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“WE ARE ALL MIRACLES,” says Robert Otto Fisch, brushing the word away with his hands like a mosquito on a summer night. He is a Holocaust survivor, a doctor, an author, an artist, and somehow an optimist, yet still he isn’t convinced he belongs to a select group. “Stop on any street corner,” he says, “and you will find somebody extraordinary.” And so we did, in a way, talking to many individuals whose struggles represent the best of the human spirit. What follows (including the journey of Dr. Fisch) are some of the most remarkable breakthroughs, quests, survival tales, and other amazing stories we’ve ever heard—from the extraordinary lives of ordinary Minnesotans.
Andrea Hazard learned during a routine ultrasound in 1999 that her son had a tumor the size of a tennis ball on his neck. Four weeks before his due date, the family decided to go forward with an ex utero intrapartum treatment (EXIT) procedure, the first ever performed in Minnesota, at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis
Most babies in the womb produce and reproduce amniotic fluid, but Jacob just kept producing because he didn’t have the swallowing ability. I looked like I was having five babies instead of one.
For his birth, they did an EXIT procedure. It was a planned cesarean. Essentially, they deliver the baby past the shoulder area, but they keep the baby connected by the umbilical cord until they establish an airway and then they cut the cord. I was the heart and lung machine for him. It gave them about an hour to establish an airway with an unstable tracheostomy tube that looked kind of like a straw. We were only given a 50-percent chance that both he and I would make it.
When he was four days old, Jacob went in for his first major surgery of tumor removal. He had two subsequent surgeries. He was in the NICU for two months. Then he went into the intensive-care unit for another two months.
He’s 13 now, a normal boy who likes to rough and tumble. He is getting straight A’s. He is in the middle-school band and plays drums because he can’t do wind instruments. He has a very strong and stubborn spirit. We like to think that’s one of the things that helped him get through those first few months.
Gary Lindberg has trekked all the major routes in North America and some farther afield, including the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, starting when he was 53. Now 73, he has the trail nickname The Walking Fool.
I was up in Canada, hiking the Great Divide Trail with a friend of mine, a gal named Marmot. We had just left Kananaskis Lake about 800 miles north of the border and were headed south to Glacier National Park. It’s not much of a trail up there, so we were off the trail and kind of looking for it, heading for a mountain pass with a map and a compass.
Three or four hours into the trip, Marmot was maybe 20 or 30 yards downhill to my right. I came to a large clearing with bushes about chest high and heard something on the other side of the clearing, so I stopped and looked. I saw a brown object. I thought it was a deer or elk or moose, and started up again.
Soon I realized it was a grizzly bear sow, standing on her haunches watching me. When I stopped, she was okay, but when I started again, she charged. She was coming full bore at me. I thought, “My life is over. This is it.”
I ran off toward Marmot downhill, and the bear came right where I had been standing and for some reason kept going straight, followed by her two cubs. She was about two feet away from me. If I would’ve stayed there on the trail, I’m sure she would’ve just mauled me.
Two years later, I was on the trail again and encountered another grizzly bear. I met this one on the trail, and we both stopped. I started backing up and backing up, and I kept backing up. After this went on for a bit, I thought, “This is crazy. I’m going the wrong way.” I picked up a big stick and yelled and screamed, and the bear got off the trail a bit and I was able to get around him. I went around a little bend, and he kept following me and stalking me for about 45 minutes. I think I yelled myself hoarse.
I’ve encountered nine grizzly bears. Those were my two scariest. I decided I’m just not going to hike in grizzly country anymore. Somehow I must attract them.
Helped discover the “God Particle”
Roger Rusack, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota, was among thousands of scientists involved in the Higgs boson discovery, confirmed in March.
The Higgs particle was predicted to exist in the late 1960s. Discovering it didn’t seem impossible—not exactly. Expensive, maybe. We needed to develop whole new technologies and invent new tools. There were thousands of scientists working on [the Large Hadron Collider accelerator and particle detectors], and we had 39 funding agencies around the world trying to agree on how to split the cost of something of this scale.
But I remember when we first assembled the detector on the surface in Geneva in 2008—before we dismantled it and lowered it down a giant chimney 100 meters underground, like a ship in a bottle—I was so impressed. I thought: everything has come together.
Was it an emotional experience when we announced that we had found the Higgs boson? Well, I didn’t cry. I just felt like we had done it. We could see it coming and we expected to find it, and we have learned something.
But it’s not an end. It’s a beginning. The discovery allows us to refine our questions and it has implications for other theories.
Robert Otto Fisch has authored four books about his life, art, and Holocaust experience, including the forthcoming The Sky Is Not the Limit, a collection of his illustrations and aphorisms.
I was born in Budapest in 1925 and raised Jewish. In June 1944, when I was 19, and not long after the Germans occupied Hungary, I was sent to a “working camp” with 280 men. We built bridges. It was tough work, and the Nazis were rude to us. When they saw us looking at family pictures, they would rip them up. “You don’t need these pictures,” they said. “You’re never going to see them again.”
In January 1945, the Nazis sent us on a death march toward the German border. We walked through the Alps during the winter with very little food, very little water. At one time, we walked for four days without any food at all. Many got so weak that they couldn’t walk, and they were shot. But still we walked. February, March, April. We marched hundreds of miles.
On May 4, we were liberated. But I could barely walk. My body was like a skeleton. My spirit was like a skeleton.
Do I hate them? No. Instead, I hope to contribute to a kinder world. I write books. I paint flowers, huge flowers. As the Jewish prayer says, “Thank God for letting me live to this day.”
Played violin during brain surgery (his own!)
Roger Frisch, the associate concertmaster for the Minnesota Orchestra, had experimental brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic in 2010 to reduce a career-threatening tremor.
Because of my essential tremor, which is only in my right arm, I couldn’t hold a glass of water without most of it shaking out. I couldn’t get a fork up to my mouth. Initially I said, “Absolutely no brain surgery,” when the idea was posed. But after months of unsuccessful drug treatments I said, “Well, maybe it’s not such a bad idea.”
The risks were real: a 1- to 2-percent chance that I wouldn’t make it out of surgery. A blood clot could affect my speech or muscle movement. But I’m someone who walks on stage in front of 2,000 people a few nights a week. It’s already a high-wire-act profession. I knew if I didn’t do it, it would be the end of my career. To me, the risk was worth it.
Because I had to be alert for the whole surgery, there was no general anesthesia. Fortunately the brain has no nerves, so as they fed wire leads down into my brain, I couldn’t feel it. But screwing the metal halo to my skull and drilling a hole in my skull for the wire—that, I admit, was uncomfortable.
Mayo bought and sterilized a $75 violin from eBay for me, and I was basically playing lying down. The first wire lead made a definite improvement to the tremor, but it wasn’t perfect. So when they asked to do a second lead, I thought, “How many times will I want to be bolted down onto a table in a situation like this?” I said, “Go for it.” So they drilled a second hole in my skull.
When the second lead was inserted, I could draw straight bows with no shaking. The improvement was so dramatic that the room—which was filled with about 25 people, from medical-device manufacturers to journalists to doctors—broke out into applause.
I was back performing three weeks later. I’ve played in some very interesting places in my career, but that was the most amazing—by far.