MASON CITY - State Rep. Linda Upmeyer, a nurse at what was then St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in 1993, remembers when Clear Lake snowmobiler Ward Krenz arrived the night of March 21.
Krenz, 31, had driven into an open spot on Clear Lake and was submerged for 50 minutes in ice cold water.
“He wasn’t breathing. His heart wasn’t beating. He was essentially dead,” she said of Krenz when he arrived at the hospital.
His body temperature was 74 degrees.
Mercy nurse Bryan Williams, an EMT and diver with the Clear Lake Fire and Rescue Squad in 1993, remembers being in the hospital with Krenz “for quite a while.”
He talked with Krenz’ father, Elmer, who had driven down in heavy snow from New Ulm, Minn.
“I think he was very grateful and appreciative of everything everybody did” — the police, nurses, doctors, nurses, rescue squad, Williams said.
“It was pretty amazing, but at the time you just kind of do your job. I don’t think anyone realized how ground-breaking it was.”
Elmer Krenz, who later died in 2006, had been called by the hospital and told his son had died, Ward Krenz said.
“He was planning my funeral on the way down there.”
Krenz said his father was with him almost every day and night at the hospital.
“I think it took a toll on him,” he said.
Mason City cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Daniel Waters was at home in bed when he was called to the hospital by emergency room physician Dr. Dorothy Lawse.
“Dorothy Lawse had the presence of mind to call me immediately,” Waters said. “I actually made it to the emergency room before (Krenz) got there.”
Krenz’ heart had stopped beating for two to three hours, “which is a really long time,” Waters said.
Waters called in perfusionist Mike Belz, who operates the portable cardiopulmonary bypass machine — known as a heart-lung machine — and other members of the heart team.
The heart-lung machine mimics the heart and lungs, taking blood from the body, oxygenating it, and, in this case, warming it, then pumping it back into the body, Belz said.
Use of the machine requires stopping the patient’s heart for a very short time.
In the absence of family members, Waters asked Krenz’s friends if they thought there was any reason Krenz might not want them to use the device.
“The hardest thing in this whole case was making the decision to do it,” he said. “I worried we’d get a functional resuscitation but that the brain would never come back. That would be a sad scenario.”
A perfusionist since 1977, Belz had only been at Mercy since about 1990. It was the first cold-water rescue he had seen, having come from Texas and Kentucky.
“The biggest worry was whether the brain had suffered too much damage,” he said.
Although the cold reduces the body’s demand for oxygen, you can only go so cold before the body freezes, Belz said. He had to make sure the body warmed up slowly and in a controlled manner.
Waters made the decision to treat Krenz in the emergency room rather than the operating room that night because there was a small window of time when Krenz would be cold enough for the resuscitation to work.
“I remember that we started and there were all these people out in the hallway, hospital employees, who wanted to see it. It was something nobody had ever seen before.”
Waters also remembers the EKG was flat and then all of a sudden they got a very irregular heartbeat.
“Then we shocked him.”
Waters’ most vivid memory of the experience is the moment when Krenz took an involuntary breath, his body twitched, and the heartbeat came back.
“Then I thought, ‘this might work,’” Waters said.
He remembers telling Krenz’s father and stepmother, “We got him back.”
“I think his father was stunned.”
But he also told them they’d have to wait and see how Ward woke up and how he did after that.
It took 18 hours before Ward Krenz woke up. The next big step was to see if he woke up OK, Waters said.
“That’s when I breathed a sigh of relief.”
After the accident, Krenz went through three months of extensive rehabilitation at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, where he learned to walk again, talk again and regain the use of his hands and fingers.
He heard that his snowmobile was recovered from the lake sometime after the accident, repaired and sold.
He no longer snowmobiles, although he was never that into it, Krenz said.
Fully recovered from the accident with no residual effects and working for the railroad, Krenz thinks it is probably fortunate that he doesn’t remember much about the night he nearly died.
He still comes back to visit Clear Lake from time to time and people here still remember him, he said.
He also stays in touch with Waters.
“I thank him every time I talk to him,” Krenz said. “He’s a super human being.”
He is grateful, too, to Lawse for calling Waters in to help that night, and to all the rest of the health care and rescue workers.
Although reluctant to talk about what he experienced while clinically dead, Krenz now tells people death is something beautiful.
“Don’t be afraid of dying,” he said.