“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.
Read more miraculous stories at MNMO.com/Miracles.
Nick Leibold, whose family has worked the same northern Iowa farm for four generations, had a life-changing morning in 2011.
It was a hot August morning, and I was mowing a waterway with an old tractor from the 1960s. I backed up into a fence post that had some wire hanging on it and heard a big clanging noise, like rocks. I raised up the machine, and it kicked out a piece of wire one-and-a-quarter inches long—straight into my back, like a bullet.
At the time, I thought a rock had broken my ribs and pushed them into my lungs. But that wire had gone right through my liver in two different places as well as my diaphragm and heart. It ripped a two-inch tear in my vena cava, the vein that comes right out of the heart, and got lodged in my breast bone. I got off the tractor, took a couple steps, and collapsed to the ground.
That was when our neighbor, Aaron, drove by, saw me on the ground, and called the sheriff. Another man I’d never seen before—he looked like just another farmer, but we say that perhaps he was my guardian angel—blocked the sun so I could stay cool.
When I got to the local hospital, the doctor asked me how the pain was on a scale of one to 10. I said 11. I don’t remember anything else until 10 days later.
Kendra Leibold, Nick’s wife: They called the helicopter to get him to Mayo, and during that half-hour ride, he used five bags of blood and two of plasma. In the first surgery, they opened him up, cracked his ribs, took the wire out of his breastplate, and sewed up the gash in his vena cava and heart. But blood was still pooling near his heart, so the next morning they had to do a surgery of last resort. It lasted 10 hours. Two days later they did a third surgery. He went through more than 90 units of blood. In the process, his kidneys failed and he got a blood infection. They worried that he’d have brain damage and be on dialysis for the rest of his life. But he got better so fast. He was only in the intensive-care unit for 10 days and went home two weeks after the accident.
Nick: I haven’t had a profound revelation to go do something as my mission in life. But I know that some hospitals have changed their rescue procedures and now take plasma with them in the helicopters—without that plasma transfusion, I would have died long before I got to the hospital. Not long after I got home from the hospital, there was a blood drive. When the paper mentioned I was going to be there, they had three times the usual number of people show up to give blood, and a lot of them were first-time donations. Even if it was a small thing, it was a direct result. We knew some good had come out of this.
Born 17 weeks early
April Winebrenner-Palo was born at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where neonatologist Ronald Hoekstra became known for dramatically improving the survival rates of micro-preemies.
There weren’t any extenuating circumstances that would explain why I was born prematurely. But very early my mom noticed signs of impending labor, and she went to the hospital. They tried to hold off on having me born for a little while, but in the end I was born at 23 weeks. I was 1 pound, 8 ounces.
My parents were told that I would almost certainly not make it and that they should make preparations for that. Doctors told my parents to consider coming up with a name and doing a baptism—or saving the name for a future infant. My grandfather, a Lutheran pastor, baptized me in the hospital.
But I was born in the right place at the right time. I benefited from procedures that were experimental at the time—like injected surfactant, a chemical produced by the body that makes babies’ lungs more stable. Today they won’t do a preterm birth without having surfactant prepared.
There were other problems. My heart wasn’t fully formed and had to be repaired via heart surgery when I was two weeks old. I had two procedures to fix my eyes and all sorts of things to make sure I was breathing properly and maintaining calories.
My parents were in the hospital all the time in shifts: one parent during the day, the other at night. Sometimes they would both be called in because things were going so badly that doctors didn’t think I would make it.
Of course they knew that there was a very real possibility that I would die at any moment. But they treated me like a regular baby as much as they could. They would read me books or tell me stories or tell me about their day. I think that was crucial to helping them feel like normal parents.
I only weighed 20 or 30 pounds going into kindergarten, but I was never delayed intellectually. I graduated from Hamline University in 2011, and, in May, I graduated with a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. I’m hoping to get a job in interfaith community organizing.
The fact that I was born so early was tough on my folks, and of course they’ve never forgotten it. My parents raised me to recognize the fragility of life and to understand that all things are impermanent.
This spring, Dr. John Wagner and his team—including Dr. Michael Verneris and Dr. Timothy Schacker—treated a 12-year-old boy with a stem-cell transplant in an attempt to cure him of both leukemia and HIV. If it works, he will become only the second patient in the world to be cured of both diseases
and the first using umbilical-cord blood instead of bone marrow.
Because of our work with umbilical-cord transplantation, this patient was referred to us to treat his leukemia. As part of the discussion, it came out that this child was HIV positive and in fact had AIDS. So it changed our plan for how we would attack these two diseases simultaneously.
In 1996, there was a discovery of a receptor called CCR5, and in some individuals, there was a variation that prevented infection by HIV. Only 1 percent of northern Europeans have this variant receptor. Cord blood is banked and stored but most is never typed for this variant. The only way we found donor cord blood is that it doesn’t have to be perfectly matched. An adequately matched cord-blood unit was identified in Houston and shipped here.
Before the transplant, we gave the boy three days of chemotherapy to knock down the leukemia as far as we could, followed by four days of total-body irradiation. We also had to manipulate the drugs to get his HIV burden down.
The infusion took only 15 to 20 minutes. We first thawed the frozen blood, then washed it of preservatives and infused those cells into him through a catheter that goes into major vessels that go right through the heart. These stem cells circulate around the body and within the first 24 to 48 hours hone into the bone-marrow space where they hopefully regenerate not only the blood but also the immune system.
Now it’s a waiting game. It takes about 100 days for the immune system to recover enough to send the patient home. At three months, we hope to come out and say the goal has been accomplished and we have gotten rid of the HIV. It takes longer to prove the leukemia won’t come back—one to one-and-a-half years.
This is a major step forward in the quest to cure HIV/AIDS. Who would’ve thought there would be a naturally occurring variant of a receptor that actually inhibits HIV from getting into a cell and infecting it? Now we are taking advantage of this natural thing and seeing if it can help other people.
Lived through China’s Cultural Revolution
When she was 18, Baorong Li became one of the millions of well-educated students in China sent from cities to rural areas to quell political unrest. She arrived in the United States on a scholarship in 1988 and eventually earned her PhD. Li now lives in St. Paul.
The Cultural Revolution began in 1966, while I was at boarding school. Classes stopped, and eventually I was sent to a village 100 miles from my home in Beijing. I worked as a peasant with three other girls from my class. We formed our own little family.
There was never a minute to sit: we were up at 4:30 a.m. so that by the time the sun rose at 5 a.m. we could be out to water the wheat fields. We were in the fields until the sun set, after 8:30 p.m., and then we still had to do all of our cooking and washing. We had to grow our own vegetables—something that brothers, dads, and grandpas usually did. But we girls had to do everything ourselves.
What did it feel like? It just felt like I had to accept it. I couldn’t say, “I don’t want to do it,” and go home. So I worked very, very hard. I spent two years doing this, and I was one of the lucky ones.
My generation thought we were unfairly treated. We lost our youth. We lost our opportunity. But there’s no use in complaining, because it won’t make your life better. The only thing to do is face reality and do what you can do.
We asked you to share your own miracles with us. Here is one of those remarkable tales:
“I was kayaking on Silver Lake near Silverwood Regional Park in St. Anthony over Labor Day weekend last year when a speedboat hit my kayak dead center. The driver never saw me—he and his passengers were watching the kid they were towing on a tube behind them. I bailed out at the last second before the impact. My kayak ended up on one side of the speedboat, and I ended up on the other. My husband was in a kayak in front of me and two of my sons were in a canoe behind me, and we were all screaming at the driver to stop but to no avail.
Several years ago, I also survived a telephone pole skewering my car. The pole was on a trailer, and when the truck couldn’t make a corner, it backed up, not seeing me, and the phone pole poked through the passenger-side of the windshield, bent back the headrest on the driver’s side, and went out through the rear passenger window on the driver’s side. Luckily, I had ducked, or my head would have come off with the headrest. In both cases, miraculously, I was unhurt.” —AMY BARRETT