(From Nov. 2015)
By Trevor Hass
Rick Peterson gazed forward and saw someone in the distance waving and calling for help. Right away, he knew something was wrong.
Peterson, Spectrum High School’s cross country coach and athletic director, sprinted across the field at Kliever Park toward Nate Hackbarth, the student who beckoned him.
Next to Hackbarth, sophomore Nevin Sagstetter lay on the ground in an unresponsive state. Peterson thought Sagstetter was having a seizure, and Sagstetter’s breathing was sporadic.
Assistant coach Amy Cornelius swooped in from the other direction as Peterson tended to Sagstetter. He could tell Sagstetter’s breathing was getting even worse, as the gaps between breaths grew longer.
Peterson, who spent 17 years as a paramedic, gave Sagstetter mouth to mouth resuscitation and compressions, but Sagstetter’s breathing stopped altogether minutes later. He was in cardiac arrest.
Cornelius called 911, Hackbarth returned with a First Aid Kit and the medics arrived. Peterson had worked with that same emergency crew years ago, and Cornelius said everything fell into place.
“It was amazing to watch, because they just kind of all fell into this natural routine of what they used to do,” Peterson said. “It was like I was witnessing miracle upon miracle with what was going on.”
Sagstetter was whizzed in an ambulance to Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids and later helicoptered to Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He’s currently rehabbing in Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, and is scheduled to return to his Zimmerman home for good two days before Thanksgiving, more than a month ahead of schedule.
For Sagstetter to be walking, talking and learning again is remarkable to those close to him. The incident happened Tuesday, Sept. 22, and less than seven weeks later Sagstetter is doing unfathomably well.
“I’m so thankful that he was where he was at when it happened and that help was there,” Nevin’s mother, April Sagstetter, said. “He could have just been out running on his own and been laying there, and who knows what would have happened then.”
April Sagstetter was heading home when she got the phone call no parent wants to receive. Amy Cornelius was on the other line, and Cornelius tried to speak as calmly as she could to convey the facts to Sagstetter.
Cornelius drew from the bravery and poise her mother showed when she was a child and ambulances appeared at her house multiple times to whisk her sister – who dealt with juvenile diabetes – to the hospital. Cornelius, now a mother herself, knew she couldn’t panic, just like her mother didn’t.
Telling Sagstetter her giggly, sarcastic, intelligent son was in critical condition wasn’t easy, but Cornelius’ motherly instincts kicked in immediately. From one mother to another, Cornelius delivered the news, and Sagstetter – who was surprisingly just as calm – rushed to the fields right away.
“She was in perfect mom mode,” Cornelius said of Sagstetter.
April Sagstetter called Nevin’s father, Tom, at 5:05 p.m. telling him the news. When April and Tom Sagstetter arrived at Mercy Hospital, unable to see their son, April remembers the nurse coming their way and informing them that the chopper had arrived.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, they’re not talking about Nevin.”
But they were. At that point, Tom and April thought their son might have suffered a seizure. They had no idea he had stopped breathing. No heartbeat. No pulse. Nothing.
“We didn’t have a clue how bad it was until we got to Mercy and they were loading him on the helicopter,” Tom Sagstetter said.
The horrific whirlwind of an evening continued, as the chopper took off and rushed Sagstetter to the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital.
Nevin Sagstetter was sedated and cooled for 72 hours straight. He was on a respirator and was out cold.
Day by day, progress was made. Small victories, such as removing the Electroencephalogram measuring his brain activity, became huge victories.
“He was literally covered with tubes and wires,” Tom Sagstetter said, “but day by day things started disappearing.”
The doctors had Nevin scratch his head, scratch his leg, squeeze his father’s hand, to distinguish between purposeful and non-purposeful movements. They wanted to decipher whether his movements were reflexes, or if he was consciously aware he was doing something. It was a brutal exercise, but one that had to be done to determine exactly where he was at physically and mentally.
Nevin Sagstetter is Spectrum’s second fastest runner. He loves nothing more than to move around. In those first few days at Children’s, he was deprived of that passion. Sitting in bed resting was a challenge, but without a diagnoses and without an implant in his chest, moving wasn’t an option.
Once he got a defibrillator in place to monitor his heart rate and a pacemaker to ensure his heart beats in rhythm, Sagstetter gradually began to do some of the things he’s accustomed to.
In fact, he made such steady progress that he was sent to another location – Gillette in St. Paul – on Oct. 12.
When Nanette Aldahondo, pediatric rehabilitation medicine specialist at Gillette, first met Sagstetter, the cross country runner was cooped up in a wheelchair and largely unaware of his surroundings.
Since then, in less than three weeks, she’s seen him regain the ability to walk to and from his therapy sessions. Though cognitive redevelopment isn’t occurring quite as rapidly as physical improvement, Aldahondo has seen Sagstetter make tremendous strides since she’s started working with him.
“He’s out of the danger zone medically,” Aldahondo said. “We still keep track of all those things and we monitor his heart, but we’ve really shifted the focus to physical, occupational, speech therapy.”
Sagstetter’s day is long and tiring. He starts school in the hospital between 8 and 9 a.m., takes classes until 3 to 4:30 p.m. and has a lunch break in the middle. He does therapy in addition to school, so every-day life can be exhausting.
“He’s pretty tired by the time 8 o’clock rolls around,” Tom Sagstetter says, turning to Nevin and smiling. “Usually you’d make it to 10 or 11.”
“Not anymore,” Nevin replies, smiling back at him.
On Wednesday, Oct. 28, Sagstetter looked at a computer screen with 100 dots on it. He moved the mouse and clicked on three different colors of dots – 100 in total.
“You actually were clicking on them so fast that the little computer couldn’t keep up,” Tom Sagstetter said to his son.
Nevin’s physical progress has been astounding, but his mental ability is lagging behind. First he started to walk, and now he can do so close to normally, however he believes he has started to run when in reality he hadn’t done so as of late October. He’s briskly power walked, but he hasn’t jogged quite yet.
When his father tells him he hasn’t run yet, Nevin grins and concedes. “OK, fine,” he says. He’s played Zoom Ball – a game involving a buoy and knocking things out of his parents’ hands – and now he’s starting to bike and swim.
It’s clear Sagstetter desperately wants to run, but considering there was the possibility he wouldn’t ever walk again less than two months prior, he’s ecstatic just to be alive and regaining his health.
“I didn’t know (if he would live),” Peterson said. “He had been in cardiac arrest for a long time at the scene. I don’t think there were any of us that knew at that time how this was going to turn out, not only if he would live but how much function he would regain.”
It was an unimaginably nightmarish scene for Peterson. Having to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on one of his athletes and not knowing whether someone whom he considers family would live.
But he did live, and since that day Peterson and Co. have done everything they can do ensure the Sagstetters know Nevin is on their minds. They made green wristbands with white writing that reads,” Running with Nevin,” as well as white T-shirts that say, “#forNevin” in blue block lettering, with black and white shading, on the front and feature the Spectrum mascot with a cross country logo on the back.
Amy Cornelius recalls eating pancakes and donuts with Nevin and his teammates after Saturday morning meets. She remembers going to Camp Shamineau in Motley, Minnesota, and watching Nevin running, paintballing, horseback riding and shooting rifles with his friends. The camp also had something called the blob, that Nevin loved, where kids would sit on the far end, and parents and coaches would jump off and launch them into the water. The memories are limitless, which is why those close to Sagstetter have constantly checked up on him to make sure he’s doing OK.
The Sagstetters have appreciated the overwhelming number of requests they’ve received to visit Nevin. They’ve had to decline some so he can stick to his tight schedule, but they’ve welcomed many others.
Tom Sagstetter set up a CaringBridge account to give family and friends updates about his son’s progress. He said the last time he checked the site, more than 3,200 people had viewed it. The Spectrum volleyball team brought Sagstetter a gift basket, and coaches and runners from other teams have reached out as well.
“They’ve been really supportive,” Nevin Sagstetter said. “People visiting me from school, and all the people from the cross country team, a lot of them have visited, which makes it really nice because it’s nice to talk to them and see them. It makes my stay here a lot better to know that they’re supporting me.”
While having visitors at the hospital is fun for Sagstetter, returning home is even better. And on Sunday, Oct. 25, he had that opportunity for the first time in more than a month.
They arrived home around 10 a.m. watched the Vikings beat the Lions, 28-19, played with his yellow lab, Kenya, and his cats. The family barbecued, Nevin saw his 13-year-old sister, Nicole, and he chatted with his grandmother and grandfather about the new lake they moved to – a prime spot for both hunting and fishing.
“I can’t wait,” Nevin Sagstetter said. “I’m more than ready to go to the lake.”
Nevin Sagstetter reclines peacefully in a wooden and cushioned chair in front of a flat-screen TV in a meeting room on the fourth floor at Gillette at 11:06 a.m. on Oct. 28. He’s sporting his green Spectrum cross country jacket, black sweatpants and an infectious smile.
His father, wearing a gray hooded Spectrum Sting sweatshirt, sits to his right, and his mother, donning the #forNevin shirt, rests diagonally from him.
They don’t know what the future holds, but they hope they can put this terrifying chapter of their lives behind them. The climb toward becoming the fully functioning person he was two months ago is a daunting one, but Tom and April are confident their son will continue to shatter expectations.
“I’m more of a spontaneous person, but it’s really hard to plan for what’s going to happen six months from now because we don’t know what you’re going to do that’s going to surprise us,” Tom Sagstetter says, looking at Nevin. Then he pauses and laughs. “Don’t worry about that, just keep going. Keep surprising us. It’s all good, man.”
There’s still no exact diagnosis. Doctors have run plenty of tests, but they haven’t deduced the cause of the incident. The Sagstetters hope they won’t have to change too much to the setup of their house once Nevin returns Nov. 24.
Tom and April Sagstetter now know that awful things happen to amazing kids, but they’re just relieved their son is still with them.
“It’s truly a miracle that he’s alive,” Tom Sagstetter said, tears swelling in his eyes.
Then he turned to his 15-year-old son, who nearly died before he did, and placed his left hand on Nevin’s left shoulder.
“You are our miracle boy,” he said. “You are amazing.”