NOBLEBORO – One afternoon he was dining in Havana with the brother of Fidel Castro; the next night Maine Agriculture Commissioner Robert Spear was lying unconscious on his hotel floor, clinging to life.

After nearly dying during a trade mission in Cuba, Spear, 62, was resting Thursday at his Nobleboro farm. Spear said he grew gravely ill from a staph infection that rapidly spread toxins throughout his body. The third-generation dairy and vegetable farmer was weak but happy to be home and alive.

Spear and others, including Doyle Marchant of Falmouth; Brian Thomas of Saint John, New Brunswick; and Jim Robbins of Searsmont, arrived in Cuba earlier this month hoping to sell Maine fish and lumber to Cubans.

Marchant is president of Cedar Spring Agricultural Co., which represents Maine agricultural interests. Thomas is the Latin America sales manager for Connors Bumblebee, which has a fish packing plant in Prospect Harbor. Robbins is president of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont.

Their trade mission was successful. On April 13, Gov. John Baldacci announced Cuban officials had agreed to add two more companies selling sardines and lumber to the previous $10 million trade deal made last December, which involved Turner and Canton apple and dairy farms.

But no one expected the mission to involve the life-and-death drama that unfolded.

Spear grows ill

When the group from Maine arrived in Havana on Saturday, April 2, Marchant noticed Spear’s hand was wrapped from recent surgery to remove warts, Marchant said. In Cuba, Spear hit his elbow very hard while taking a shower. That injury was connected to what could have been the lethal infection, Spear said.

On Sunday, the group was shown Cuban crops. On Monday morning they were involved with trade negotiation meetings. That afternoon, the Maine delegation attended a private retreat with Ramon Castro, commandant of agriculture for Cuba, and the older brother of Fidel Castro. Monday night they were guests at a dinner.

“All of a sudden during the meal I had chills coming over me,” Spear said. When he got to his hotel the chills worsened, and he began shaking. “I crawled into bed to try to get warm. The next morning I stayed in bed. Later that afternoon I became so weak.”

Spear was unable to eat and had been throwing up for hours. He was seen by a hotel nurse and doctor, and there was talk he may have had food poisoning, since some symptoms matched. “Little did we know then that wasn’t true,” Marchant said.

Meanwhile, the arm Spear hit in the shower had swollen. At 4 p.m. Tuesday, Marchant saw Spear resting, but not doing well.

Around 9:30 p.m. Thomas walked by Spear’s room. The door was open and he looked in. Spear was lying on the floor, face up, unconscious. “I knew it was serious,” Thomas said. He called for help. Spear was taken to the hospital.

When Marchant went to the hospital the next morning, Spear had been moved to critical care.

“Five doctors came to speak to me. They told me Bob had systematic shock caused by blood infection,” and his organs had begun to shut down. “He was in critical condition,” Marchant said.

“When I hit my elbow, somehow bacteria formed very fast, but nobody knows” exactly how the infection happened, Spear said. Doctors do know that the infection advanced rapidly “and gave off toxins. It’s very tough to treat,” Spear said.

Spear’s blood pressure was dangerously low. The doctors weren’t sure if he would live, and were working to stabilize him. They recommended that Spear’s family be contacted.

Marchant called Spear’s wife, Janet, telling her he was at a critical stage and that she should come in Cuba. The equivalent of State Department officials in Cuba were contacted, as was the governor’s office.

‘Any good news?’

When Marchant spoke to Spear, “I said to him, ‘You’re a sick pup.’ He looked up at me and said, ‘Do you have any good news?’ Merchant said it looked like Prospect Harbor would be selling sardines to Cuba. Spear asked, “What about my friend, Jim Robbins? Did you get anything for him?'” Marchant answered that things were looking good, that the Cubans had signed a letter of intent to buy Maine lumber.

“Bob said, ‘Great. We got the job done,'” Marchant recalled.

The conversation “gave me a lump in my throat,” Marchant said. Spear was lying there, and no one knew then if he’d live or die, “and he’s concerned about whether our trade activity was successful. I’m not a politician, but people need to know what a dedicated commissioner he is.”

Thomas was there too, and described watching that conversation. “It just captured how driven and focused he was.”

At the Havana hospital, doctors operated on Spear’s arm to get at the infection, he said. Spear remained there until April 8, when he was flown in a medical plane to a Miami hospital. He stayed in Florida for 13 days, returning to Maine late Wednesday.

Marchant credited the Cuban doctors and Thomas with saving Spear’s life. “He’s a tough farmer, but if his (hotel) door had been closed and if Thomas had not found him, Bob would not have made it.”

Spear agreed. “He came by at the right time, and the Cubans saved my life, they really did. The doctors stopped what was happening and stabilized me.” In Miami, a team of specialists continued working on Spear’s hard-to-treat infection, he said.

Thomas said he was touched by the kindness shown by Cubans. Hotel doormen, maids, and people at hotel shops all kept asking, “‘How’s your friend?'” Thomas said.

On Thursday, Spear said he has improved, but is still fighting the bacteria in his system. The trip home tired him. “My energy level is down. But it’s just great to be here.”

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