By Matt Kane
MEDINA, MN Thanksgiving is a holiday for all to give thanks for what they have. Christmas centers around the greatest gift of all.
Medina’s Nick Oeffling is thankful for a gift the gift of his own life.
The 80-year-old Oeffling celebrates this holiday season with family and friends only because of a handful of friends and first responders who literally brought him back to life on the snowy afternoon of Nov. 10.
On that November day, Oeffling was sitting in the break room sipping coffee at Loretto Towing, just a mile north of his home, as he had done almost every day for almost 20 years, when, in an instant, his heart stopped.
“I spilled the coffee and went down. That’s all I remember,” said Oeffling. “The heart quit beating. Not a heart attack, it just quit beating.”
Oeffling had suffered sudden cardiac arrest.
The sound of the plastic coffee cup hitting the concrete floor was enough of an alarm to cause Ron Converse, the owner of the shop, to lift his eyes from the newspaper to check on his friend, Oeffling, who was just feet away.
“I looked up and there was no head,” said Converse. “I said, ‘Nick. Nick’. There was no response and he was stiff.”
Oeffling was unconscious and slumped back in his chair, his head hanging over the back. Without hesitation, Converse attended to his longtime friend, propping Oeffling’s head upright to allow him to breath, guiding him to the cold floor below, calling 9-1-1 and administering chest compressions.
“At the time, it was scary. But you just react and you do it,” said the 77-year-old Converse Wednesday, just feet away from where the incident occurred.
When the 9-1-1 dispatcher’s call went out, Converse’s son, Keith Converse, was the first to respond. It was a call unlike any other for the younger Converse, an 11-year officer with the Medina Police Department.
“When I got the call, I was in Loretto at the time and the first thing I thought was that my dad was having a heart attack because the dispatcher said, ‘Heart attack at Loretto Towing,’ so I started panicking a little bit,” Keith Converse explained. “I zipped up here and ran in and saw Pops peak his head up over the counter. I got a little relief but then I ran past the counter and looked down and there was my friend laying there, so then I was back up again. We drug him out (of the office) and started working on him.
“Living in this community, my biggest fear is to have to do something to somebody I care about. It came true that day. It was tough.”
Converse’s emergency-response training kicked in immediately. He helped move Oeffling to a more accessible location, took over CPR, and deployed the automated external defibrillator (AED) that comes standard in a Medina squad car.
“I gave you a couple zaps,” Keith Converse told Oeffling Wednesday afternoon.
Shortly, EMTs arrived in their North Memorial ambulance, followed closely by Terry Ryan, Scott Pivec, Jacob Leuer, and Calvin Castonguay of the Loretto Volunteer Fire Department.
The EMTs opened Oeffling’s airway and replaced Converse’s AED with a more advanced unit, and the firefighters strapped on to Oeffling’s chest a LUCAS device, a chest-compression machine.
“They said they had my heart beating before I was in the ambulance,” said Oeffling.
“They cut my clothes to hell,” Oeffling noted with a laugh. “My belt and my shoes were OK.”
“And I took the money out of your wallet, too,” Keith Converse shot back.
While the trained professionals prepared Oeffling for transfer, it was Ron Converse’s quick response that saved Oeffling.
“I’m proud that he did it. He didn’t panic or stand there and not do anything, and, in my opinion, that first minute was the most important, and had the most to do with saving Nick’s life than anything,” Keith Converse said. “Any more than five minutes without blood flow and the chances go down to probably 1 percent.”
According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation (sca-aware.org), a victim’s survival rate, which starts at just 10.4 percent, decreases 7-10 percent for every minute without CPR and defibrillation.
The website states, “when victims are treated quickly, their chances of survival improve dramatically. If bystanders provide CPR and use an AED to treat the victim before EMS arrives, survival rates increase to 38 percent.”
“The people who die are the ones who fall and nothing has happened for 10 or 15 minutes,” Keith Converse said.
If Oeffling’s cardiac arrest hadn’t occurred at Loretto Towing, where he had walked a mile to be, the outcome could have been tragic.
“Some said I shouldn’t have been walking, but, if I didn’t walk up there, I could have been at home and who knows what would have happened,” said Oeffling, who was seen daily walking to Loretto Towing, Koch’s Korner or Dobo’s Cafe, where he had sipped a cup early that morning. “I was at the right place at the right time.”
That walking kept Oeffling in good shape, but, he noted that doesn’t always matter.
“It don’t make a difference what kind of shape you are in,” he said. “If it hits you, you are down.”
Last Tuesday at the Medina City Hall, during the Medina City Council meeting, with Oeffling in attendance, Ron and Keith Converse, Ryan, Pivec, Leuer, and Castonguay were recognized and presented plaques commemorating their heroics in coming to Oeffling’s aid.
“I just thanked them,” said Oeffling of what he said to the men who saved his life. “That’s about all.”
Wednesday, Oeffling gave his saviors gifts a goodies basket and a box of Life Savers candies.
Oeffling was offered a chance to speak at the Medina meeting Tuesday but the man who often has an opinion when it comes to civil issues politely declined.
“There were too many strangers there,” he said. “I might have said something they didn’t want to hear.”
Back to life
The first responders brought Oeffling’s heart back to life, but he was far from out of the woods.
Oeffling was taken to North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale, where he spent the better part of two weeks in an induced coma. At times, it didn’t look good.
“Father gave me last rites at hospital because most didn’t think I would make it,” Oeffling explained. “I joked that the good Lord didn’t want me and I’m too ornery for the devil.”
“I have to agree with that one,” Keith Converse quickly responded.
Ron Converse questioned: “They gave you your last rites; do they take them back now?”
Oeffling admits to seeing something as he lay close to death, but it wasn’t what one might expect.
“Some see the light or their parents, but I didn’t have anything like that,” he said. “I saw pigs. And they were dirty as hell and about 30- or 40-pounders.”
The spiritual meaning behind pigs is anyone’s guess. One answer to, “Why pigs?” is that Oeffling raised and sold pigs for close to 50 years. His pigs were sold one final time Nov. 17, a week after Oeffling’s cardiac arrest.
Oeffling returned home Nov. 25, just before Thanksgiving.
The morning after returning home, a weakened and sore Oeffling, with the help of friend George Sawatzke, was at Koch’s Korner enjoying a cup of coffee and shooting the bull with the morning group.
Oeffling is progressively regaining his strength and returning to his soft-hearted, yet bull-headed self. Thanks to Sawatzke and Gordy Schmidt, Oeffling is back on his daily coffee schedule at Dobo’s and Koch’s Korner, where he loves little more than ribbing whoever is around to be poked.
“I’m not back yet and am tired all the time and my knees get weak every once in a while, but it’s improving and will take a while,” he said.
The only restrictions given to Oeffling have to do with how much weight he can lift and that he is not allowed to drive for 90 days after returning home. Oeffling now has a defibrillator implant in his left shoulder.
One pastime Oeffling is giving up for this winter is ice fishing.
“I get tired out fast and I don’t want to have to have somebody out there with me all the time,” said Oeffling, who parks his little, red fish house on Lake Sarah most winters. “I don’t know if I can even drill the holes.”
Despite the restrictions, Oeffling isn’t’ complaining.
“I feel lucky,” he said. “It makes you think. Here today and gone tomorrow.”
Thanks to a couple friends, Oeffling is here today.