- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

RICE, Minn. (AP) - The last thing Josh Johnson remembers seeing, before his world went dark, is the muck at the bottom of the lake billowing up around him.

He’d just spent 45 agonizing minutes fighting to stay on the surface of the frigid lake. He’d watched a rescue boat make painfully slow progress, having to break its way through ice to reach him. The boat was barely 10 yards away, according to one rescuer, when Johnson could no longer move his arms.

So he sank.

Johnson’s fall through the ice on Little Rock Lake on Nov. 15, 2013, prompted an extraordinary rescue, long months of recovery, and an eventual change in his perspective and priorities. But as he slipped below the surface, Johnson said he doesn’t remember thinking anything at all.

“My body had given up. Everything was frozen,” he told the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1kl4But). “I hit the bottom, saw the sand poof up, and I was out.”

More than two years later, Johnson said he thinks a few times each week about his decision to go ice fishing that day. He alternates between wondering “how stupid could I be?” and insisting he had reason to believe the ice was safe.

Around 7 a.m. that Friday, Johnson, an avid ice-fisherman, tested the ice with his chisel the same way he always had. Before he left for the lake that morning his five-months-pregnant wife, Beth, told him the forecast called for a relatively warm day. She told him he “wasn’t going to be so lucky one of these times.”

But his chisel did not break through the ice when he swung it. So he went out to the middle of the lake and started fishing.

Around 9:30 a.m., Shane Sabraski drove past the lake after a morning of deer hunting near his Rice home. He spotted Johnson on the ice and couldn’t believe somebody would be ice fishing that day, with the temperature quickly rising into the mid-40s.

Johnson, meanwhile sat happily fishing as the day warmed up. Around 11 a.m., he got up from his seat. The ice he stood on bobbed like a cork in the water.

“All of a sudden,” he said, “I was pretty nervous.”

Johnson packed up his gear and headed for shore. About 100 yards out, cracks in the ice “spidered” out from under his feet in all directions. Ice fishermen know what that signals, he said.

“You’re done,” he said. “You’re going through. Run as fast as you can.”

Sabraski, the deer hunter, told his friend Neil Maidl what he had seen. Maidl didn’t believe it. So Sabraski brought him back to the clearing where he had seen Johnson before, expecting to be proven right.

But there was nobody there.

The friends could see a hole in the ice. Looking closer, they could see water splashing around inside the hole. They called 911 and ran to shore.

Sabraski said he walked 50 yards out onto the lake before it started “cracking like crazy.” He shouted to Johnson that help was on the way. He asked him his name, and told him to hang on a little longer. Maidl dashed off to find a boat he could borrow from the yard of a nearby resident. That was around 11:25 a.m.

DNR Officer Tony Musatov was the first emergency responder on the scene. According to a Benton County Sheriff’s Office report, Musatov briefly fell through the ice while attempting to reach Johnson. Musatov, Sabraski and Maidl got in the borrowed boat and began breaking their way through the ice to reach Johnson. Many of the emergency responders specifically remember thinking it “took forever” to get there.

The three men took turns tossing an anchor in front of the boat, then dragging the boat ahead, busting up the sheet of ice on their way. Sabraski said they were “completely shot” from the effort.

Soon, Rice Fire and Rescue arrived on scene. Chief Scott Janski said he entered the water wearing an ice rescue suit, ready to help lift Johnson into the boat when it reached him.

At 11:55 a.m., according to the sheriff’s report, Johnson slipped below the surface. The fire department supplied the boat with a hook, which the men dragged along the bottom of the lake until they happened to snag Johnson’s leg. The hook sunk into his boot, and rescuers pulled him from the lake upside down. Sabraski said he still remembers Johnson’s blue eyes stuck open as he emerged.

He had been at the bottom of the lake 20 minutes.

“Usually when someone goes under that long, you’re just thinking recovery,” Janski said.

“It was tough that day,” Sabraski said. “We figured we didn’t get to him in time.”

John Castro, a cardiac surgeon at St. Cloud Hospital, said Johnson came into the hospital “an icicle,” with no cardiac activity. CPR had failed to restart his heart on the way to the hospital.

“We hoped that being so cold would preserve his brain and organs,” he said. “Like frozen food.”

Castro and his team decided on a plan of action. He admits now he thought there was at most a 10 percent chance of success. He said he told Johnson’s wife Beth that the operation was “a moonshot.” But he said he also knew how much effort had gone into the dramatic rescue from the lake.

“So I wasn’t going to be the guy who said, ‘No, this isn’t going to work, let’s call it off,’ ” he said.

Surgeons tried to warm Johnson up by sending warm water into his chest through tubes. He wouldn’t warm up. They used a Lucas CPR device, which provided continual chest compression. His heart was still too cold to begin pumping, Castro said.

Castro said doctors used a technique called ECMO to drain all Johnson’s blood, oxygenate it and pump it back into him, keeping him on life support long enough to begin warming up. Finally he did, and was flown by helicopter to the University of Minnesota, where a full-time ECMO unit could keep him alive.

“St. Cloud Hospital didn’t know if I’d make it to the U of M,” Johnson says now. “And the U of M said I had a 5 percent chance of making it through the night.”

Against the odds, Johnson pulled through. He was in a medically induced coma for two full months. When he awoke, he couldn’t stand up because his legs went unused for so long. He demanded to go home in mid-January, even though he says now that he “wasn’t all there yet.”

Johnson remembers sitting in the same chair in his house day after day, lifting himself just above the seat to rebuild his strength.

While he was incapacitated, Johnson’s partner in a tree-service business had to find other work. Two years later, Johnson says he has made a full physical and medical recovery, but he still has not gotten in “the right mindset” to pick up new business.

“I pick up odd jobs, but the part of running my own business is just not there for me anymore,” he said. “Getting out and finding business on my own is harder than it was.”

That has given him more time for a job he is putting more emphasis on since the accident: fatherhood. Johnson’s third child was born two months after he got out of the hospital.

“I used to work out of town constantly, and I wouldn’t look at my kids’ feelings about it as much,” he said. “Now, if I’m gone for a day or two, I’ve got to get home. I spend so much more time with them.

“As far as being a better husband and father, the accident opened my eyes a lot.”

But one thing it did not change is his attitude toward his favorite hobby - though he said he’s been smart enough to stay off the ice during this warm winter. His first purchase after waking from his coma: A brand-new ice-fishing house.

“I try to buy fishing gear and people at the stores say, ‘What are you doing?’ ” he said. “I’m getting back out there as soon as I can.”


Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com

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