Three men, from different cities and generations, shared a significant moment near Brainerd this summer — their hearts stopped beating.
The men returned to Brainerd International Raceway (BIR) Sunday to meet the people involved in taking the first steps to bringing them back from the edge of death.
All three were revived after being in full cardiac arrest this past August during the Lucas Oil National Hot Rod Association.
“To have three life-saving events in one weekend at one event is unheard of,” said Jerry Braam, BIR public safety director.
It started on Wednesday, Aug. 15, as a strong thunderstorm moved over BIR.
■ Jamie Harris’ story
Harris doesn’t remember the lightning strike that nearly claimed his life. He doesn’t remember arriving at BIR or riding the all-terrain vehicle in the camping area between turns three and four.
“I don’t even remember leaving to come up here,” Harris said.
His friends convinced him to travel from his home in Madelia to BIR the year before. They had a blast and he was looking forward to returning in August. His father, John, said he talked about BIR for a year.
His friends heard the lightning strike. One of them said “I hope it didn’t hit anybody.”
Harris was struck in the head by the lightning bolt as he rode the ATV. Scott Miller, a 43-year-old from Superior, Wis. was at BIR for his sixth year in a row. Miller was camping and about 25 yards from Harris when the lightning struck. His employer, Graymont, provides first aid and CPR every year. This was the first time he ever used those skills in an emergency. Sunday, Miller was the only non-emergency personnel to be honored. The award came as a surprise.
“It’s not about being a hero,” Miller said. “It’s about doing the right thing.”
Braam and Mark Stansberry, North Memorial Ambulance operations supervisor, continued CPR on Harris. Braam said even with the stormy conditions and concerns for additional lightning strikes, he looked at Stansberry and saw quitting wasn’t an option.
Eighty percent of lightning strike victims survive. For the 20 percent who don’t make it, the leading cause of immediate death is cardiac arrest. The men who were at Harris’ side weren’t optimistic about the outcome.
“Not a chance he was going to live in my eyes,” Miller said.
The CPR was rewarded by a weak pulse. Harris was airlifted to the hospital. He would spend 36 days there. He was in a drug-induced coma for a week as the medical staff worked to cool his body. His condition was complicated by pneumonia. But he said he feels pretty good now. Seventy percent of lighting strike survivors have residual effects. The 23-year-old continues physical therapy sessions three times a week.
Now the common question Harris is asked is whether he buys lottery tickets. He hasn’t. But his father said the experience has changed his son. The young man’s attitude toward life is different, his father said. He laughs more.
“It was rough the first month,” John Harris said of the recovery. But his son has been improving every day. “He’s coming right along,” his father said. “He’s really touched a lot of people’s lives. ... He’s just a really nice kid.”
The event not only changed Harris’ life, it changed the life of the first man who worked to restart his heart.
“You realize how quick things can happen,” Miller said. Miller said he spends more time with family. “Family is more important.”
The event forged a connection between the two men. Miller plans to go to Madelia for a Jan. 12 benefit for Harris.
“My whole family will be there to show support,” Miller said. “I’ll stay in contact with him forever probably.”
They plan to meet again and during subsequent summers as they return for Lucas Oil Nationals at BIR. Miller said the August event really brought the workplace CPR training to the forefront.
“You can’t make someone worse in that condition,” Stansberry said of a cardiac arrest. “It can’t get any worse than that. Doing something is better than doing nothing.”
■ Bryan Arnold’s story
Arnold, New Brighton, grew up with a fascination for fast cars. His father instilled a love of racing in him at an early age, taking Arnold and his sister to BIR as youngsters. His sister now works for the NHRA.
Arnold, 29, loved everything about the raceway and still does.
“I love the cars. I love the Zoo. I love it all — just the thrill of watching the cars go down the track. Nothing is better.”
Arnold has suffered with a number of health issues, including kidney problems. With his family at their camp site on Saturday, Aug. 18, Arnold wasn’t feeling quite right. His family decided to pack up. Before they could, Arnold collapsed and went into full cardiac arrest.
Security was at his side within one minute. They started CPR and a used a defibrillator.
“I was just glad somebody was there in a minute,” Bryan’s dad Mike Arnold said. If they had been in the car driving outside of BIR when the cardiac arrest happened, it would have been completely different, Mike Arnold said. “The quick response, that’s what saved his life.”
His son wants to keep returning for the races.
Arnold, admittedly a young man of few words, said he’s feeling better now. His sister wasn’t able to be present but sent in a letter of thanks from Arnold’s loved ones.
After the ceremony, Arnold said, “I’m very thankful I got to meet the people that helped save me.”
■ Don Williams’ story
“I’m proud to be here — glad to be here,” Williams said.
Williams had open heart surgery 20 years ago and had stents put in his heart. He’s been coming to the races at BIR for many years, on and off. Williams lives in Burnsville. On Sunday, Aug. 19, when the races were done and awards were being given out, Williams took a seat next to his long-time friend Fran Krueger. They were sitting behind the grand stand.
The two met while working together in 1962. They used time off from work to travel together and their friendship remained strong as each became family men over the years. The two men have been coming to the races at BIR for about a dozen years.
Williams was at racetrack near Brainerd on July 19, 1969, when the loud speakers broadcast the news of Americans landing on the moon.
On Aug. 19, Williams had just settled into a chair and was talking with Krueger. The men planned to go out to dinner — to Zorbas for pizza — with their wives.
Krueger was asking what time they’d be going to dinner, when Williams failed to respond. Krueger looked up and called 911.
Security staff began CPR and used a portable automated external defibrillator to restart his heart. Williams said he was feeling good now.
“I was just damned happy to be here,” Williams said. “I plan on coming back next year and I’ll be in the same spot.”
On Sunday, after the ceremony, Williams and Krueger were going out for the pizza they missed at Zorbaz.
Beyond the actions of Braam and Stansberry, other emergency personnel who received life-saving awards Sunday were: Dave Christenson, Adam Murdock, Josh Gartner, Don Anderson, Dan Fick, Lance Lothert, Ryan Quirring, Todd Braam, Katie Braam and Bryant Szymanski.
Braam also credited BIR owners Jed and Kristi Copham for their emphasis on training. Jed Copham said this, the sixth year of their ownership, has been the most amazing.
Braam said he still gets emotional about the events of last summer.
“If you’ve got the skills, use them,” Braam said of the CPR life-saving efforts. “If you don’t have the skills, learn them.”