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Dec 2006: How Paulie Hynek died one night, and came to live again

Mike Nichols Mike Nichols

Pleasant Valley – It wasn’t unusual, when the nights got late on their small Eau Claire County dairy farm off state Road 93, for Mark and Cindy Hynek to lay the little ones down in playpens in the milk house connected to the barn.

That’s how it is on a family farm when you need to work and the kids, still tiny and unable to be left alone, need to sleep.

City dwellers don’t think about it, but all sorts of people “have been raised in a milk house,” said Mark, taking a short break from mucking out the barn, getting the stalls ready for fresh bedding. Or, even he says, “in a manger.”

Mark and Cindy are raising five themselves, although it was only four back on the night almost six years ago now that, they say, Paulie died.

“Well,” said Mark, when I asked him why he put it that way, “he was dead. He was dead. There was no heartbeat, no nothing.”

Paulie was barely 2 years old at the time. Matte was even younger. Marcus was 4 and Axton was 3.

They were asleep in the milk house by 8:30 p.m., and already had over five hours in by the time Mark and Cindy finished up with the cows that were calving.
It was 2 a.m. when Mark was finally able to head up to the house, carrying Marcus and Paulie the 200 feet through the snow. It was barely above zero and, by the time he got there, Paulie was wide awake.

He wanted to watch a movie, “Tigger Detective,” and since Mark hadn’t eaten all day and was making a can of soup, that was OK.

He gave Paulie a blanket and a pillow and some chocolate milk. He put him and Marcus down on the couch and popped the movie in and, exhausted, sat down on the La-Z-Boy right next to it.

“He was sitting there, sucking on his sippy cup,” said Mark, “watching his Tigger movie.”

You can’t see the side door that they use in the winter from the couch where Paulie was, or from the chair where Mark, tapped out, fell asleep. So when Cindy, who wasn’t feeling well, came in shortly thereafter with the other two and headed straight upstairs, they assume now, Paulie never saw her.

“He never knew,” said Mark, “that she had come in the house.”

He sat there and watched his movie, which – they know now – lasts exactly 42 minutes. It ended right around 3 a.m., and it was sometime shortly after that, they figure, that Paulie climbed down off the couch and went looking for his mom.

Dressed in a diaper and footie pajamas, he put on his coat and his little boots and looked in the place that seemed most logical.

He went outside.

The Hynek farm is eight miles south of Eau Claire. Development is getting closer, but isn’t there yet. Mark and Cindy and the kids are alone on their 160 acres and, in the dark, you can’t even see their tan farmhouse from the road.

There was fresh snow that night, and Paulie made it out the side door and about 50 feet toward the barn before he probably realized his mom wasn’t where he thought she was. The barn was dark.

He didn’t, or couldn’t, go any further.

But he also didn’t, or couldn’t, go back.

He stood there by a massive oak tree and turned in a tight, little circle around and around in the snow until, finally, he went into it. Somehow, he lost a boot and slipped down a small incline to the frozen ground.

If he yelled or cried, nobody heard it. The farmhouse is old, and in the winter they put plastic on the windows for a very good reason.

At 3 that morning – February 27, 2001 – the thermometer at the nearby Chippewa Valley Regional Airport read two degrees.

At 4 a.m., it went down to 1 degree.

At 5 a.m., it dropped below zero.

Mark and Cindy aren’t from Eleva. They purchased the farm in 1998, and didn’t know anyone, really, but the milkman and the breeder, says Cindy. By 2001, they had those four little kids under 5 years old and they had 72 cows and some new calves.

They don’t say this, but nobody works harder than a dairy farmer with little kids. That night, maybe, nobody was in more dire need of sleep, either.

Mark slept until about 6:30 a.m., and then he just lay there in that La-Z-Boy, he recalls, for about five minutes.

He doesn’t like to start the day without a shower, so he finally pulled himself up and walked over to the stairs and was just about to head up when something caught his eye.

The door that leads outside from a little foyer near the stairs was half open.

It was the end of February.

It was below zero out there.

Cindy would never leave a door open.

The fear and the adrenaline, says Mark, carried right down into his fingers. He turned around and saw Marcus asleep, alone, on the couch.

“Oh (expletive)!” he remembers saying.

He looked real quick in the house first, woke Cindy up. But he knew.

“We got a runner!” he yelled. “Paulie is not in the house.”

Outside, Mark looked in the doghouse near the door first. From where he was when he first ran out, he couldn’t see down the slope just on the other side of the big oak. But he could see, a little closer to him, a single boot in the snow.

Just beyond that, as Mark went toward it, was a tiny body.

Paulie was on his side, and curled up with his right hand on his chest. His left hand was outstretched and totally white. There was red blood on the snow.

Mark scooped him up. He listened for breathing. He checked for a heartbeat and felt the neck. Paulie’s eyes were wide open.

“I took my index finger and touched his open eyes,” said Mark. “There was nothing.”

He carried Paulie inside and put him on the floor and dialed 911 and asked for an ambulance while Cindy started CPR.

There is a tape of that call that Cindy keeps. Mark hasn’t heard it in years. It’s not the kind of thing, maybe, you can bear too often to relive. But they let me borrow it and I listened to it as I sat in my van right there by the old oak.

“Paulie . . . ” Mark says in what is less a question or even a pleading than, already, an unfathomable conclusion. “Paulie . . . ”

He doesn’t shout it. He just says it like he knows it is too late.

“There is nothing,” he told the dispatcher, despondent. “There is nothing. I have lost my boy.”

He wasn’t the only one convinced of it.

There was “definitely no pulse,” said Don Axelsen, the Eau Claire County sheriff’s deputy who was the first one on the scene, “no signs of any life.” Paulie was frozen to the point where he was literally getting stiff.

Axelsen started compressions while another deputy, Mike Molnar, tried to breathe some life into the boy. All that came back out with those same breaths that Paulie did not latch on to, said Axelsen, were little round ice cubes.

Paulie, he says, had “froze solid.”

“Mike and I had already made up our minds we were working on a dead child,” he said. “But we didn’t quit.”

Why, exactly, is hard to say.

“Part of it,” he said, was “more for the family.” Mark “was really hysterical and kept saying I should never have fell asleep.”

How do you tell a man that he woke up, but his boy won’t?

There were, within minutes, deputies and emergency medical technicians all over the place. There was also, very quickly, a helicopter that landed in a farm field.

Axelsen put Paulie inside his jacket and carried him to the chopper and sent him off to nearby Luther Midelfort Hospital – still not breathing. And who knows, all told, for how long?

Robert Wiechmann is a cardiac surgeon at Luther who worked on Paulie that morning and, although no one can say for sure how long Paulie’s heart had stopped, Wiechmann says it could have been have been “hours.”

“He fulfilled all the criteria of death,” is the way trauma surgeon Brad Grewe put it. “He had absolutely no signs of life.”

Mark thinks about those sorts of things sometimes when he is alone and working, life without Paulie. It is, he says, the “dark side,” and he doesn’t like to go there; won’t fully allow himself; wouldn’t even then – even when one of the EMTs at the house suggested that maybe they should start notifying family.

No.

Not yet.

Mark and Cindy are not overtly religious people. But Mark remembers walking out of the house that morning as Paulie was being carried off to the helicopter.

“I looked up at the morning sky and I made my little wish, my little prayer there,” he said.

“You give him back to me, and I will be there for him till the day I die.”

Cases of hypothermia are not infrequent in this state. But most of the time there is some marginal sign of life, said Grewe. The majority of the people, too, said Wiechmann, don’t make it. They asphyxiate, and relatively quickly.

Paulie was a little different. Unlike people in ice water, for instance, he kept breathing as his body slowly froze and his metabolism slowed down. By the time he stopped, his organs were not as much in need of oxygen. He could, for some time anyway, be without it.

You might say, said Wiechmann, that “Paulie died the perfect way.”

That didn’t necessarily mean he could live again. But it meant he had a chance.

There is a saying in medicine, according to Grewe, that “you are not dead until you are warm and dead.”

Severe cold, it turns out, should never beget presumption. They had to warm him up.

There are lots of ways to do that, to warm a body that is 30 degrees colder than it ought to be. Some of it is low-tech: heat lamps and blankets and warm intravenous solutions. Some of it is more invasive. They put tubes into the nose and the stomach and the bladder and run warm fluids through there.

In Paulie’s case, they went further.

They cracked open his chest and, for 90 minutes, put him on a heart-bypass machine.

Then, when they thought the time was right, they redirected his warmed blood into his heart.

As soon as the blood hit it, said Wiechmann, it started to fibrillate. They had to shock it only once before it developed a regular beat.

“It was incredible,” said Wiechmann, the heart surgeon. “I was convinced it was miraculous.”

Grewe, a man who lives his life as a trauma surgeon, was no less amazed.

“It was an incredible moment,” he said. “I don’t know how else to describe it. I don’t know that anyone expected it to happen.”

For all the joy, though, there was also concern, plenty of it, because a beating heart is only one of the things that makes a life.

“Well, OK,” Grewe says they thought, “it looks like he will live. But the question is will he be normal after he gets through all this?”

Will he even wake up?

Luther Midelfort wasn’t fully equipped to care for Paulie, but it is affiliated with the Mayo Clinic and by the time Paulie got out of surgery, a team from Rochester, Minn. – including the head of its pediatric intensive care unit, Randall Flick – was already there. Along with the new reality.

Hypothermia can cause problems ranging from brain swelling to organ damage. And Flick says he had never seen anybody who had been that hypothermic

“I told them at that time,” he said of Mark and Cindy, “we would do everything we could for Paulie.” But, he recalls as well, “I think I said he was unlikely to survive this.”

There wasn’t just that likelihood, moreover.

Cindy also remembers being told by someone in Eau Claire, before even seeing Paulie, that if he lived at all, he could be dependent on them for the rest of his life. When Cindy first saw him that day, she said, he was so bloated that he looked like he was a 4-year-old instead of just 2.

She was told that he might not even make it to Mayo.

He did, but there were issues she didn’t even know about.

Cindy learned only later that there was one young doctor in Minnesota who initially talked about amputating Paulie’s fingers until a more seasoned physician said no. Give it time.

It was five days, she says, before the sedatives were reduced enough that he could even start to wake up.

In Mayo’s Eugenio Litta Children’s Hospital, he would have to spend three weeks. And it was only toward the end of it that they realized, although he was in for a lot of therapy, he was going to be himself.

He surprised everyone, and maybe no one more than the experts.

“That is the other amazing part of this whole thing,” said Grewe, “that he had such a wonderful recovery.”

Things went so well, says Mark, that there was even some guilt about why they got to bring their child home after three weeks when so many other parents that they saw did not. But there was a deep appreciation, too.

You could hardly have been more alone, more isolated, than the Hyneks out on that farm.

“You think you are all alone?” said Mark. “You think there is no one out there to help you? You find out there are good people all over.”

Today, Paulie is almost 8 years old and in second grade at Eleva-Strum Primary School. But for a scar that runs from his collarbone to his sternum and some stiffness in some of the fingers, he is perfect.

He now uses those fingers to play baseball and basketball and do his chores. And a kid on a farm, even one who is only 7, has plenty of those. Just like he has plenty of dreams.

One of his older brothers told me he plans to be a farmer when he grows up.

“Me?” said Paulie, standing on a hill under a crisp sky near the cows he was about to help move into the barn. “A race car driver.”

“But,” he added, “I do have lots of tractors I like in the house.”

Paulie had a smile as big as that sky and wore a blue cap and a plaid shirt. He had boots on his feet, and he used them, shortly after that, to run up to the farmhouse and use the bathroom while the rest of the family, which now includes little Shelby, shoveled bedding into place for the cows in the barn.

“He is very strong-headed, of all the kids,” said Cindy. “To have him around, he is nice and quiet but, on the other hand, you get him with his brothers and he will hoot and holler and whoop it up.”

He’s a big reader and says that science is his favorite subject in school, because he always gets the answers right. Somehow, given the fact he is here at all, that seems apt.

But Mark and Cindy and Don Axelsen and even his doctor, Robert Wiechmann, all believe there’s more to Paulie, and more to the question of why he lived, than science.

Sure, the doctors were the best in the world. Mark and Cindy can’t thank them enough. But, says Mark, “I think that medicine can only go so far.”

The Hyneks don’t push religion on their five children. So they remember vividly a conversation they had with Paulie about a year after he froze. He was still only 3 and they were “just talking about stuff,” about him going outside.

He was back with them fully by then, but they maybe hadn’t realized quite how far he had gone.

“He told us,” said Cindy, “he had talked to God.”

“We said, ‘What do you mean?’ ”

“He said, ‘Oh, I talked to God.’ ”

Mark kind of shakes his head about that, jokes that Paulie had so many wires in him in the hospital that maybe it was actually possible.

But Mark is serious, too.

“He was 3 years old,” said Mark. “How can you call him a liar?”

Mark is a modest guy and doesn’t claim to know all the medical explanations. But he says he knows each of us has electricity in the body. He thinks of it as a light, sort of like the lights that shine in the sky at night in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and you’re not totally gone, he says, until that light flickers and goes out.

Why Paulie’s light continued to flicker on Earth that night can’t really be known, Mark suggests.

“What you are asking me about,” he said, “is a spiritual deal.”

Whatever the reason, there’s plenty of light on the farm now, even in the frigid black of winter.

Mark and Cindy have strung Christmas lights up on the roof of the barn, red and white, and you can see them from up by that oak.

I could see, too, the lights on inside the milk house and the barn as I sat up by that tree and listened to that tape while the whole family – but for Paulie – was down there shoveling fresh bedding for the cows, making what some folks still call the manger.

It was pitch dark already, and Mark’s voice echoed from the tape player.

“Paulie . . . ,” he called out. “Paulie . . . ”

And, just then, from the farmhouse, Paulie bounded by in his boots, right past that big oak tree and down into that barn.