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Rescue of 5-year-old boy from drainage ditch by 8-year-old sister has happy ending near Strathcona, Minn.

Madi, 8, saved the life of her 5-year-old brother, John, after he fell into a fast-moving drainage ditch and got swept through a large culvert on the county road northeast of Strathcona in southern Roseau County where the family lives. If not for Madi’s fast thinking, her brother might not be alive.

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John Pulk, 5, was ready to go back home from Sanford Medical Center in Fargo by Tuesday afternoon, March 30. (Photo courtesy of Heidi Pulk)

STRATHCONA, Minn. — Madi Pulk often watches the medical drama series “Grey’s Anatomy” with her mom, Heidi. So when she found herself in a life-and-death situation Monday afternoon, the third-grader put what she’d seen on TV to good use.

Madi, 8, saved the life of her 5-year-old brother, John, after he fell into a fast-moving drainage ditch and got swept through a large culvert on the county road east of Strathcona, where the family lives.

If not for Madi’s fast thinking, her brother might not be alive. Instead, he’s back home after being taken by ambulance to LifeCare Medical Center in Roseau, Minn., and then to Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, where he spent Monday night as a precautionary measure against the possible onset of aspiration pneumonia.

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Madi Pulk, 8, said she learned CPR by watching medical drama shows with her mom and by taking in what she saw at Riverside Lutheran Church in Wannaska, Minn., which received a defibrillator machine. Madi saved her 5-year-old brother's life Monday afternoon, pulling him from a fast-moving drainage ditch and administering CPR to revive him. (Photo courtesy of Heidi Pulk)


The boy got a clear bill of health about noon Tuesday and returned home with his parents. He’s on an antibiotic for a few days but shows no ill effects from his near-death experience.

“Even talking with the doctors, they were shocked as well,” Heidi Pulk said. “He didn’t miss a beat. And this is definitely a skipping-a-beat type of situation.”

Drawn to water

The mishap occurred late Monday afternoon, when four of the family’s five kids — Madi, John and his twin brother, Henry, and sister Emily, 7 — were playing outside and strayed to the county road at the end of their eighth-mile driveway. They only moved to the site in December from nearby Wannaska, Minn., so the children had never seen the yard without snow on the ground, Heidi Pulk said.

Oldest sister Sarah, 11, was in the house.

“Literally the last thing I said before they went outside, I said stay on this side of the road,” Heidi Pulk said. “We all have our kids at home right now and we’re telling them to go outside and play, and there’s a few things we forget as parents, sometimes, too.”

Despite the order, kids will be kids, and the lure of the fast-moving water was too much to resist.

“Little Johnny was pretending he was fishing,” Andrew Pulk said. “He’s an outdoor kid through and through. They were walking down the bank pretending they were fishing for ice chunks.”


The drainage ditch John Pulk fell into on Monday, March 30, was much higher and faster moving when he was rescued by his 8-year-old sister, Madi. The forked stick he used as a pretend "fishing rod" can be seen to the right of the stop sign. (Photo courtesy of Heidi Pulk)

Madi had left the ditch and was nearly back at the house when she heard youngest sister Emily scream that John had fallen in and was drowning, said Andrew, who was harvesting corn near Wannaska, which is about 20 miles away.

Madi ran back to the county road to see her brother floating downstream on the north side of the culvert. She had taken swimming lessons in nearby Greenbush, Minn., and knows how to swim. She jumped into the water on the west side of the ditch, pulled her little brother to the east side of the ditch, and began to administer CPR, Andrew Pulk said. The boy’s lips were turning a purplish-blue color.

“When my wife went running out, she found Madi doing CPR on John,” Pulk said. “At that point John was starting to moan and move a little bit.”

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This crude map shows the course of John Pulk's rescue. The red line indicates the area where he fell into the ditch and washed through the culvert; the purple line shows the route his sister, Madi, took to rescue him; and the yellow line shows the course Heidi Pulk took to pick up her son and take him back to the house in a garden wagon. (Courtesy of Heidi Pulk)

Medical attention

Heidi Pulk reached Madi and John through a field crossing adjacent to the east side of the ditch. She called 911, wrapped her son in blankets Emily and Henry had brought in an attempt to warm him up, and hauled John back to the house in a utility garden wagon.

The Greenbush ambulance arrived a short time later and took the 5-year-old to LifeCare in Roseau.


Andrew, who was still combining when he got the news, said he beat the ambulance to Roseau.

“His body temperature had come up by that point, and he was able to talk, communicate, say his name, laugh and giggle a little bit. They were comfortable that he hadn’t lost oxygen long enough to have any type of internal damages,” Andrew Pulk said.

The attending emergency room physician ordered chest X-rays, and while John was stable, decided to transfer the boy to Fargo for observation after seeing a couple of spots in his lungs.

“The main concern was the aspiration pneumonia,” Andrew said. “That can be very bad if that sets in.”

Andrew rode in the ambulance, and Heidi followed in the family vehicle, only to find out before arriving in Fargo that she wouldn’t be able to see her son because of hospital restrictions that allow only one family member in the room during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was “quite a blow,” Heidi said, but she finally was able to find a motel room to spend the night.

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John Pulk, 5, of Strathcona, Minn., gives a thumbs-up in the hospital after being rescued from a fast-moving drainage ditch by his 8-year-old sister, Madi, who swam out to pull her brother from the water and then administered CPR, an action that saved the boy's life. (Photo courtesy of Heidi Pulk)


Watching and learning

Besides what she’d learned on TV, Madi had picked up some CPR fundamentals at their church, Riverside Lutheran in Wannaska, which had received a defibrillator machine through a grant from LifeCare in Roseau.

“Between the combination of the two, she knew what she was doing,” Andrew said. “I asked her (Tuesday) night how she did it. She showed me: Three chest compressions and a breath, three chest compressions and a breath. She did that until he started coughing and moaning a little bit.”

Children are never too young to learn CPR and basic first aid, Andrew said.

“It's amazing how much they catch on to this stuff,” he said. “Just the fact that she's 8 years old, that just blows me away.”

In typical 8-year-old understatement, Madi said being able to rescue her brother and save his life made her feel “good.”

“I wasn’t really scared,” she said. “I didn’t have a chance to think about being scared.”

Just the previous day, Madi had been grounded to her bedroom for not listening, her mom said.

“Then the next day she saves my other son’s life,” Heidi Pulk said. “It’s pretty incredible.”


Living through their kids’ mistakes is part of the parenting process, she said.

“We have an opportunity to talk to our kids about safety but also sometimes, how you react to situations is so, so important,” Heidi Pulk said. “And that’s the biggest thing to take away from this.”

Dad, for his part, admits he might be “completely biased,” but called his daughter’s actions “truly amazing.”

“Finally, a story with a happy ending,” he said.

Reach Dokken at (701) 780-1148 or bdokken@gfherald.com.

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John Pulk, 5, was on his way home from the hospital Tuesday, March 31, less than 24 hours after being rescued from a fast-moving drainage ditch near Strathcona, Minn., where the family lives. (Photo courtesy of Heidi Pulk)


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The Andrew Pulk family outside their home. Twin boys John and Henry, Madi, Emily, Sarah, Andrew and Heidi. (Photo courtesy of Heidi Pulk)

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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