A freak all-terrain vehicle accident two years ago nearly claimed his life.
Now after a long, intensive struggle to heal from his injuries, Dave Hess planned to celebrate the holiday season at home with his family, the first time in two years he hasn't spent Christmas in the hospital. The 30-year-old only regained the ability to eat in February after obtaining nutrition through an IV for 14 months.
Hess, who lives in Coon Rapids but is back working in Brainerd, said he feels lucky to be alive and is grateful for all the support he's received from family, friends and the community.
On Nov. 20, 2002, Hess was loading his four-wheeler into the back of his truck when the ATV flipped over and landed with the handlebars crushing his midsection. Two friends were able to help get the machine off him.
"I just thought it knocked the wind out of me," Hess said of the accident.
Hess laid down on the ground in an attempt to catch his breath. Although he was reluctant at first to go, his friends drove him to Unity Hospital in Fridley. Going to Unity Hospital was one of the last memories he had for months.
"The cards were stacked against him," said Dr. Jay Baxter, a trauma surgeon at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale who has treated Hess for the past two years.
Dr. Kevin Crosston at Unity Hospital performed emergency surgery on Hess to repair his portal vein, which was lacerated in the accident and caused Hess to bleed internally. The portal vein is a major vein that drains blood from the digestive system and other associated glands into the liver. A few days later Hess was transferred to North Memorial Medical Center under the care of Baxter.
Baxter said the initial injury created a snowball effect of life-threatening conditions for Hess. A week after he arrived at North Memorial, a couple of feet of his colon in the middle of his intestines were removed because it had died due to shock. When a colon becomes sick, it can release additional toxins into the body, causing more problems.
Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Dave Hess, who is working to build a home to sell on Wise Road north of Brainerd, has battled back from a freak all-terrain vehicle accident that nearly killed him.
Baxter said during this second surgery he created a 15- to 18-inch long and 10-inch wide gaping hole in Hess' abdomen to attempt to fight the infections and allow his intestines to heal.
If he wasn't completely healed from the initial operation and infection, he could have died during an operation to close the wound.
The hole in his stomach was kept open as doctors tried to fight infection from his leaking intestines, bringing him back into the operating room every few days to clean out the hole. Six weeks later, Hess underwent another surgery to place a skin graft from his thigh over the hole in his stomach. This would remain in place until January of this year.
Baxter said Hess' original injury was so severe that he had a one in 10 chance of survival.
Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Dave Hess has been busy building a home to sell on Wise Road, a project he is working on with his brother-in-law, Jeremy Ostlund. Hess, who lives in Coon Rapids but is living temporarily in Brainerd, has bounced back from a life-threatening accident that took nearly two years for him to recover.
"He was about as close to dying as a human being can come," said Baxter. "He had a long way to work his way back. When you get that close to dying, just fixing the problem isn't quite enough. You don't dodge a bullet and get better in a week. People go on and have serious complications."
Baxter said Hess developed many complications in his original four-month stay at North Memorial. His pancreas became infected, he suffered from kidney failure and for months he was hooked to a breathing machine. Baxter said in his seven years as a trauma surgeon at North Memorial, he has never seen an injury and complications like those Hess endured -- and managed to live through.
"It's very unusual," said Baxter. "It's just one of those freak things and he basically hurts just exactly the wrong thing and then it's just the sort of one thing after the other of incredibly bad life-threatening problems. Fortunately he was tough enough where we could pull him out of it. If this would have happened to somebody who was 50 they would have just died before they made it to the hospital. He was young enough to hang in there to get to the hospital."
At the time of his accident, Hess had been working as an account manager on 401k plans at American Express in downtown Minneapolis. He lost his job because of the length of his recovery. Hess spent 113 days in the hospital and then moved in with his mom, Deb Veith, formerly of Brainerd who now lives in Isle.
Dave Hess is shown with his father, Rod Rassler, in Montana with the many geese and ducks they bagged on a November hunting trip.
For 14 months, Hess was fed intravenously for 14-16 hours a day. He could drink fluids strictly for the taste, but the liquid would drain out of one of the tubes in his side. Fistulas formed on the layer of skin that was grafted over his open wound and it would leak fluid and stomach acid from his intestines. He wore a big elastic band around his waist to keep his insides in place when he moved.
He lost 120 pounds during the ordeal.
"My calves looked like chicken legs," said Hess with a smile.
Hess compared his intestines to a big ball of spaghetti. It was a frustrating experience for the healthy man who missed hunting and playing softball, which he did about four times a week. It also was humbling to lose his independence, having to rely on family and friends for nearly everything. His roommates covered the bills and the mortgage on his house because Hess couldn't work.
"If it wouldn't have been for other people, it would have been really tough," said Hess.
Hess was hospitalized several times because of complications. He spent the past two Christmases in the hospital.
On Jan. 28, Hess underwent his final surgery to reconstruct and close his abdomen. All the tubes he'd been connected to also were removed days later. A week later he was allowed to eat the first solid food in more than a year -- a hard-boiled egg.
While Hess said he still has his good and bad days, he is feeling more like his normal self again. The 1992 Brainerd High School graduate continues to have his home in Coon Rapids, but he is living with his stepfather, Jody Hess, in Brainerd now as he and his brother-in-law, Jeremy Ostlund, build a home to sell on Wise Road this winter.
While Hess was able to go deer hunting last year a few times, he's finally back to enjoying hunting again. The day before his accident, Hess was planning to go deer and elk hunting in Montana. This fall he hunted for geese, ducks, deer, antelope and elk. This included a hunting trip in Montana with his father, Rod Rassler.
Baxter said he hasn't seen Hess since a follow-up visit in April.
"From a trauma surgeon's standpoint, this is how we define success," said Baxter. "Someone's back at work and back to doing the things he likes to do. It's just incredibly gratifying. This is what we do this for. I can tell you, I'm incredibly proud of this job and incredibly proud of everyone else here at North Memorial who made it happen. I couldn't have done it by myself. It's probably hundreds of people who are responsible for getting him where he is today. I'm proud of the people who made it possible."
So is Hess. He said the accident has changed him.
"I thought I was tough before," said Hess. "You don't stop and think. You hear things happen to other people, you don't think it would happen to you. Before I would do dumb stuff, and I'm much more cautious. I think things through before I do them."
"He was anxious to get back hunting, all the things he used to do," Baxter said of Hess. "It's been a big, long haul for him to get there, but I think he's going to be a very good save, for a young guy who could have easily died to get back to his life. It's a hard way to get through it all but in the long run I think he'll be A-OK. He's kind of an advertisement for our trauma center. This is what these trauma centers are designed to do."
Baxter said he doesn't expect Hess to have any long-term problems as a result of his accident.
Hess, who has regained much of the weight he lost while hospitalized, planned to spend Christmas with his family. This was the first Christmas since his accident that he was be able to eat dinner, rather than have fluids administered to him through a tube.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.