Man's stroke in BWCA sends his friend on race against time for help
ALBERT LEA, Minn. -- Fifteen miles from Ely and more than 100 miles from Duluth, Scott Pirsig pushed his canoe away from the shore of South Hegman Lake in the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area. He had just left his buddy, Bob Sturtz, behind in the tent at their wilderness camp.
He wasn't quite sure what happened to Bob, but he knew medical help was needed. To make matters worse, fog engulfed the lake. Could he find the portage on the other shore without getting lost?
It was March 31, a Saturday. Moments earlier, the two Albert Lea friends in their early 50s had been telling stories around the fire.
Actually, Bob had been telling stories to Scott over cappuccino. They were stories about college, golf, vacation, children and his "lobster," an endearing term for his wife, Lisa. Lobsters mate for life.
"I got a million more stories. Do you want me to go on?" he asked Scott.
The two had planned a canoe trip to the Canadian border but after learning that some lakes still were frozen, they minimized their plans to visit the two Hegman lakes.
On Friday, they parked their automobile and portaged the canoe to South Hegman Lake, crossed it and made their camp on an opposite shore.
On Saturday, they paddled to see American Indian pictographs on North Hegman Lake, then went for a hike. Bob complained of a "sinus-type headache" but dismissed it.
They returned to their camp, and he took some Advil. They gathered wood, made supper and began telling stories. They were in a good mood when they hit the sack near 11 p.m.
Bob complained about being cold, which was common for him.
"I noticed him reaching for the zipper on his bag, and he wasn't able to pull it," Scott said when recounting the story. "I asked him what was the matter, and he looked over at me, stared blankly at me and didn't say a word and then looked back down at his sleeping bag."
Scott repeated his name and tried to get Bob to talk, but he wouldn't.
"How can this wonderful, boisterous friend, who, just moments ago, was laughing and joking with me not be able to talk? What was wrong?" Scott said.
Hypothermia? Scott got the first aid kit and asked Bob if he was cold. Bob shook his head. Questions raced through Scott's mind: Will he snap out of it? How long should I wait? Should I leave him here alone?
He decided Bob needed more help than an experienced wilderness explorer with a first aid kit could provide, but the situation prompted more questions: Can he get Bob into the canoe? If he leaves solo, what if Bob gets up and wanders away?
Scott made Bob promise three times he would not leave the tent. He nodded his head. Scott grabbed a life jacket, the map, two flashlights and a paddle, then shoved off.
"It was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, but I felt I had no choice," he said.
Scott began taking trips through the Boundary Waters in 1978. He estimated he has made 60 to 70 trips there. Over the years, he had played out in his mind several times what he would do in an emergency.
All of them involved apparent injuries: a hatchet to the foot, a broken bone, things like that.
"I never played in mind something I wouldn't know or that I would have to leave someone," he said.
Bob was suffering a stroke, Scott realized as he paddled across the foggy lake. With a stroke, the sooner a person gets help, the better. He could not afford to get lost.
The danger of being in a remote place is part of what draws people to the Boundary Waters or any designated wilderness.
With cellphones being out of range, they were left in the 1998 Ford Windstar minivan at the parking lot.
Scott hoped to reach the portage, hike back to the parking lot and make a call. But the melting snow from the sunny day had made seeing difficult. And it was dark. The flashlights were useless. He had to paddle to the correct bay.
Somehow, his instinct was right, and he found the right bay, but finding the portage was tough. Scott paddled right along the shore and found it.
He began a 1,320-foot hike to the parking lot, mostly uphill. He got into the minivan and drove. Doubting it would get a signal, he tried his cellphone, dialing 911.
A lucky 911 call
It rang. A dispatcher answered.
He explained the situation, and the dispatcher told him to stay put. Help was on the way.
Scott grabbed Bob's phone and called Lisa. It, too, worked.
"I tried my best to remain calm, because no matter how hard this was for me, I
couldn't imagine how hard it would be for her knowing her husband was in trouble while she was so far away and unable to get here quickly," Scott said. "She was so calm and reassuring."
The closest emergency medical technicians arrived first but lacked a rescue canoe. Other responders were coming with one.
Scott wanted to go right away in his canoe, but he had only one life jacket. He offered his to an EMT, but they insisted everyone wear a life jacket.
They would wait. A few minutes later, more responders arrived but without a canoe. But one of the men's vests doubled as a life jacket.
Scott and a paramedic embarked through the fog in Scott's canoe, and Scott again was able to ply the fog to the camp.
"I hoped and prayed with all my might Bob would still be in that tent and still be hanging on, and he was," he said.
A team effort
As the paramedic tended to Bob, Scott propped a flashlight on the shore.
Soon, two more people arrived in a rescue canoe.
Scott and the three medical responders carried Bob on a stretcher to the rescue canoe, and the five of them headed back through the fog in the two canoes to the portage. Ten more people were there to help carry him up the hilly trail to the parking lot. They took turns in teams of eight carrying Bob on the stretcher. He was placed in an ambulance and hauled to the hospital in Ely.
Someone on the rescue squad had commented the only reason his cellphone got a signal was because the parking lot was on the crest of a hill. That uphill hike brought good fortune in a crisis.
Bob didn't return from his canoe trip until June 7, when he was able to come home to Albert Lea.
He had been in acute rehabilitation at Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis since April 24. Before that, he spent three weeks in the intensive care unit at St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth, the largest hospital in northeast Minnesota.
That's because surgeons had to cut a hole in his skull April 3 to relieve the pressure.
Lisa, his wife, said if they hadn't cut the hole, he would have died.
Getting him to St. Mary's wasn't easy, either.
After the ambulance drove away from the parking lot, Scott called Lisa to give her an update; then he headed to the Ely hospital.
Doctors there told him that Bob had to be transferred to Duluth but couldn't get there by helicopter because of the thick fog. They took him 112 miles by ambulance. One doctor suggested Scott gather his belongings at the camp when the sun rises. He drove back to the parking lot, hiked to the portage and paddled back across the lake, now free of fog.
"A whirlwind of emotions engulfed me," Scott said. "I slowly packed all the items by the fire but had a hard time even glancing in the direction of the tent that just a short time ago held my helpless friend."
He packed the tent last, loaded the canoe and shoved off once again, hiking the canoe and all the gear up that hill solo and eventually meeting his friend in Duluth before returning to his wife, Shari, in Albert Lea, and their three grown sons.
Bob remembers when Scott had to leave him in the tent. His speaks mainly in yes or no answers or else with the help of Lisa.
Visitors frequently remark at how swift his progress is. Even talking so soon is a good sign.
"His progress is amazing," Lisa said.
Bob indicated he felt scared, confused and helpless during Scott's absence but emotions of relief came over him when he heard voices upon his return.
He doesn't recall being at the Duluth hospital.
Scott said of all people, Bob would defend leaving the wilderness wild and free of man-made structures such as cell towers, even though medical emergencies can and do happen. Satellite phones and two-way radios remain alternatives to structures. Bob nodded to confirm what Scott had said about him.
The allure of the wilderness, Lisa said, is having the strength and preparedness required to deal with nature and with isolation. He had made about 10 trips to the BWCA before.
She also said the stroke could have happened in his own home and still could have had a delayed trip to the hospital. What if everyone had been sleeping when the stroke occurred?
Bob is eager to recover. Doctors say he stands a good chance. At 52, he is young for a stroke victim. He does not smoke. He is fit and doesn't have health conditions such as heart disease.
He nods and says "yes" to being asked if he is a fighter. Just about anyone who meets him can tell his recovery so far has been remarkable. Lisa said he walks with a cane, though he usually gets around in a wheelchair. The more pressure in a given situation, she said, the harder it can be to perform a task.
She said the professionals at Sister Kenny told him to keep pushing always.
He has no problem comprehending but has a hard time communicating. Like many stroke victims, his body won't correspond to what his mind says. That is the most challenging aspect for him, Lisa said. Rehab, she said, aims to challenge him but not frustrate him.
"It's brain recovery," Lisa said. "It can be unpredictable. It's all pathways; the brain has to find new paths."
While Bob probably is at a point where he can do some tasks without assistance, doctors say he is not supposed to. So, Lisa is with him as an all-the-time caregiver except when he is at Health Reach. Then, she is able to run errands or put some time in at work.
She is a clerk at the Goldman, Sturtz & Halvorsen law firm, and Bob, a lawyer, is one of the partners.
Lisa, a mother of four now-grown children, said she always has been busy. "It's just a different kind of busy."
Their children are Rachel, 30, Anna, 24, Evan, 22, and Jack, 20.
She said friends have been helping out, too, including "a wonderful group of guys" who mow the lawn.
"People just jump in," she said. "Some people bring meals. That's nice to have a meal taken care of."
Bob always has been a big sports fan, from football to hockey, and enjoyed playing golf. He and Scott, a letter carrier, share season tickets for Minnesota Vikings games. Scott now stops in to say hello to Bob daily while delivering mail.
They both are excited about the new stadium and the prospective players garnered in the NFL draft.
Lisa said Bob appreciates visitors and wants people to know they can come by.
Friends and family held a fundraising benefit for Bob on Friday in Albert Lea.