Alexandria heroes bring man back to life
Howard Grafenstein doesn't remember what happened when his world went black, but he knows one thing.
He is here, his face beaming, eyes dancing, with a wide smile and rosy cheeks, kissing his wife of 48 years, Judy, with boyish tenderness, all because a handful of wonderful people made it their business to save him.
They cared enough to make sure he made it. And they would not give up.
On Tuesday, April 26, Grafenstein, 72, was driving his pickup down Oak Street shortly before 2 p.m. on a routine visit to his dentist's office when he suddenly blacked out near the railroad tracks and Hubbard Feed Mill.
"I had no symptoms whatsoever." Howard said. "It's scary."
"[My heart] just stopped beating," he said.
After becoming unconscious, Howard's pickup veered off the road and struck a nearby home.
His foot was still on the accelerator and the wheels were spinning when he was initially found, according to reports taken by police.
Luckily, Howard had been driving slowly and was wearing a seat belt. He believes he did not suffer any injuries related to the crash.
Two truck drivers from the grain mill saw the crash and called 911.
"The most critical people to start with... would be those two people that made that 911 call, because had they not been there, I would have never made it," Howard said. "These two guys called 911 right away."
Alexandria police officers Sergeant Chad Schroeder and Patrol Officers James Ross and Jason Rosha were dispatched to the scene.
Sergeant Schroeder was the first officer to respond.
Howard was not breathing and did not have a pulse when Schroeder found him.
Schroeder pulled him out of the vehicle and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until Ross arrived on-scene. Ross assisted with giving him breaths while Rosha prepared the defibrillator equipment.
"The policemen actually saved his life," Judy said. "The important thing is how soon someone responds and how quickly you get oxygen to the brain."
What were the officers' first thoughts when they found Howard?
Officer Ross said, "Your instincts kick in and we go to work on what we are [trained] to do. It becomes second nature."
The men helped load Howard into the ambulance.
North Ambulance personnel used a defibrillator twice to restart Howard's heart and took him to Douglas County Hospital. Ross continued CPR in transit.
"It is total teamwork between us and the ambulance crew," Schroeder said.
After arriving at the hospital, Howard was airlifted to St. Cloud Hospital.
Sergeant Schroeder went to the Grafensteins' home to tell Judy her husband had been involved in an accident.
"He was so calm," Judy said of Schroeder.
She praised the Alexandria Police Department.
"I have to tell you - the police department - how really truly wonderful they were."
Schroeder told her right away that Howard was breathing again and his heart was beating. He said Howard was probably already in the air on his way to St. Cloud for treatment.
Judy's immediate response was to travel to St. Cloud to be with her husband.
"[Schroeder] said, 'No, I don't want you to drive,' " Judy recalled. "He said, 'May I come in the house and help you make some phone calls?' He came in the house with me and helped me find somebody to take me to St. Cloud."
And Schroeder's assistance did not end there.
"He stayed right here with me until somebody came to drive me and he made sure that I was OK," Judy said.
Schroeder suggested Judy pack a bag and bring necessary medications, her cell phone and charger.
"He was wonderful and he stayed here and made sure the house was locked up, and made sure that I was in the car, made sure that the driver knew where we were going and everything - everything that he could possibly do," she said.
Pastor Michael Neumann from the couple's church, St. Paul's Lutheran in Alexandria, drove Judy to St. Cloud.
Doctors later determined that Grafenstein, a former Stevens County FSA director, suffered cardiac arrest. Doctors believed the arrest was caused by an arrhythmia because no blockage to his heart was detected.
While in the hospital, doctors initiated cryotherapy to preserve brain cells. Howard was given paralytic medications, placed on a ventilator and experienced a coma-like state.
Howard remained unconscious for approximately 50 hours with the hypothermia treatment, and then he was warmed to a normal temperature.
During this period, Judy worried about the possible outcomes.
According to the American Heart Association, only about 8 percent of people experiencing sudden cardiac arrest outside a hospital will survive.
"Either he'll come out of it right away and be all right," she remembered thinking, "or he may come out of it and it may take several weeks of therapy and things to get back to where [he was]. He may not come out of it at all, or it may take days for him to come out of it."
Twenty-four hours passed before Judy and the physicians knew whether Howard was responding to the treatment.
"There were some scary moments in there," she said.
But Howard's condition improved rapidly.
"By that Saturday, he was right back. He knew everything. He knew everybody."
Howard also had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted to prevent a similar event from recurring. He spent a total of 10 days in the hospital recovering.
The Grafensteins felt certain God was responsible for Howard's rescue and recovery.
From the workers in the vicinity of the crash who called 911, the assistance of the police officers, to the availability of the air ambulance, the Grafensteins believe God was watching over them during that time.
"I have never ever seen anybody by that street before," Howard said of the area where his car rolled off the roadway. "It's not very well traveled."
And Judy said: "There's a whole bunch of kind of little miraculous things that went on through this whole thing because the people were in place every step of the way."
Judy explained if Howard had been home when his heart stopped instead of out driving, he may not have survived.
"I was out getting groceries and [Howard] would have been alone. His heart would not have started again by itself. It had to have either the CPR or the combination of CPR and the shock to bring him back."
Prayer chains were being held all over the country and world for Howard, according to Judy.
The couple had planned to attend a Bible study group that evening.
"[The group] met anyway and prayed for his safety and his well being," she said.
"Everything - all the stars were in line for Howard that day," Sergeant Schroeder said.
"Faith is important to me and it makes me think," Officer Ross said. "You always step back a bit and see how lucky we are to have our health and family."
BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD
Howard believes he will make a full recovery and return to working part time as a crop adjustor for RCIS.
He received a "clean bill of health," from his cardiologist, according to Judy and has started driving again.
"I've been out walking and shopping and been visiting and running around and kind of doing a little bit of everything," he said.
He looks forward to going bike riding soon.
Howard was one of the lucky ones. The policemen told Judy that many times people do not experience such a positive ending.
After coming so close to death, has Howard's outlook on life changed in any way?
"I always did appreciate everything," he said.
The couple has three children and six grandchildren.
Judy could not suppress her gratitude for the people who saved Howard.
"I just can't say enough good about the policemen because they were so kind, so helpful - just so compassionate," she said. "We just really want them to have credit."
The officers were glad to learn Howard is experiencing an excellent recovery.
"It is a relief to hear of a good outcome and know that Howard is doing really well," he said. "It makes you smile when you think about it."
How does it feel to be called a hero?
"I don't see it as being heroic at all," Schroeder said. "We are just doing our job."
And the couple would like to thank the men that made that first crucial call to 911.
"Whoever those two mystery people were," Howard said.
Judy called the Alexandria Police Department to personally thank the officers for saving her husband's life. She asked what she could do for them in return.
Schroeder answered, "Just calling us and thanking us was all you need to do