Man helps save friend who suffered stroke in BWCAWFifteen miles from Ely and more than 100 miles from Duluth, Scott Pirsig pushed his canoe away from the shore of South Hegman Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It was nearing midnight, and he had just left his buddy Bob Sturtz behind in the tent at their wilderness camp.
By: Tim Engstrom , Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune
Fifteen miles from Ely and more than 100 miles from Duluth, Scott Pirsig pushed his canoe away from the shore of South Hegman Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It was nearing midnight, and he had just left his buddy Bob Sturtz behind in the tent at their wilderness camp.
He wasn’t quite sure what had happened to Sturtz, but he knew he needed to get medical help. To make matters worse, fog engulfed the lake. Could he find the portage on the other shore without getting lost?
It was March 31, a Saturday. Moments earlier, the two friends in their early 50s from Albert Lea, Minn., had been telling stories around the fire. Actually, Sturtz had been telling stories to Pirsig over cappuccino. They were stories about college, golf, vacations and family.
“I got a million more stories. Do you want me to go on?” he asked Pirsig.
The two had planned a canoe trip to the Canadian border but after learning that some lakes still were frozen, they scaled back their plans to visit just North and South Hegman lakes on the edge of the Boundary Waters. On Friday, they parked their automobile and portaged the canoe to South Hegman Lake, crossed it and made their camp on the opposite shore.
On Saturday, they paddled to see American Indian pictographs on North Hegman Lake, then went for a hike. Sturtz complained of a “sinus-type headache” but dismissed it. They returned to their camp, and he took some Advil. They gathered wood, made supper and began telling stories. They were in a good mood when they hit the sack about 11 p.m.
Sturtz complained about being cold, which was common for him.
“I noticed him reaching for the zipper on his bag, and he wasn’t able to pull it,” Pirsig said when recounting the story. “I asked him what was the matter, and he looked over at me, stared blankly at me and didn’t say a word and then looked back down at his sleeping bag.”
Pirsig repeated his name and tried to get Sturtz to talk, but he wouldn’t.
“How can this wonderful, boisterous friend, who, just moments ago, was laughing and joking with me not be able to talk? What was wrong?” Pirsig said.
Hypothermia? Pirsig got the first aid kit and asked Sturtz if he was cold. Sturtz shook his head. Questions raced through Pirsig’s mind: Will he snap out of it? How long should I wait? Should I leave him here alone?
He decided Sturtz needed more help than an experienced wilderness explorer with a first aid kit could provide, but the situation prompted more questions: Can I get Sturtz into the canoe? If I leave solo, what if Sturtz gets up and wanders away?
Pirsig made Sturtz promise three times he would not leave the tent. He nodded his head. Pirsig grabbed a life jacket, the map, two flashlights and a paddle, then shoved off.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, but I felt I had no choice,” he said.
Getting a signal
Pirsig began taking trips through the Boundary Waters in 1978. He estimates he has made 60 to 70 trips there. Over the years, he had played out in his mind several times what he would do in an emergency.
All of them involved apparent injuries: a hatchet to the foot, a broken bone — things like that.
“I never played in mind something I wouldn’t know or that I would have to leave someone,” he said.
Sturtz was suffering a stroke, Pirsig realized as he paddled across the foggy lake. With a stroke, the sooner a person gets help, the better. He could not afford to get lost.
Being in a remote place is a big part of what draws people to the Boundary Waters or any designated wilderness. Because they were out of cell-phone range, the two had left their phones in their minivan at the parking lot. Pirsig hoped to reach the portage, hike back to the parking lot and make a call. But it was dark, and flashlights were useless as he tried to find his way.
Somehow, his instinct was right and he found the right bay, but finding the portage proved difficult. After locating it, Pirsig began a quarter-mile hike to the parking lot, mostly uphill. He got into the minivan and drove. Though he doubted he’d get a signal, he tried his cell phone, dialing 911.
It rang. A dispatcher answered.
He explained the situation, and the dispatcher told him to stay put. Help was on the way.
Pirsig grabbed Sturtz’s phone and called Sturtz’s wife.
“I tried my best to remain calm, because no matter how hard this was for me, I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be for her knowing her husband was in trouble while she was so far away and unable to get here quickly,” Pirsig said. “She was so calm and reassuring.”
The first emergency medical technicians to arrive lacked a rescue canoe. Other responders were coming with one. Pirsig wanted to go right away in his canoe, but he had only one life jacket. He offered his to an EMT, but they insisted everyone wear a life jacket. They would wait. A few minutes later, more responders arrived but without a canoe. However, one of the men’s vests doubled as a life jacket.
Pirsig and a paramedic embarked through the fog in Pirsig’s canoe, and Pirsig again was able to find his way through the fog, to the camp.
“I hoped and prayed with all my might Sturtz would still be in that tent and still be hanging on, and he was,” he said.
As the paramedic tended to Sturtz, Pirsig propped a flashlight on the shore. Soon, two more people arrived in a rescue canoe. Pirsig and the three medical responders carried Sturtz on a stretcher to the rescue canoe, and the five of them headed back through the fog in the two canoes to the portage. Ten more people were there to help carry Sturtz up the hilly trail to the parking lot. They took turns in teams of eight carrying Sturtz on the stretcher. He was placed in an ambulance and hauled to the hospital in Ely.
Someone on the rescue squad had commented the only reason Pirsig’s cell phone got a signal was because the parking lot was on the crest of a hill.
After the ambulance drove away from the parking lot, Pirsig called Sturtz’s wife again to give her an update; then he headed to the Ely hospital. Doctors there told him that Sturtz had to be transferred to Duluth but couldn’t get there by helicopter because of the thick fog. They took him 112 miles by ambulance. One doctor suggested Pirsig go back to the lake and gather his belongings at the camp. He drove back to the parking lot, hiked to the portage and paddled back across the lake, now free of fog.
“A whirlwind of emotions engulfed me,” Pirsig said. “I slowly packed all the items by the fire but had a hard time even glancing in the direction of the tent that just a short time ago held my helpless friend.”
He packed the tent last, loaded the canoe and shoved off once again, hiking the canoe and all the gear up that hill solo and eventually visiting Sturtz in Duluth before returning to his wife, Shari, in Albert Lea, and their three grown sons.
Sturtz didn’t return from his canoe trip until June 7, when he was able to come home to Albert Lea. He had been in acute rehabilitation at Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis since April 24. Before that, he spent three weeks in the intensive care unit at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth. That’s because surgeons on April 3 had to cut a hole in his skull to relieve the pressure.
Lisa, Sturtz’s wife, said she was told that if they hadn’t cut the hole, he would have died.
Sturtz remembers when Pirsig had to leave him in the tent. He speaks mainly in yes or no answers or else with the help of his wife. Visitors frequently remark at how swift his progress is. Even talking so soon is a good sign.
“His progress is amazing,” Lisa Sturtz said.
Sturtz, a lawyer with four grown children, indicated he felt scared, confused and helpless during Pirsig’s absence, but emotions of relief came over him when he heard voices upon his return. He doesn’t recall being at the Duluth hospital.
Pirsig, a mail carrier, said Sturtz would defend leaving the wilderness wild and free of man-made structures such as cell towers, even though medical emergencies can and do happen. Satellite phones and two-way radios remain alternatives to cell phones. Sturtz nodded to confirm what Pirsig had said about him.
The allure of the wilderness, Lisa Sturtz said, is having the strength and preparedness required to deal with nature and with isolation. Sturtz had made about 10 trips to the BWCA before.
She also said the stroke could have happened in his own home and he still might have had a delayed trip to the hospital. What if everyone had been sleeping when the stroke occurred?
Sturtz is eager to recover. Doctors say he stands a good chance. At 52, he is young for a stroke victim. He does not smoke. He is fit and doesn’t have health conditions such as heart disease.
He has no problem comprehending but has a hard time communicating. Like many stroke victims, his body won’t always respond to what his mind wants to do — and that’s the most challenging aspect for him, his wife said. Rehab, she said, aims to challenge him but not frustrate him.
“It’s brain recovery,” she said. “It can be unpredictable. It’s all pathways; the brain has to find new paths.”