By Starrla Cray
HOWARD LAKE, MN James Thiemann was 25 years old when his life changed forever.
It was a hot July evening in 2011. After eating supper with his family in rural Howard Lake, James decided to go out for a jog. On the road to Winsted, his heart suddenly stopped.
A man driving by saw James lying on the side of the road, and called 911. A second passerby performed CPR until rescue crews arrived.
At the hospital, James was given less than a 1-percent chance of survival. When James’s girlfriend, Rachael Sands, heard the news, she dropped to the floor.
“Words can’t even describe that message,” Rachael said.
The couple had been dating for almost a year, and Rachael already knew James was the man she wanted to be with the rest of her life.
“We met student teaching down in Texas,” said Rachael, who is originally from Owatonna.
She remembers James introducing himself with a “cheesy pickup line.” Since both of them were from Minnesota, he had joked, “How about that hotdish?”
After the cardiac arrest, James was in a coma for eight months. Rachael said James “looked like he was dead” lying on the hospital bed. With one collapsed lung and the other lung filled with blood, James relied on a machine to help him breathe.
“I was with James every single night he was in that coma,” Rachael recalled.
One afternoon, after months of praying and hoping, Rachael finally had a glimmer of hope James’s eyelids had fluttered, just a little bit.
When James finally woke up, Rachael said it was “incredible.” James, who had suffered from an anoxic brain injury, still had a long road ahead of him, though.
“[Doctors] didn’t think he’d be able to sit up on his own. They didn’t think he’d be able to talk, or see let alone be able to sit in a chair and bear weight on his legs,” Rachael recalled. “Little by little, he proved them wrong. He literally became a medical miracle.”
Chosen for TLC
In May, James and Rachael were featured on “This is Life Live” on the TLC Network. Their story is on episode four of season two, and can be viewed on the TLC website and on Amazon Prime.
TLC’s producers had been looking for stories about people in extraordinary circumstances, and had reached out to the American Heart Association for ideas. The association thought of James right away.
After a video interview, James and Rachael were notified that they had been chosen for the show. A crew then came out to film, which Rachael said was a neat experience.
“I was very impressed,” she said. “Everybody was very nice. We even had some of the producers in tears.”
‘Better every day’
At one part in the show, Rachael shares insight into her husband’s injuries.
“James’ cardiac arrest and his anoxic brain injury never affected his mental ability,” she said. “What physically prevents James from talking is that neurological connection between the muscles and his mind.”
James, who is able to speak with difficulty, said “I’m getting better every day.”
When James first started going to physical therapy, he could hardly move. Little by little, he is regaining abilities. He hopes to walk by himself again someday, and he also wants to play basketball.
“Every year, we set goals together,” Rachael said.
About six months ago, for example, James achieved the goal of brushing his teeth by himself. Other goals range from writing a book to riding in a hot air balloon.
The day after the TLC show aired, Rachael wrote on a social media page: “Every day, we wake up and thank God for each other. I have always told James, ‘if we can’t be thankful for what we have, how can we be blessed with more?’ But last night, we were truly blessed beyond all expectations . . .”
Rachael noted that she was grateful to have the opportunity to share James’s story of courage and hope on such a large scale, and to be able to thank the people who helped save James’s life.
During the show’s “live moment,” Rachael and James shared words of encouragement in front of an audience of family and friends.
“We’ve already conquered life and death together, so every little bump in the road is just another step to make the impossible possible,” Rachael said.