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Living to tell about it

Within one year, Jerry Aaaberg survived a heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest. He is pictured here with his wife, Lori, and daughter, Brooke. Photo by Tara Bitzan.

Many people would consider Jerry Aaberg a lucky guy. He survived both a massive heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest within one year.

But Aaberg doesn't consider himself lucky just because he survived, he considers himself lucky because he is now at peace with the thought of dying.


On a Monday in August 2010, 48-year-old Jerry left work to head to his home near Nelson and get ready for his weekly golf outing. He wasn't feeling well, and when he got home, he sat down. He wanted to lie down but his instinct told him not to.

Knowing something wasn't right, he headed back to Alexandria, calling his wife on the way. The pressure in his chest and pain in his left arm and shoulder gave him a good indication of what was happening.

"He called me at work and said, 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' " Lori said. " 'What are you doing driving?' I asked him. 'Pull over!'"

Jerry pulled over into the Lake Victoria access. Lori hung up and called 9-1-1 for an ambulance. At the hospital, it was confirmed that Jerry had had a heart attack. He was immediately air lifted to St. Cloud.

"I shouldn't have survived," he said. "It was the worst kind - the one they call the widow maker."

Two stents were placed in the main artery of his heart, and he returned home just three days after the attack. After learning that only 1 percent of all people who have this type of heart attack survive, Jerry knew he had a lot to be thankful for.

"I was a smoker, and I quit that day," he said, adding that he also tried to focus more on healthy eating and exercise.

While the physical recovery went well, the emotional recovery was more challenging.

"I really struggled and had a pretty tough time with it," he admitted. "I suppose it was the whole idea that life could end any time. It took me a long time to work through it."


On Wednesday, August 18, 2011 - a year after his heart attack - Jerry again became a statistic.

He had supper with his wife, daughter, Brooke, and Brooke's boyfriend, Nardo, before heading downstairs to watch TV. (The couple's son, Justin, was at home in Duluth at the time.)

At about 9 p.m., Lori decided to go downstairs to do a load of laundry.

"Normally I wouldn't have done that at that time of night," she said. "I don't know why I did. It was an unusual evening. We weren't following our normal routine at all. Normally, I'd have gone to bed already."

While in the laundry room, she heard a strange, raspy noise. At first she dismissed it. After hearing it again, she walked into the other room and realized it was Jerry.

"He was sitting there with his tongue hanging out and his face drooping," she recalled.

Lori ran upstairs to call 9-1-1. She, Nardo and Brooke returned downstairs to do what they could until rescue personnel arrived.

"Nardo moved him to the floor and tried to find a pulse, but couldn't find anything," Lori recalled.

Within minutes, Kevin Wiseman, a deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, was on scene with a defibrillator. Lori and Nardo assisted him until other rescue personnel arrived and then they retreated upstairs.

"I couldn't watch it," she said. "His legs were gray, and the body just flies off the ground when they shock it. I thought it had been too long. I really felt like it was over and that he was gone."

She and Brooke recalled that after a short time it got extremely quiet downstairs, and they feared the worst.

"I thought they were trying to figure out how to come up and tell us he died," Brooke said, tearing up from the memory.

But the quiet was actually good news. Jerry responded to the defibrillator and his heart was beating on its own. He was transported to the Douglas County Hospital and again airlifted to St. Cloud.

Doctors explained that this time Jerry had gone into sudden cardiac arrest, possibly due to the scar tissue from his heart attack. A defibrillator was installed in his chest, with two leads going into his heart.

He returned home just two days after the incident happened - one of only 5 percent of people who survive sudden cardiac arrest.


Jerry knows that he defied the odds twice. He also knows something else - there is life after death.

He doesn't remember much about the night of his sudden cardiac arrest or about the next day in the hospital. But his family remembers every detail of the traumatic evening, and about what he told them the next day.

"In the hospital he told us that he saw his dad and my dad and his grandma and then he just started crying," Lori said. "He said he heard a voice saying, 'You gotta go back.'"

While Jerry doesn't remember seeing his loved ones, he does remember "coming back."

"I was dead," he said. "It was peaceful and dark and calm. But after the voice said I had to come back, there was this loud rush of air and then I vividly remember the deputy working on me.

"I was completely at peace when I came back to my faculties," he added.


Jerry believes that it wasn't his time to go, and that the Lord made sure everything worked accordingly.

"We are all here because God put us here, and we'll be gone when he decides," he said. "It wasn't my time.

"Just think about all the things that got placed just so," he added, pointing out that his wife came downstairs, which was out of the ordinary, and that Deputy Wiseman was less than three miles away.

Wiseman later told the family he should have been on the other end of the county, but something in his schedule changed, placing him close by.

"The Lord put him there," Jerry said with certainty.

A few days after his return home, Jerry turned on the TV to find I Survived Beyond and Back, a series about people who experienced death. That particular episode was about a man named Jerry who survived sudden cardiac arrest.

"It was surreal; it just gave me the chills," Jerry said. "It was my story."


Jerry isn't sure why he is still alive today, but he does have a different outlook than he used to and no longer worries about the "little things."

"I was one of those people who always had to get things done and was always thinking about tomorrow and what was coming up. Now I don't sweat the small stuff," he said.

"He's more connected now," Brooke added. "He wants to do more things and be more involved." She added that her dad is also more open about his faith.

"I'm meant to be here. Why, I don't know. I haven't figured that out yet," Jerry said. "Maybe I'm just supposed to tell people there is a place after this and that they are there waiting for us. I'm not afraid to tell my story and people can take it for what it's worth.

"If anything happens now, I'm not afraid," he added. "I'm going to a good place."


A heart attack results from the interruption of blood supply to a part of the heart, causing heart cells to die. This is most commonly due to blockage of a coronary artery. The oxygen shortage, if left untreated for a sufficient period of time, can cause damage or death of heart muscle tissue.

Cardiac arrest happens when the heart stops pumping blood. This prevents delivery of oxygen to the body. Lack of oxygen to the brain causes loss of consciousness, which then results in abnormal or absent breathing. Brain injury is likely if cardiac arrest goes untreated for more than five minutes.

Tara Bitzan

Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.

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