Jerry Nelson: Date with destiny

Jerry Nelson Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

We all have dates that are indelible memories. Your wedding day, a child’s birth, that time you nearly landed a walleye the size of your canoe.

There’s a particular day in 1988 that I’ll never forget, even though I can’t recall most of it. This is because July 10th was the day that I was supposed to die.

A scorching Sunday morning. Rushing through chores on our family dairy farm. Glancing into the manure pit and discovering that the manure pump had plugged. Crap!

But I know how to fix this. Just climb down into the pit and unplug the pump with a spud bar. Nothing to it. I’ve done it dozens of times.

Bending over with the spud bar in my hand, the manure inches from my face. Suddenly feeling really weird. It’s the gas! Get out, NOW!

Beginning the climb up and out. I can see the sky, hear the tractor idling. Then everything abruptly fading to black. I cannot recall much of the next three weeks.

Dad finding me in the pit, unconscious, floating face-up in the manure. He and Mom placing the 911 call no parent ever wants to make.

The First Responders hauling me out of the pit. No respiration, can’t find a pulse. Ambulance whisking me to a local hospital.

My wife, who was in town for groceries, almost being T-boned by another car. Its driver, a First Responder, shouting, “Get to the hospital! He’s still breathing!”

At the ER, the attending physician telling my family that I’ve inhaled hydrogen sulfide. Zero chances for survival.

My wife absorbing that at age 29 she’s about to become a widow with two young sons. Keeping her wits about her and asking the doctor if I’m still alive. Yes. Barely.

Then call the chopper. Get him to Sioux Falls. Doctor replying, you don’t understand. There is no hope. My wife saying, I don’t care. Call. The. Chopper.

Arriving at a Sioux Falls hospital. Diagnosis: collapsed right lung, diffuse pulmonary infiltrates, manure aspiration, anoxic encephalopathy. Odds of survival are perhaps 50/ 50 – if I make through the next seven days.

ARDS – acute respiratory distress syndrome – becoming part of my family’s lexicon. My wife, who never leaves my side, giving me a sponge bath and being assailed by the stench of rotten eggs. The hydrogen sulfide is sweating its way out.

On the seventh day, me indicating to my wife that I can’t breathe despite being intubated and on a respirator. Doctors being summoned. Diagnosis: my swelling lungs are suffocating themselves. Nothing more can be done. Call the family. This is it.

My wife again refusing to give up and asking the doctor to consult with Mayo Clinic. He does and is advised to inspect my lungs with a bronchoscope. Discovering that blood clots are blocking major airways. The plugs are removed and I can breathe again.

From my point of view: the first three weeks following the accident are a blur of fantastic hallucinations and painful realities. I don’t know which is which.

Gradually being weaned off the narcotics as my pulmonary function improves. Clear thinking returning like a slowly-breaking midwinter dawn.

It occurs that I’m in a hospital bed. I am catheterized and am breathing through a tube protruding from the base of my throat. A forest of IV poles sitting at my bedside and my right ribcage aching. Inspection reveals stitches where chest tubes had been.

I don’t belong here! I have farming to do, cows to milk. Trying to exit the bed and the respirator emitting earsplitting whoops. A nurse sprinting into the room, reattaching the respirator to my tracheotomy tube. The nurse admonishing, “You be good! You want me to tie you down again?” Surmising that I’ve been a bad patient.

From that point on, slow but steady improvement. It’s a big deal when I am hoisted from the bed and placed in a recliner. Sitting upright for the first time in a month leaves me feeling woozy.

The urinary catheter and pulmonary artery catheter being removed. Relearning how to walk in Physical Therapy. My wife ordering in a Godfather’s Classic Combo pizza. I can only manage one slice, but it’s the best meal I’ve ever had.

One day, when it’s clear that I might soon be discharged, inviting my wife onto my hospital bed. Snuggling for the first time in several weeks, we quickly fall asleep. Getting caught by a nurse, who simply smiles and quietly closes the door.

Coming home to a huge “Welcome Home” banner and family and cake and hugs. Just like a birthday party. Which, in a way, it was.

And thirty years on, feeling deeply grateful that I’m still here.

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.