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Dakota Resurrection



The wave of dizziness hit with no warning. Steve Stark had just performed his sauerkraut song, moving a crowd of hundreds to laughter and applause. Exuberant, he bounded off the outdoor stage and down the steps.

“When I got to the back, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I felt my knees buckle and knew I was going down,” says the 62-year-old, recalling that June evening. Steve and the Fargo-based “Dakota Air: The Radio Show” troupe had traveled to Ashley, N.D. -- population 749 -- for the town’s 125th anniversary celebration.

“I remember reaching my hand out, trying to hang on,” he says. “Then I was out.”

Immediate response

Fellow actor Vicki Melchior rushed over. She unfolded Steve’s legs from under him. A call went out to the audience for anyone who knew CPR. Many came running.

Key steps followed: A call to 911, 10 minutes of intense CPR, the arrival of the Ashley ambulance, the use of a portable defibrillator by the Ashley EMTs.

The first jolt -- nothing. The second brought a response. In that moment, Steve became one of the few who return to life after sudden cardiac death. SCD can accompany a heart attack, but not always.

“I remember looking up and seeing all these arms and blurry faces,” says Steve. “The first voice I heard was Vicki’s saying, ‘Steve we love you.’”

Rapid care continues

The ambulance whisked Steve to Ashley Medical Center.

“Just a small, modest facility in the middle of North Dakota, but they knew exactly what to do to stabilize me,” he says. “I’ll never forget the nurse who held my hand while she talked. Such a simple gesture, but so meaningful.”

Steve needed higher level heart care, but evening storms presented a flight challenge.

“They could’ve gotten me to Aberdeen, but I wanted Sanford in Fargo,” he says. “That’s my hometown hospital.”

The weather prevented Sanford AirMed from a Fargo departure, but help came from the west. Sanford Bismarck now provides AirMed service to central and western North Dakota.

Cori Randall, Sanford flight nurse, recalls that evening: “Our flight to Ashley was quick. When we arrived, we kept the helicopter running because we knew we needed to get Steve out as fast as possible.” The trip to Fargo included close monitoring, pain medication, even conversation.

“Amazing that after all he’d been through, Steve was still able to talk during the flight,” says Cori. “He told me about his family -- his two boys and his wife, Gwen. I reassured Steve I’d find them as soon as we got him safely to Sanford in Fargo.”

Answers emerge

An emergency angiogram at Sanford Heart Center showed Steve’s coronary arteries were not blocked, indicating no heart attack. The angiogram also showed no problems with his triple bypass from 22 years ago.

“That was good news,” says Steve. “Then came the best sight of all: My family and two dear friends waiting for me.”

While recovering in the cardiac care unit, Steve learned more about his heart. Dr. Christopher Pierce, Sanford cardiac electrophysiologist, explained what happens when the electrical system to the heart malfunctions. A possible trigger in Steve’s case was built-up scar tissue from his 1991 bypass surgery. Dr. Pierce recommended the implantation of a combination pacemaker/defibrillator in Steve’s chest. The surgery took place that very day.

Says Dr. Pierce: “We never would have reached that stage of treatment had it not been for the rapid chain-of-care that began in Ashley. Thanks to excellent community response, Steve received immediate, on-the-scene CPR and defibrillation. That made a lifesaving difference.”

Steve took one more important step. He joined Sanford’s Cardiac Rehab Outpatient Program, now exercising three times a week under close supervision. “That place is terrific,” he says. "Your second time there, they already know your name.”

Heart of gratitude

Steve is known regionally for his 20 years of editorial cartoons in the Fargo Forum and his illustrated history presentations in classrooms. He’s known nationally for his portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt.

Asked what Teddy would say about today’s advanced heart care, Steve doesn’t hesitate: “Bully, he’d say. Bully for you!”

Speaking for himself, Steve expresses wonder and thanks for the chain-of-care that spanned the state. “I died that night, but here I am, alive and well. Why me? Why did I get so lucky? I still haven’t figured it out,” he says. “For all those Dakotans, known and unknown, who helped restore my life, you’re my heroes and angels.”

We’ve got you covered!

If you or your family experience a heart emergency, look to Sanford Heart and Sanford AirMed, serving Minnesota, South Dakota and now the entire state of North Dakota.

“I know from experience,” says Steve. “Whether on land in the air or in the hospital, you get care, care, care.”

Posted Date: September 2013

Dakota Resurrection

Halfway through the show, performer Steve Stark experienced a real-life heart emergency: sudden cardiac death. He’s alive today thanks to a chain-of-care that began in Ashley, N.D., and stretched clear across the state.