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Quick action plows under widow maker

Sue and Bob Benson of Foxboro talk with Essential Health cardiologist Dr. Alok Bachuwar, left, Tuesday at Essentia Health St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth. Bachuwar was one of many people who helped save Bob Benson's life when he suffered a heart attack during the Feb. 21 winter storm. (Maria Lockwood)

“I think a whole series of things came in play that were downright lucky,” the Foxboro man said Tuesday at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”

Link by link, a chain to survival formed, encompassing local firefighters, paramedics, doctors, nurses and a county snow plow driver.

It started with Benson’s wife, Sue, a nurse for Essentia Health. She tried to bundle him into the car and drive to the emergency room, but their SUV got stuck in the driveway. So she called 911 and started to clear their driveway with a snow blower so help could arrive.

Town of Superior Fire Chief Darryl Fiegle and fellow firefighters Tom Killian and Russ Olson responded to the 911 call. The snow was drifted about four feet in front of the garage when they got there. Fiegle and Killian pressed on in personal vehicles; Olson in a fire engine. They met Gold Cross paramedics Tony Boespflug and Robert Kennedy at the intersection of State Highway 35 and County Highway B, near Pattison Park. It was impassable for the ambulance, but Fiegle was able to transport Boespflug the final mile and a quarter to the Benson home in his four-wheel drive truck using “momentum, lots of momentum.” When they got there, Sue had nearly all of the driveway cleared.

A call from a friend woke Douglas County snow plow driver Craig Plummer early that morning. His friend even mentioned seeing an ambulance on Highway 35. Unable to get back to sleep, Plummer decided to start plowing early. He was just shoveling out in front of the garage door when he heard about the emergency. At 2:32 a.m., he arrived and plowed around the ambulance, clearing them a path to the Benson home.

“I went to the next town road and got stuck myself,” Plummer said.

Once the ambulance got there, the paramedics used an electrocardiogram (ECG) to determine Bob was suffering from a STEMI, a condition where the heart arteries are completely blocked, allowing no blood to flow to the heart muscle. The condition is commonly referred to as a “widow maker.”

With the Bensons on board, Kennedy drove to Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center.

“Remember when I asked you to slow down?” Sue asked him Tuesday. “But you said ‘I can’t or we’ll get stuck.’”

Meanwhile, Boespflug was attending to Bob in the back end, managing to insert IVs despite the rough ride. Unknown to them, Plummer was following, ready to lend a hand if they got stuck.

As part of the STEMI program, hospital staff was alerted to the incoming patient. Dr. Alok Bachuwar, an interventional cardiologist, nearly got stuck on his way to the hospital and ended up calling 911 to try to find a passable route.

When the Bensons got to the emergency room, a team was ready for them and the paramedics headed out.

“I turned around in the emergency room and they were gone on another call,” said Sue.

“These guys are heroes,” said Richard Mullvain, Essentia Health STEMI program manager, quoting one of the emergency room staff who was there when the Bensons came in.

The goal of the STEMI program is to go from identifying patients to opening the blocked artery with a balloon catheter in 90 minutes, Bachuwar said.

“Time is muscle,” said Essentia Health nurse Allen Lepien, who helped care for Bob.

It took 96 minutes for Bob, despite the storm.

Last week, the Foxboro man experienced another cardiac issue, congestive heart failure, and returned to Essentia for treatment. But Tuesday, he and his wife headed home. They had a message to everyone involved in the snow rescue.

“Just a heartfelt thank you from both Bob and I,” Sue said. “I’ve got plans for him.”

He’s got a carved wooden chain to finish for his daughter, she said. And later this month, the couple will celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary.