• • •
Todd Stettler logged in at 3:55 p.m. for his second split shift as a road ranger working out of Anchor Towing and Marine Transport in Clearwater. Then he hit the road on his usual route. As always, he was on the lookout for accidents, stranded motorists, or dead animals or debris needing to be moved off the road.
It was just after 4:30 p.m. when he saw the black Ford Ranger on the side of the road, the driver sitting on the passenger side with the door open.
Stettler, 49, put on his flashing lights and pulled over.
"Are you all right?" he asked over his truck's loudspeaker before setting out a row of orange safety cones and approaching Melendez, who was still coughing and holding his throat.
Stettler, who had already called the Florida Highway Patrol, handed Melendez a bottle of water and offered to call paramedics.
Melendez waved him off.
"I didn't think much of it," Melendez said. "The sun was hot — it was one of those days."
According to road ranger policy, Stettler could have moved on. But Melendez's pale appearance and his own CPR training told him to hang around.
"Better to be safe than sorry," Stettler thought. And so despite Melendez's assurances that he was fine, Stettler called 911.
"I told them, 'I think this guy is having a heart attack.' "
• • •
Within minutes, paramedics arrived and gave Melendez a handful of aspirin, a spray of nitroglycerin and oxygen.
"They hooked me up to a machine," said Melendez, who had no prior history of heart problems. "Then all of the sudden, their faces changed completely. They said, 'You have to get to a hospital. Now.' "
Melendez was whisked to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, where a medical team promptly administered an angioplasty, a procedure using a sausage-shaped balloon to unblock a coronary artery. The following Monday, Melendez underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Four arteries had been 98 to 100 percent blocked.
After an eight-day hospital stay, Melendez returned to his Trinity home, where he had some time to recover and contemplate the other outcome.
"I kept thinking, 'man, if he hadn't stopped, who knows what would have happened?' "
• • •
Last week, Melendez decided to track down the road ranger to thank him. It took a few calls before he finally got hold of Stettler's boss.
Larry Jones is the District 7 manager who oversees 37 road rangers patrolling Interstates 4, 275 and 75, and the Veterans and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown expressways. He's heard before from thankful motorists — many of whom hadn't even known the program existed.
Road rangers have been around the Tampa area since 1999 and are often the first responders to traffic accidents. Local road rangers average 20 stops a day, helping motorists with overheating vehicles, flat tires or a gallon of gas, or simply handing bottled water to drivers waiting for roadside service to show.
There's no charge for the assistance. The rangers are funded through the state Department of Transportation.
"Just the other day I took a call from a lady who was broken down and so scared she wouldn't roll her window down," Jones said. "She was so happy because the road ranger gave her a bottle of water."
The call from Melendez trumped that.
"Todd loves his job. He's always happy to help. And if he hadn't taken it upon himself to call the paramedics, well, then Nelson just might not be here," Jones said. "Todd saved his life."
"I like to help people," said Stettler, who has 33 years of experience roaming the road, first as a tow truck driver in Miami, then as a road ranger since 2006. "But really, I'm just doing my job."
• • •
On Tuesday, Stettler came to Melendez's home along with Jones and Dave Tilki, a rangers' roadway manager who has nominated Stettler for "Responder of the Quarter." Stettler will also receive a gift certificate from Anchor Towing, said Jones, "so he can have a nice night out."
Melendez keeps thinking of how everything worked out — and how easily things could have gone otherwise.
"What if I left work on time, if I hadn't left late?" he said.
"What if there was someone else he had to stop and help before me?"
"What if he decided not to call the paramedics and just left when I told him I was okay?"
"What if I didn't pull over and I tried to make it home on my own?"
"Well, I don't know if you'd be here," Stettler replied. "I guess it's not your time right now. Looks like somebody upstairs likes you."
The two men shook hands as they said goodbye.
"Thanks very much," Melendez said. "I owe you."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.