‘Mr. Miracle’ recovers from life-threatening heart condition

October 26, 2018

On any given day, you might see Don Thorson casting a line on a local lake. You wouldn’t know a few months ago, he wasn’t expected to live through the night.

Don experienced a life-threatening embolism on April 30. But thanks to expert heart services at Sanford Bemidji, fewer than 20 minutes from his home, he recovered without any long-term damage.

“I don’t think Don would have made it if we would have had to go anywhere else,” said Don’s wife, Beckie. “I just don’t know what the outcome would have been.”

He’ll forever be known by his family and the heart team at the Sanford Bemidji Medical Center as “Mr. Miracle.”


A true nightmare

Beckie will never forget April 30. She and Don spent the day four-wheeling with friends for the first time that season. Exhausted from the day’s excursion, they headed to bed early.

A couple of hours later, Beckie woke to a strange gurgling sound. She found Don turning blue with his tongue hanging out.

“At first, I thought he was dead,” Beckie said. “It was like a nightmare. I honestly thought he was gone.”

She started CPR, a required skill from her 30 years in professional childcare, and dialed 9/11. After several minutes of compressions, Beckie felt exhausted.

“I started crying and thought, ‘I just can’t do it anymore,'” Beckie recalled. “I knew if I stopped, my husband was going to die.”

She called her son-in-law, Darin Knotts, who lived minutes away. He was able to come and help continue CPR until the ambulance arrived. It felt like a lifetime to Beckie, but in fewer than 20 minutes, paramedics were on the scene.

Once they detected a faint heartbeat, the paramedics rushed Don to the Sanford Bemidji Intensive Care Unit. Under the care of cardiologist Dr. James Dewar, Don was placed on a heart pump and respirator. He remained in a comatose state for several days.

Beckie learned Don had experienced an embolism, a blood clot in an artery.

At 69 years old, Don had a long history of health problems. He broke his back in Vietnam and spent most of his adult life as a disabled veteran. He underwent open heart surgery to unblock all five major arteries 20 years ago, and in 2014, he experienced a stroke and heart attack just a month apart.

This time, Beckie didn’t know if he would recover. After three days, she made the decision to take her husband off the heart pump and respirator, knowing he might not survive.

“He really didn’t look good,” Beckie said. “I was scared if he did come back that he could be in a vegetative state.”


Mr. Miracle

Then something amazing happened. Don started to recover, surprising his caregivers and family.

At first, Don didn’t recognize his family. He didn’t remember being married much less having children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“That was hard,” Beckie said. “Then he just started to get better and better.”

Slowly, Don regained his memories and after two weeks in the ICU, was out of peril. Over the following weeks, Don underwent in-patient physical, occupational and speech therapy. When he returned home, Don continued to recover with support from the cardiac rehabilitation program at the Sanford Bemidji Heart and Vascular Center.

Along the way, Dr. Dewar and the rest of the staff were there not just to care for Don but their entire family.

“You just can’t beat Dr. Dewar,” Don said. “The staff is all really great.”

“You couldn’t ask for a better situation or people to help,” Beckie added.

While Beckie will never forget the nightmare of April 30 and the days that followed, Don has no memory of the ordeal.

“For him, it’s like nothing happened,” Beckie said.

Today, Don’s living fully and enjoying his favorite pastimes again. Before summer ended, he was able to head out and catch enough walleye for a fish fry.

“You ain’t getting rid of me that easy,” Don joked.


Help protect more lives in our region by supporting Home Is Where the Heart Is. Donors to this important campaign will help build a new heart and vascular center right here at Sanford Bemidji, ensuring expert care, close to home, for generations to come.