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Excitement in St. James turns to worry as dehydrated former U.S. president rushed to hospital

July 13, 2017 11:09 PM
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It was a day that began with elation for volunteers thrilled to work on Habitat for Humanity homes alongside a tireless former U.S. president.

But joy turned to concern mid-morning Thursday when 92-year-old Jimmy Carter slumped, suffering from dehydration.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter helps build steps for a home on Lyle Street. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press)

Yet even as he was being whisked by ambulance to St. Boniface Hospital, the humanitarian and 39th U.S. president said that work on the 25-house building blitz should go on as planned.

After a smooth start, the troubling incident struck out of the blue. In his first visit to the construction site — the former Winnipeg Police Service St. James district station — Carter arrived to a standing ovation, delivered a lively devotion and then wasted no time picking up tools to work on one of the houses.

But after 90 minutes labouring in the sweltering sun, Carter went to sit down. As he sank into a chair, he appeared to wobble and look faint. Secret Service agents rushed to his side, taking hold of his arms to help keep him upright.

Carter leaned on the agents for support as he walked towards a private trailer. An ambulance arrived minutes later and paramedics attended to the ex-president. Staff blocked the media's view with plywood and vehicles.

Former President Jimmy Carter prepares to sit down and have a break after building steps for a home. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press)

The ambulance left the site about 30 minutes later — its siren remained silent — followed by Carter's motorcade.

In the end, word came down that it was nothing too serious. Carter simply became dehydrated, Habitat for Humanity International CEO Jonathan Reckford later told reporters, and had been taken away for observation.

"He told us that he was OK," Reckford said. "He encouraged everyone to stay hydrated and keep building."

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter stayed by her husband's side in hospital. Their grandson, Jason Carter, later told the Washington Post the former president was "doing fine."

Security rush in to help former U.S. president Jimmy Carter after he sat down to take a break. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press)

When a former president is unwell, the world quickly takes notice. Within minutes, journalists from MSNBC, the Associated Press and other American outlets had picked up the story, igniting a flurry of chatter on social media.

On Twitter, a spokesman for George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara relayed their wishes for Carter's speedy recovery. "God bless him, and we hope he is fine," the other former first couple said in a statement.

Yet in the midst of the concern, the mood at the site remained stoic. There was no panic among staff and volunteers continued to build. Habitat officials calmly held a late-morning press conference in place of the Carters.

Reporters, however, had no questions prepared to direct to the Habitat executives.

"Oh, I understand," Reckford said with a laugh, adding that he, too, would be more interested in the ex-president.

Carter, who served in the White House from 1977-81, had originally planned to work on the house all afternoon. The schedule also called for him to cap the day by greeting cyclists returning from the Cycle of Hope charity ride.

For a while, reporters lingered in the media tent, unsure if the Carters would return.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter helps build steps for a home. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press)

"If it was up to him, I'd say he will," one Carter Work Project staffer said, with a smile. "Knowing him."

It's a comment that speaks to something essential: less than two years after a successful battle with cancer, and at an age where anyone would be forgiven for a short photo-op visit, Carter — perhaps stubbornly — makes the effort to do more.

One of the protocols of the Carter Work Project builds is that when the couple joins a Habitat crew, they must be given "meaningful work." What that means has been adapted over the years, but their presence is never simply for show.

"That's real critical," said LeRoy Troyer, a close friend of the Carters who has worked on their builds for 32 years. "He's very focused on the productivity and the work. He doesn't want people to just stand around and take pictures."

So as news of the incident spread through Twitter, Carter admirers from across North America fretted over his health, noting his tenacity. "This man is working too hard!" one woman wrote. "Please, someone, tell him to take it easy!"

When the Carters arrived at the Lyle Street site just before 8 a.m., they were warmly greeted with a standing ovation by more than 500 volunteers.

After stepping out of a van, the first thing Carter did was rush to the other side to reach for his wife's hand. The couple, who met through Carter's sister Ruth, celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary last week.

"I just wanted to say how pleased we are to be here," the 89-year-old former first lady told the excited crowd. "Somebody just asked us if we could see the change in Winnipeg from the time we were here before (a Habitat build in 1993), but we don't remember!"

The former president opened the morning devotion by offering a greeting from Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., where he still teaches a Bible class most weekends.

"We have about 30 members at Maranatha, and we have about 250 to 850 visitors come to hear a politician teach the Bible," Carter said, and added a wink. "You're all welcome to come. Not the same Sunday, but you can come."

For the next 14 minutes, Carter offered a glowing testament to his deep Christian faith. He also poked gentle fun at his own storied life, joking that he "couldn't hold a regular job" after he left the navy and took up peanut farming.

"I was president of the United States, as some of you may remember," he quipped. "When I was president, I dealt with big things. I had about three million people working for me... and I dealt with general things like human rights.

"And I tried to put into practice some of the moral and ethical principles of my life... but I was kind of isolated, so I didn't have a chance to get directly (in contact) with people who were in need."

Discovering Habitat for Humanity in 1984, he continued, "gave me the best opportunity I had... to break down the barriers between people like myself, that had everything I ever wanted, and people in need of a decent home."

Minutes after finishing the devotion, the Carters went to work. They joined the crew at the house that will become home to Todd Gauthier and his daughters, nine-year-old Chloie and seven-year-old Carmin.

Under the watchful eye of stern-looking Secret Service agents, Gauthier and the rest of the house's volunteers gathered for a brief chat with the Carters before picking up their hammers and getting back to the task at hand.

"He just introduced himself and said he wants to get going on the work and get it done," Gauthier said as the Carters sawed boards for his future home's front steps.

"It was just straightforward, wanting to get the project going and complete it. It was pretty cool."

The Carters began the week in Edmonton, where 70 homes are rising as part of Habitat's Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.


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