'She taught me how to walk': After being gored by a buffalo, Duluth man turns to ballroom dancing in his recovery
Jim Carter and Andrea Kuzel were gliding across the ballroom floor in Duluth's Norway Hall, soft piano music accompanying them.
Carter, athletic and bald-headed, wore black pants and a black, short-sleeved shirt carrying the logo of the company he owns, SOS Leak Repair. Kuzel wore an elegant, mid-length black dress. Occasionally, Kuzel, 39, added a dramatic flair, gesturing outward with one hand or placing a hand on top of her head. Carter, 60, led with suave confidence.
Both smiled almost constantly, appearing completely at ease. Watching the perfectly matched pair, one might imagine both were professionals.
One would be half right. Kuzel, the owner of Superior Ballroom Dance Studio, turned pro six years ago.
Carter, on the other hand, had never danced before Jan. 2, 2014, when he walked gingerly into the studio in its previous Superior Street location, hoping to enhance his recovery from a severe and unusual injury.
He had been gored by a buffalo.
Carter's work takes him to hazardous situations, repairing high-pressure leaks in paper mills, power plants, oil refineries and the like across 15 states and one foreign country.
But the situation that nearly killed him occurred during a seemingly innocent trip to the country to buy buffalo meat.
It was May 24, 2013. Carter, who lives in Duluth's Morgan Park neighborhood, had traveled with his wife, Janice, and some grandchildren to Quartermaster Buffalo Ranch in Esko. They intended to stock up ahead of the Memorial Day weekend.
Don Solwold, now 84, has owned the ranch on Church Road since 1973. Last week, he and Carter sat in his home, which is on the ranch down a long lane from the road. The soft-spoken Solwold is, like Carter, a man of faith. An open Bible lay in front of him as he served coffee and slices of cheese and pear.
"The first thing we have to establish is: Why was the buffalo out there?" Solwold asked rhetorically.
It wasn't only a buffalo, it was the herd bull, weighing in at a little more than 2,000 pounds. The bull, named Nitro, had snuck through a gate earlier when Solwold was moving a bale of hay, he explained. He had discovered the bull's presence, but needed some feed to coax him back in. When Carter arrived, they walked to the pole barn to get both the feed and the buffalo meat.
Solwold wasn't expecting aberrant behavior from his buffalo.
"The only thing I can think of ... (is) he thought we were denying him entry to that feed that was in there," Solwold said. "And he was upset because of that."
Carter had taken about five steps when the bull charged from behind.
"He stuck his big head down right here, and he gored me right here," Carter related, pointing under his right thigh. "And his horn went in, exploded my femoral artery, hit my femur, traveled all the way up from my femur to my pelvis."
Carter regards it as a miracle that the horn didn't penetrate farther than it did. Instead, the bull tossed him into the air. He landed next to the buffalo.
Carter was alive and conscious but in serious trouble. The femoral artery is the second-largest artery in the body. Carter didn't know exactly what had happened, but he knew he didn't have much time.
"I was bleeding to death, and I knew it," he recalled. "They knew it. Everybody knew it. My head was in my wife's lap, and I looked at her and told her, 'Honey, you make sure everybody knows I love them.' "
Solwold watched in disbelief, and then turned to his faith.
"I said the shortest, most desperate prayer I ever said in my life," he recalled. "I just said, 'Lord, I don't know what to do. Give me wisdom. Give me strength. Give me guidance.' "
Then Solwold remembered something he'd heard or read about Dr. Owen Wangensteen, a pioneering surgeon at the University of Minnesota whose students had included Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who went on to perform the first human heart transplant. The story was that one of Barnard's patients had hemorrhaged and died, and Wangensteen emphasized to Barnard that the first priority was to stop the bleeding, even if all he could do was stick a finger in the wound.
The story stuck with him, Solwold said, because Wangensteen had been his wife's family doctor when she lived in Lake Park, Minn.
Solwold reached into the wound, located Carter's femoral artery and pinched it shut, stopping the blood flow.
Carter heard Solwold praying. "I said, 'Thanks for praying,' " he recalled. "And then I just — I got really calm. There was a calmness over me that I'd never experienced."
Dr. Kevin Marble, an emergency room physician at St. Luke's hospital who did not take part in Carter's care, said that, based on the account he was given, Solwold had done exactly the right thing.
Without someone applying pressure and stopping the flow of blood, someone with a severed femoral artery would essentially bleed out within four to five minutes and go into "unrecoverable shock," said Marble, who has been an ER doctor for close to 30 years and at St. Luke's for 11. In some such cases, the patient is resuscitated but still does not survive, he said.
Marble had no hesitation about the difference Solwold's quick action made between life and death.
"That person saved that gentleman's life," Marble said.
Solwold held on as Carter was loaded into an ambulance, continued to hold on as Carter was rushed to St. Luke's hospital and held on until a doctor took over for him as Carter was being prepared for surgery. From the time the 911 call was placed until then was a little more than an hour, Carter said.
Carter was stabilized in an operation lasting nearly 12 hours, but initially there was concern he would lose his right leg. By November, that concern had been allayed, but he was told his nerve endings had been severed and he'd never be able to walk on that leg again. Because both of his shoulders had been damaged, he was told he'd probably eventually need some sort of power wheelchair.
Carter had been an instructor to disabled skiers for 20 years, and many of his friends were in wheelchairs, he said. But Carter was determined not to go that route. He started to take his recovery into his own hands.
"I thought to myself, 'I love these guys for saving my life,' " Carter recalled of the medical professionals. "Because that's what these hospitals do. They save our lives and they're really, really good at it. ... But they don't know how to heal. And I thought, 'I've got to find another team of people to heal me.' "
The team included the Center for Muscle and Joint Therapy in Superior.
"It was a professional challenge for me," said James G. Rauzi, founder and lead physical therapist at the center, of Carter's injuries. "It was a leg that had been mutilated ... which had some level of muscle activity, maybe what we call some trace activity."
First Rauzi worked with him, and then Kathy Olson, a physical therapist assistant. Carter refers to Olson as his second angel, after his wife. Kuzel is his third.
Olson said she'd seen injuries worse than Carter's, but "I'd never seen someone who's been gored."
One day, as Carter and Olson were talking, he jokingly said that since he'd no longer be able to ski, he'd take up dancing. Debbie Merrick, another physical therapy assistant, overheard the conversation and told Carter dancing might help him. A dancer herself, she gave Carter Kuzel's contact information.
"So I called over, and I didn't tell them quite how badly I was hurt because I didn't want her to be afraid of me," Carter said, laughing, as he sat next to Kuzel on a bench along the edge of the ballroom.
Carter parked close to the studio, which at that time was located next to Mainstream Fashions for Men, on that Jan. 2 and left the walker in his truck.
"I had to crawl over the snowbank, and I had a telescoping cane, and I used that to get up to the door," he related. "I held on to the wall and threw the cane away because I didn't want her to know."
But Carter needed a lot of help. When Kuzel told him to step forward with his left foot, he could do that, but when she told him to to step to the right, he couldn't make his right leg move.
At that point in the narrative, the couple stood, demonstrating what had happened.
"And I go, 'I can't make my right leg move,' " Carter recounted. "And she grabbed it, and she went, 'Here.' "
Kuzel laughed as they acted it out.
Although Carter wouldn't reveal the full extent of his injuries on that day, Kuzel said his can-do attitude displayed itself immediately.
"I have a great new student that's going to listen to me," she said, in recalling her thoughts. "Because most people fight it. Most people are just like, 'I can't do that.' Jim was, 'Just tell me what to do and I'll do it.' "
'Mind, body and soul'
In the early stages, Carter spent as much time learning the steps — in effect, imparting muscle memory on his right leg — as he could. He'd spend an hour or two in a lesson, Carter said, then return to the studio on his own, practicing in front of the ballroom mirror.
From the start, he said, he knew this would be a significant part of his recovery.
"Once I was here it was like, I love this," he said, as Kuzel looked on. "Looking back on it now, I know it wasn't just the movement and the physical part of it.
"This is good for the mind, body and soul."
Sensing the beat of the music didn't come naturally, he said, but he gradually learned to feel the rhythm of the waltz, the tango, the foxtrot and the other dances that seem to be second nature to him now. Hearing the romantic tunes, he would think to himself: These songs are about my wife.
Carter didn't just learn to dance; he learned to dance competitively. A year after he started, he won a first in the student division at the Snow Ball, a national dance competition in the Twin Cities, Kuzel reported. She learned from the organizers that they knew nothing of his back story.
"I am so, so, so proud of how far he's come," she said of her student. "I wish everybody could have that positive attitude and that can-do attitude."
About Kuzel, Carter said, "She taught me how to walk."
Kuzel, who is married to an orthopedic surgeon, is evangelical about the physical and mental health benefits of ballroom dancing.
"I think ballroom dancing could heal the world," she said. "Honestly, it could create world peace. Because you can't have a dance class and leave unhappy."
Able to be more involved in his business, Carter spends a little less time at the dance studio now. For him, "less time" means at least one visit a week. "Dancing is something I'm going to do for the rest of my life," he said.
He also gets together almost every week with his good friend Don Solwold. They drink coffee, talk and pray together. Although they were friends before, they've bonded more deeply since the goring incident, Solwold said.
Solwold no longer sells buffalo meat, but he still raises buffalo. His current herd consists of "10 cows, one very happy bull" and seven calves, he said.
He patiently answered questions about his ranch, but pointed out that the story needed to be about Carter.
But it's not really about him, either, Carter said.
"This is really the story of a miracle," he said. "It's not the story of anything else."