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IN THE SPIRIT: Family of beloved radio host talk about her life, accident that ended it

Naomi Dunavan1 / 3
Christmas 2010 at Krznarich home. Submitted photo2 / 3
Steve and Kerri Drees. Submitted photo.3 / 3

Kerri Drees loved the music of Christian singer Natalie Grant. She often played Grant's song, "Held," when she was on air at Your QFM in Grand Forks where she'd been the uniquely high-spirited radio voice we've loved since January 2011.

Among "Held's" lyrics: "This is what it means to be held, how it feels when the sacred is torn from your life and you survive. This is what it is to be loved and to know that the promise was -- when everything fell -- we'd be held."

Since Monday, Kerri's family has been "Held," not only by God but by literally hundreds of people.

"I have felt the prayers and that's pretty much how I'm getting through this," said Steve Drees, Kerri's husband. "There are mornings when it feels real and mornings when it can't be true. Monday, I pretended to be strong for everyone. Explaining over and over was tough. I went home and collapsed. When I woke up I thought maybe it was a bad nightmare and everything would be OK, but it wasn't."

In Jesus' arms

Steve and Kerri arrived at Altru Hospital at 5:45 a.m. Monday for her to have a 30- to 45-minute procedure to remove the Lap-Band she'd had since 2007. Surgery was set for 7:45 a.m. and before Kerri was rolled away, she kissed Steve and said, "I love you." He, thinking 17 years together was not nearly enough told her, "I want to spend the rest of my life with you."

It was not to be as complications during surgery claimed Kerri's life.

"She went to sleep in a hospital bed and woke up in the arms of Jesus," said Beth Waldeck, Kerri's co-worker at Your QFM.

There are those who want to place blame, Steve said, "and I don't. Kerri wasn't the type to blame. Every operation has inherent risk and every human being is different. I have no ill-will. It's easier for me not to hold ill-will knowing Kerri had a living and vibrant faith. Part of me is jealous that she gets to see heaven. At one point Monday, it struck me that she got to meet my dad for the first time."

I was blessed to have Steve, his step daughter, Tanisha Krznarich (born to Kerri), and Tanisha's husband, Steve Krznarich, in my home on Tuesday afternoon.

'Hole in my heart'

Tanisha, 27, struggles with what took place at the hospital.

"I have a huge hole in my heart," she cried as her husband held her. "I don't even have words yet. I just miss her presence, and I don't know how I'm going to live without her. She was a wonderful woman. She could just go and go and go. I could stand back and watch her and she would just shine. There's nobody else like her that I know."

Through his own tears, Steve Krznarich added, "She was the best mother-in-law you could ask for. You hear about bad mothers-in-law. I don't have those stories."

Steve and Kerri Drees' daughter Savanna, 15, was on her way to Bible camp in Grand Rapids, Minn., when she was summoned home. She later asked her dad if she could go back to camp. He said, "yes."

"First," Steve said, "Kerri would want her to be at Bible camp. And second, I'm going to do whatever I need to do to help Savanna work through this. If she needs to go to Bible camp, she'll go. Anything outdoors she likes to do."

'Nicked' aorta

Muddled and blurred are Steve's recollections of Monday morning.

About 45 minutes after the surgery was to have started, Steve went to Altru's information desk for an update. "The gal said the only information they had was that the first incision was made 41 minutes ago," he said. "So I went back and sat down and was looking at a hot rod magazine to pass the time."

About 10 minutes later two staff members "in scrubs came and asked to talk to me," Steve continued. "It was obvious they didn't want to talk to me in the main waiting area so my heart sank. I followed them back to the chapel area where I met with them and the chaplain. The two staff members were an anesthesiologist and a surgical nurse. The anesthesiologist told me there were complications. Kerri had lost a lot of blood and her heart had stopped twice. He assured me they had several people working to stabilize her but it didn't look good."

A chaplain stayed with Steve as he moved outdoors to make phone calls. "Then the chaplain brought me back to the chapel where I met with the surgeon," Steve said.

Steve was then told that Kerri's aorta had been nicked during the first incision.

Now memories grow even fuzzier.

"I see a gap in my logs on my cell phone between 9:20 a.m. and 9:27 a.m.," Steve said. "I think this is when I met with the surgeon. He told me what had happened so far, that her bleeding had been stopped and they were still working to try to stabilize her. Somewhere between this visit and the third visit Tanisha arrived at the hospital."

There's also a gap in calls on Steve's phone between 9:36 a.m. and 9:49 a.m.

"I think that was the time I was told she didn't make it," Steve said. "I do not recall who told me that. I think it was the chaplain but I'm not sure. I cannot come up with words to describe how I felt at that time. I know that I summoned all the strength I could and continued to reach out to people that I could recall needed to know. After we knew Kerri had gone home to be with her Lord, we had a multiple people traveling into the hospital. The hospital made a conference room in the (Surgery Critical Care Unit) available to friends and family. They treated Kerri with respect and were very cordial. As new groups would arrive the surgeon would make himself available for questions."

Her reach

Steve reflects on life with the woman he will always love.

When they met, Kerri was working at a Christian radio station in Fargo and Steve at a Christian radio station in Hibbing, Minn. He also served as youth director at a Lutheran church there. They were introduced by Steve's roommate who had met Kerri at the Christian music festival in Willmar, Minn., known as Sonshine.

"She later told me that she knew that day she was going to marry me," Steve said. "It took her a while to convince me. We courted for a year and a half. When we got married, I left the radio station. She was always better at radio than I was. She was not content doing something less than perfect for radio. She'd work on a 30-second commercial for an hour."

Steve did not know Kerri "before she was a Christian," he said. "She had a hard life in her teens and early 20s. She'd be the first to tell you she made bad choices. She understood she'd been forgiven and that God's grace was endless. She wanted people to realize that."

Thus Kerri didn't carry out her ministry only over the airwaves. She shined her light in every aspect of her life.

"In a crowd of a thousand people, you could always find her," son-in-law Steve said. "You could always hear her. It could be crowded but you knew where she was. In a grocery store she knew everybody. There was no such thing as a quick trip. Everyone felt comfortable around her. She didn't have enough hours in the day and she'd give the clothes off her back if someone needed them. She definitely made me want to be a better person."

Kerri had the special gift of making "everyone in the room feel they were the most important," husband Steve added. "We would be lying in bed and she'd say, 'Oh, I made this friend,' and she'd tell me their whole life story. Then she'd say, 'This is why you need to meet them.' It's been overwhelming to understand how far her reach was and how deep. I don't think anyone met Kerri and walked away thinking, 'She's nobody.' They were changed and that helps."

This week, Tanisha has been lovingly looking at her mother's clothes, her shoes, her necklaces, her many crosses.

"Crosses are her thing," Tanisha said. "I picked out her necklace she'll wear on Saturday. She's living on through everybody. She was my world. It was just my mom and me until I was 10. She's always been there. I just wish I would have told her more. She held the world on her shoulders."

Kerri's funeral is at 1 p.m. Saturday in Hope Evangelical Covenant Church, 1601 17th Ave. S. Visitation is from 11 a.m. until time of service. People are welcome to bring a cross to place at Kerri's casket. The family requests no flowers. Donations may be made to Shine the Light Inc., parent company of Your QFM, or Circle of Friends Humane Society.

People who knew and loved Kerri, and they are legion, saw a "force" behind her, a "presence," within her. Without a doubt, it was the Holy Spirit. On this earth and now in heaven, Kerri is "Held."

Reach Dunavan at naomi-inthespirit@aol.com. Read her blog at inthespirit.areavoices.com.

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