“I feel it again right now,” Rankin said.
It was the pressure in Rankin’s chest, something she had mentioned during their commute from their western districts to Augusta to serve their third legislative terms in the Maine Statehouse.
“We had been campaigning that summer, so when Helen talked about feeling tired and having some pain, I thought it might have been the heat and the hard work,” Sanborn said.
“I thought, ‘Well, OK, I’m getting older,’” Rankin said.
But as she looked at her friend on that particular day in the autumn of 2012, Sanborn, a retired family physician, had a hunch that more was going on.
“I asked a lot of doctor-y questions – what kind of discomfort it was, what made it better. Her color was ashen. I told Helen she should get herself to her doctor,” Sanborn said. “I asked another legislator who is also a doctor, and sits behind Helen in the Legislature, to keep an eye on her.”
On Friday of that week, Rankin saw her family doctor. On Monday, a cardiologist. On Wednesday, she went for a cardiac catheterization. She wound up in the hospital until she’d had a quadruple bypass.
Rankin is grateful for a friendship that stretches beyond party affiliation and politics.
“Linda was a new friend then,” Rankin said. “She’s somebody who came into my life for a reason.”
Rankin’s eyes filled. “Thank God. She saved my life.”
“Our friendship helped,” Sanborn said. “It’s easy to confide in a friend.”
For Rankin, who lives in Hiram, Maine, and Sanborn, who is from Gorham, the Legislature is a second career.
Rankin worked in school nutrition for 50 years, retiring as a school nutrition director. Sanborn was a family physician for 25.
Both are Democrats. Both ran for office when others suggested it.
“If I had known how much I’d love this life,” Rankin, a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, said, “I’d have started younger.”
“I retired sooner than I should have as a primary care physician,” Sanborn said. “Being in the Legislature is a good way to use my expertise.”
After serving on the Health and Human Services Committee, Sanborn is now a member of the Appropriations Committee.
Sanborn co-sponsored a bill to accept federal funds to provide Medicaid to 70,000 residents, and is hoping this will be her biggest accomplishment as a legislator. The American Heart Association’s message of prevention resonates with her.
“There is only so much money to go around,” Sanborn said. “We can do things more efficiently if we invest it in the right places.”
“These two women are both huge advocates for the American Heart Association,” said Becky Smith, the American Heart Association’s government relations director for the state of Maine. “Helen brings the expertise of someone who spent her career serving healthy food to kids, and was a co-sponsor of a number of bills to help address the epidemic of childhood obesity through BMI measurement, menu labeling and PE requirements. Linda’s sponsorship of MaineCare Expansion will help bring affordable health care to all Mainers.”
The pair shared their story in February 2013 at the Heart Association’s Women’s Legislative Luncheon. This past February they were the focus of a television segment on Heart Health.
“I was dumbfounded when asked to share my story,” Rankin said.
“Real-life stories move people,” Sanborn said. “When we shared it in the Legislature, people were in tears. I hope people think about their bodies, and listen to them. Women especially take care of everyone else, but they need to be listening to their own bodies.”
Today, Rankin feels better than she has in a long time.
“I’m not afraid of getting older, and I don’t mind that I am identified as the oldest member of the Legislature in the legislative booklet. I just don’t know why they had to say my age!” Rankin said lightheartedly. “I am grateful for all I can do, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do as much. I can’t really explain it, how you don’t realize that you don’t feel well. Since the surgery, I have so much more energy. You only have one life, and you have to make the most of it.”
Photo of pair holding hands by Brenda Vitali. Photo of women at the podium by Katherine McCarthy