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Miracle in the Woods

Paul Pratt belongs on a cross-country ski trail. The fit 79-year-old glides through the snow, his earth tone hand-knit Norwegian cap pulled down to his bushy eyebrows.

“It’s nature at its purest,” says the retired farmer from Gardner, N.D. “Quiet, white and beautiful. You always see wildlife.”

But on Dec. 31, 2009, the trail led to a scarier place …

A cold day up north

Despite the 8-degree temperature, Paul and his family hit the trail during their traditional New Year’s stay at Maplelag, a cross-country ski resort in the remote woods of central Minnesota.

The cold prompted a shortcut on Rootin Tootin Trail – one of the few that’s located near the entrance to Maplelag. Paul navigated a small hill, then fell face down. He didn’t move.

“Dad, can you get up?” yelled his family. They rushed to his side and saw something was terribly wrong.

Daughter Charlotte and granddaughter Jensine ran to the road to flag down help. The first car to stop belonged to the Dickson family. They called 9-1-1, then called two more Dicksons in the car ahead – Sanford cardiologist Dr. Jon Dickson and son Dr. Matt Dickson, an internal medicine resident at Duke University.

“It was a string of miracles,” says Paul, shaking his head. “Where it happened, who responded, the cold temperature that likely helped save my brain. It’s almost too much to believe.”

Incredible help

While daughter Karla and son-in-law Henrik waited for help, an anesthesiologist from Canada who happened to be skiing behind the Pratts arrived on the scene. He assessed Paul – not breathing, no pulse – and began CPR. When Dr. Dickson and Matt arrived, the three doctors took turns doing CPR in the snow for over 15 minutes.

Meanwhile an off-duty police officer heard the 9-1-1 call. Recognizing the need for an automatic external defibrillator (the device that can jumpstart a stopped heart), he immediately brought one. Four shocks later, Paul had a pulse.

An ambulance transported Paul to Detroit Lakes, Minn., for further stabilization, then on to Sanford Heart Center in Fargo. Dr. Dickson had already called to activate a heart team.

Outstanding treatment, fantastic outcome

An immediate cardiac catheterization procedure showed Paul’s left main coronary artery was 95 to 99 percent blocked. A stent was inserted to restore blood flow.

Care continued in the cardiac intensive care unit. While sedated, Paul underwent 24 hours of hypothermia (cooling of the body) to decrease the chance of brain damage due to lack of oxygen.

When he regained consciousness, he was surrounded by family. “They kept telling me, “Wiggle your toes’ and ‘Squeeze our hands’” he says, chuckling. “I don’t know how many times I had to do that trick. They were so relieved I could hear and understand.”

Paul’s care continued with short-term rehabilitation in a local nursing home followed by outpatient cardiac rehabilitation at Sanford.

Dr. Dickson marvels at the outcome: “Not only did Paul survive, but he made a full recovery with no neurological damage. It still astounds me that somehow, in the middle of the woods, the right people were in the right place at the right time.”

Everyday heroes

So many heroes, but all say they were just doing what they were trained to do. Nevertheless the experience left a lasting impression.

For Dr. Dickson, a 30-year cardiologist: “’Til the day I die, this will be a high point in my life. First because Paul had an outstanding recovery. Second because this happened with my family.”

For the younger Dr. Dickson: “The experience gave me a lot of hope going forward in my medical career. It’ll always remind me of what’s possible … and make me strive to be the very best doctor I can be. And to see my dad in action -- that’s something I won’t forget.”

And for Paul: “I’ve really pondered this -- how it all clicked and why. I now believe miracles happen and God bless you if you’re in the right place at the right time. For reasons I don’t yet know, I was truly blessed.”

In May, Paul and daughter Claudia completed the 5K Walk in the 2010 Fargo Marathon.

Posted Date: January 2011