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Dan Wessel and his wife, Kirsten, smile from their deck on the afternoon of July 11. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Faith in the face of fear

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Dan Wessel is living proof of the power of positive thinking. That and the importance of having great medical help on hand when tragedy strikes.

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Wessel had both of those on May 22, and he's alive today because of it. The 51-year-old from Osakis has the attitude that he can tackle anything, which has helped him recover after undergoing triple-bypass surgery on May 28.

"I had total confidence that I was going to make it," Wessel said from his home a little more than a month after surgery. "I never for one minute thought I was not going to make it. I think that's probably what helps a lot, too."

It's not that Wessel didn't understand the severity of his situation. He understood very clearly how serious this was as he was being airlifted from the Wadena Hospital to St. Cloud shortly after he collapsed from cardiac arrest while umping a playoff softball game between Long Prairie-Grey Eagle and Minnewaska on May 22.

Wessel had just made an out call on a catch in center field that ended the fourth inning in Wadena. He took a couple steps toward first base when he started to feel lightheaded before everything went black. That's the last thing Wessel remembers until he was at Tri County Hospital in Wadena.

"I thought this was all a dream," he said. "I thought, 'I'm going to wake up from this anytime.' Then I was told by a nurse what had happened."

QUICK RESPONSE SAVES HIS LIFE

The fact that Wessel was still alive to hear what happened is because of the quick response by three men who did exactly as they had been trained to do.

Ryan Hanson, a Long Prairie police officer, Gary Bentz, an EMT from Browerville, and Jay Stewart, a trained first responder as a member of the Glenwood fire department, all ran onto the field the moment they saw Wessel was down. They immediately started CPR after checking for a pulse and to see if he was breathing.

Wessel's mouth was covered in blood. Hanson knew he needed oxygen, so he wiped the blood away and started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Stewart performed the chest compressions as the three worked together.

"We laid him on his back and there was no pulse," Stewart said. "He wasn't breathing. His face was covered in blood. Ryan wiped the blood away and away we went. That's how I remember it. There's parts I don't even recall."

Wessel died twice, but both times they brought him back. His heart stopped beating a third time before the ambulance arrived and revived him for good by shocking him with an AED.

"What was really cool is after the ambulance got there, they shocked him a second time and then he was talking to us," Bentz said. "He said, 'Let me finish the game.' We just said, 'No, Dan, you're not finishing the game.' "

A SENSE OF HUMOR AMID THE FEAR

Wessel laughed as he recalled hearing about that. He doesn't remember saying it, but says it sounds like something he would do.

Medical personnel at the Wadena and St. Cloud hospitals soon found out about that sense of humor. Wessel remembers everything from the time he found out what had happened at the Wadena hospital. He listened to them talk about a possible heart attack and knew exactly how serious his condition was. They found that two of his main arteries were blocked 100 percent with a third one blocked 90 percent.

That didn't stop him from trying to lighten the mood. Wessel talked to the pilot through a headset on the flight to St. Cloud. He watched out the window and offered some advice after the helicopter dropped when they ran into turbulence.

"I said whatever is left of my heart, I think it's up on the ceiling," Wessel said. "'Make sure you grab that before we go into the hospital.' "

For his wife, Kirsten, the time when she didn't know how Dan was doing was anything but funny. Kirsten was coaching softball in the batting cages at Osakis High School when she was paged to take the call about what was happening. She was almost 20 minutes into her drive to Wadena before she got another call saying that he was breathing.

"Scary," Kirsten said as she fought back tears when describing that state of unknown. "About 20 minutes into my ride when somebody called me and told me he was breathing and in the ambulance, at least I knew he was alive. There was kind of a calm of, 'OK, he's in good hands.' "

POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING

Both Kirsten and Dan have always tried to live that way. Preaching the positives is how Kirsten deals with her team as the varsity volleyball coach in Osakis. Neither of them likes to dwell on the negative, and they weren't going to start now.

Wessel had to wait six days to let the swelling go down before going into surgery. He had two broken ribs and a broken sternum from the CPR. He was kept comfortable, both physically and mentally, as he braced for a surgery he knew he might never come out of.

"I've always had faith," Dan said. "I've always trusted in the Lord, and I've always trusted in myself and Kirsten. I've just had that kind of faith, and I just thought we would get through this, as well."

MEETING UP FOR THE FIRST TIME

Kirsten and Dan both know there wouldn't have been that opportunity had it not been for the help of the three men who saved his life on the field.

That's why it was so emotional for all parties involved when they got to meet for the first time after that day. Wessel was at a Long Prairie City Council meeting in late June where Bentz and Hanson were recognized for what they did to save his life. Wessel knew Bentz very well before the incident, so it struck home the first time he saw him.

"It was pretty emotional when I walked in the door and saw him there," Wessel said. "I didn't know Ryan, and he kind of came out from behind the wall. I hugged him and shook their hands."

Bentz has performed CPR about 10 times as an EMT. Of those, he said only once or twice has the patient survived. That's why it meant so much to be standing in front of Wessel that day.

"It gave me goose pimples," Bentz said. "Here he was walking in the door. He looked really good. He's always been a very upbeat person, and it was just, wow."

Wessel had never met Stewart until they drove to Glenwood to see him on June 27. This was the first time in more than six years as a member of the fire department that Stewart has had to do CPR, and he did everything right in the face of a hectic situation.

To Wessel and his family, Stewart, Hanson and Bentz are heroes. That's a humbling description for guys who say they only did what they have been trained to do.

"A lot of people, they label us as heroes, and I don't feel like a hero by any means," Stewart said. "I would hope anybody with the training that I have would have stepped in and done exactly the same thing. I'm just happy I was able to help."

BACK ON THE FIELD

The day that the Wessels drove to Glenwood to meet Stewart was the same day that Dan stepped back on a field as an umpire.

Wessel umped two softball games in Osakis that day and was right back at it for six games during an Osakis Legion baseball tournament that ran June 28-29. He has been an umpire and a ref for 30 years, so this was just another step toward returning to normalcy.

Wessel won't have it any other way. He knows his limitations now, but he isn't going to let this keep him from living the same life he had before. He's smarter about his diet, which he said wasn't great but not terrible before. He has also been cleared to swim, which is something he did on a regular basis, even the morning he went into cardiac arrest.

Wessel said he thinks about how fortunate he is every day. He has pictures of his three grandkids all around his living room that remind him of how much he had to lose. He's moving forward, but not without taking some time to look back on a daily basis.

"I think if you don't allow yourself to think about it, all of a sudden it's going to hit you some day," Wessel said. "I'll be out mowing and I just think, 'I was almost not here to enjoy this.' I allow myself just to be thankful. I thank God every day because, wow, it's pretty crazy."

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Eric Morken
Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.
(320) 763-1229
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