Virginia TSA instructor suffers stroke on the job; two instructors to the rescue

Thursday, April 29, 2021
Instructor Paquette photo

Phil Paquette, a TSA training instructor at Virginia’s Richmond International Airport (RIC), was in his office preparing for a new hire course when he suddenly became ill. He hesitated to ask for help, but it’s a good thing he did. Paquette suffered a stroke on the job.

Fellow training instructors Tana Ellis and Frank Tinkham, both in a nearby office, quickly came to Paquette’s rescue, assessed him and promptly determined he needed airport paramedics to respond.

Paquette was rushed to a local hospital where doctors told him had Ellis and Tinkham not taken the necessary action for EMS intervention as quickly as they did, his condition could have been much worse.

“I was hesitant to call Tana and Frank in as they were busy trying to work through a new [behavior detection] program, and I didn’t want to bother them,” Paquette recalled. “I knew something was wrong with me, but I wasn’t sure what it was, so I asked them for help.”

Instructors Tinkham and Ellis photo
Richmond International Airport TSA Training Instructors Frank Tinkham and Tana Ellis (Photo by Tana Ellis)

He said he first felt weak in his left arm, and when he went to help a new TSA employee who had a question in the training room, his speaking became slurred, and he staggered when he walked in. “I returned to my desk, and my arm felt very heavy, and I couldn’t control it,” said Paquette.

After noticing Paquette’s speech was slurred and his pupils were constricted, Ellis said she decided to call airport EMS immediately to be on the safe side.

“We are a family at TSA,” Ellis noted. “I was deeply concerned once I found out it was a stroke. I don’t have a medical background, but I remember seeing advertisements throughout the airport regarding the warning signs/symptoms of a stroke. I believe seeing that advertisement daily assisted me in acting quickly.”

Like Ellis, Tinkham emphasized, “Phil is family, and I was glad we were able to assist him. Having had family with heart issues, I knew it wasn’t to be taken lightly.”

After spending three days in the hospital, Paquette is regaining strength in his arm, hand and leg and even walking short distances without a walker. However, he won’t be returning to duty at TSA. The good news is he was scheduled to retire May 31. He will forever be thankful to his fellow comrades for coming to his rescue.

“Tana and Frank always are at the top of their game,” said Paquette. “They both are strongly committed to quality instruction and setting everyone up for success. They extended that same commitment to me through their friendship and concern for my well-being. Both of them never have a problem making a decision and standing by it. I’m glad they did!”

Phil and wife photo
Richmond International Airport TSA Training Instructor Phil Paquette with his wife, Barbara (Photo by Tracy Lahocki)

Before joining TSA, Paquette was a firefighter for nearly 34 years and said, “I saw many situations where people called us heroes for doing what we did. That was our job. Tana and Frank were extraordinary in recognizing I was having a serious medical problem and took swift, caring and decisive action. My outcome and injury to my brain and body from the stroke could have been more serious. Based on my experience with the fire department, they saved my life and gave me a chance at a positive outcome. Tana and Frank will always and forever be my heroes!”

Virginia Federal Security Director Robin “Chuck” Burke agrees, saying, “There is no doubt their immediate actions mitigated the long-term impact of Phil’s condition; Phil and his wife have stated the same. I could not be prouder and more thankful they are members of the RIC team of caring professionals.”  

Through his near tragedy, Paquette hopes to help others take swift action when experiencing stroke-like symptoms.

“Anyone who feels or recognizes they are feeling a weakness on one side or the other and maybe a numbness or drooping of their face, slurred speech or inability to control their arm or leg movements, get help now. Any recognized medical condition, get EMS involved as quickly as possible. EMS and hospital intervention is the key to reducing any potential physiological damage and increases an improved outcome. My stroke was minor in comparison to others I have spoken with. Quick action by Tana, Frank and the Richmond Airport EMS saw to that.”