This week marks the 25th anniversary of the event that used up approximately eight of my nine lives.
It was a steamy July Sunday, and I was rushing through chores so I could enjoy a short break from my dairy farming duties by meeting my wife and our young sons at a local folk art festival. I was nearly done when I noticed that the manure pump had plugged. This had happened before, and I knew how to fix it. Unfortunately, my repair methods weren't all that safe.
I grabbed a spud bar and clambered down into the manure pit. I suddenly felt tremendously lightheaded; my gut screamed that something was horribly wrong. I had just begun to exit the pit when everything faded to black.
Hydrogen sulfide gas had entered my lungs. Known as H2S, this chemical is considered a broad-spectrum poison, on par with cyanide. High concentrations of H2S can attack the central nervous system, causing the immediate loss of consciousness and the cessation of breathing and heartbeat.
My dad, suspecting something was amiss, went looking for me and found me floating face-up in the manure pit. He ran to the house and called 911. While waiting for help to arrive, he and Mom rigged up a fan to blow fresh air into the pit. This is one of the many miracles that saved me.
Our local first responders arrived and extricated me from the manure pit. One can only imagine the courage it took to descend into a pit where a known killer lurks, seeking chinks in your equipment.
The guys who rescued me are men whom I have known my entire life. Ordinary guys who also happen to be heroes.
Upon being pulled from the pit, I had no respiration or heartbeat. I was also soaked with manure, so someone called for a bucket of water. I gave a jump when the cold water hit me. There was hope!
I was swiftly ambulanced to a local hospital. No one had cell phones back then, so no one knew how to get in touch with my wife. She was finally found driving from the parking lot of a local supermarket, having concluded that I had decided to skip my date with her and our two boys.
The local ER doctor thought there was no hope for my survival, but my wife, who somehow managed to keep her wits about her, demanded that I be airlifted to a larger hospital.
A team of doctors met the helicopter and struggled to stabilize me. I had a collapsed lung and had likely inhaled some manure. My odds of survival were put at 50/50 - if I made it through the first week.
At the end of that first week, I began to have difficulty breathing despite being on a respirator. My pulmonologist concluded that my lungs were swelling because of the chemical burns inflicted by the H2S, and that the end was near. He advised my wife to call the family.
She did but also asked the doctor to consult with Mayo Clinic. Mayo agreed with my doctor but suggested that he explore my lungs with an optical instrument. Upon doing so, he found large blood clots blocking some major bronchial openings. The clots were removed, and I was much better.
My memories regarding the first three weeks following the accident are a muddle of reality suffused with drug- and fever-induced hallucinations. My lung function steadily improved, and I was gradually weaned off the painkillers. The ability to think clearly returned.
As she did every day, my wife sat at my bedside and explained what had happened. At first I didn't believe her, but the tangle of IVs and tubes connected to my body convinced me.
After a month in intensive care, I was improved to the point where I could be moved to a regular hospital room. Few had expected this outcome. My nurses wept as my bed was wheeled from the ICU.
To celebrate, I asked my wife to join me on the bed for a quick cuddle. The tubes made her reluctant, but she eventually climbed aboard. We soon fell fast asleep.
My wife was embarrassed when we were awakened by a bemused nurse. But that is the exact moment when I knew everything would be OK.
I am thankful for every day, knowing that each one is a gift. I am thankful that I was able to be with my wife as our little boys grew to manhood.
And I am deeply grateful for the selfless heroes - the first responders and the EMTs, the doctors and the nurses, the friends, family and neighbors who pitched in while I was hospitalized - who gave me a second chance at life.