Life Links



A sunny, warm Saturday in August 2010. For Phil and Bonnie Harmeson of Grand Forks, N.D., it was the perfect time to spruce up their lake place near Park Rapids, Minn.

But by early afternoon, the work came to a halt. Phil noticed odd tingling in his fingers. It traveled through both hands and up his arms.

“It was something I’d never felt before,” recalls the 58-year-old. “ I kept thinking I could shake it off.”

“That scared me,” Bonnie says. “I said,‘That’s it. We’re going in!'”

Calls for help

Bonnie immediately made two calls: one to a nearby friend who was familiar with the area and could drive to the ER in Park Rapids, the other to 9-1-1.

The drive was tense. “We were going about 80 or 85 and Phil was curled up in the backseat telling us to lay on the horn, go faster, pass everybody,” recalls Bonnie. The tightness in Phil’s chest kept increasing and the tingling spread throughout his body.

They met the ambulance en route. Phil got out of the car, walked to the first responders and conversed with them.

“That was right before I blacked out,” he says. The ambulance transported Phil the rest of the way.

Lifesaving care in Park Rapids

While Phil was being treated in the ER, Bonnie filled out admission forms. That’s when she heard “code blue” on the intercom. She knew it meant cardiac arrest.

Phil’s heart had stopped. The ER team used a defibrillator several times to shock him back to life. Tests showed he had an ST-elevation myocardial infarction -- a heart attack caused by a completely blocked coronary artery. Optimal treatment would involve opening the blockage in 90 minutes or less -- a considerable challenge in rural areas where angioplasty is not readily available.

The team took two key steps: They administered t-PA, a medication to help open the artery. Next they arranged an emergency airlift to a larger hospital for continued treatment.

That’s when Phil’s daughter, Dr. Angie Wood, entered the picture. When she got word that her dad had suffered a heart attack, she called the Park Rapids ER and requested he be transported to Sanford Heart Center in Fargo. A dermatopathologist, she learned of Sanford’s capabilities while interviewing for jobs earlier that year.

“I knew that for heart problems, Sanford was the place to go,” she says.

Advanced treatment in Fargo

When Phil arrived at Sanford Heart Center in Fargo via Sanford LifeFlight, the heart team was waiting.

Dr. Thomas Haldis, Sanford interventional cardiologist, performed an emergency angioplasty, successfully opening two blocked coronary arteries and inserting stents.

Hospitalization followed in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. While sedated, Phil underwent therapeutic hypothermia (cooling of the body) to decrease the chance of brain damage due to lack of oxygen.

When he finally opened his eyes again, he saw “24” on the page-a-day calendar.

“Last I knew it was Saturday, August 21,” he says. “My family has a well-developed sense of humor and I thought one of them played a trick on me. How could I have missed three days?”

He learned that much had happened: a medically induced coma, 24 hours of hypothermia therapy, and two days to recover after his temperature dropped to a very low level.

That evening, the family could see Phil’s intellect and wit were fully intact. Says daughter Brianne: “I knew Dad was back to normal when we were watching primary-election coverage on TV. He made a lot of comments.” Phil is a well-known political analyst in the region.

A final step

His life saved, Phil took seriously an important final step in his recovery. After his hospital stay, he participated in outpatient cardiac rehab. He became an exercise convert, adding a heart-healthy diet and medication compliance to his daily regimen.

“I could’ve done my cardiac rehab in Grand Forks, but I was so impressed with my care at Sanford. I didn’t mind driving back and forth to Fargo 12 times,” he says.

Today this University of North Dakota business law professor and civic leader is back to 100 percent -- and in better physical shape than he’s been in years. He appreciates family more than ever, including a granddaughter born just six months ago.

“Every moment is precious,” he says.

And the medical team that helped save his life? He hasn’t forgotten them. This past August he and Bonnie threw a “thank you” party, inviting everyone from doctors to nurses to housekeepers.

“I wanted all of them to know they’re part of the team that made a huge difference,” he says. “Because of them and because of the Lord’s hand in all that they do, miracles really do happen.”

Posted Date: December 2011

Life Links

Phil Harmeson kept thinking the strange symptoms would resolve if he just sat down and rested. But that couldn’t fix an impending heart attack that nearly took his life.