Duluth woman: Freezing and alone, waiting to die

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 8, 2009 - 10:51 AM

ER doctors said the Duluth woman was the coldest person they'd ever seen. "I'm a good old Norwegian," Janice Goodger said, unfazed by her recovery.

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Janice Goodger

Photo: Derek Montgomery, Duluth News-Tribune

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Janice Goodger was ice-cold, and her heart was no longer beating.

The 64-year-old Duluth woman had been lying unconscious and hypothermic on an icy driveway in freezing cold for at least four hours before her horrified daughter found her.

"She looked dead," said Dr. Chris Delp, an emergency room doctor at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. "There was no movement, and her skin was so white."

Goodger, whose body temperature was in the 70s when she arrived in the emergency room and then dropped to an even more dangerous level of 60, was the coldest person Delp, a 13-year emergency-room veteran, or his colleagues had ever seen.

But there's a saying in the emergency room, he said: "You're not dead until you're warm and dead."

That was Dec. 27.

On Wednesday, more than a week after leaving the hospital, Goodger didn't sound fazed by her near-death experience. "I'm a good old Norwegian," she said.

That freezing day, Goodger was at her daughter's home caring for her black Labrador while the family was out of town. At about 5 p.m., she went into the back yard and slipped on some ice.

Goodger, who has severe rheumatoid arthritis, couldn't get up.

Sprawled on her back, she lifted her backside and "walked like a crab" about 50 feet to her car through deep snow. By the time she reached the driveway, her clothes were soaked and her strength was gone. She couldn't pull herself up.

She lay spent between her car and a snowbank, waiting for her daughter to return. Darkness was falling and the temperature, which had hung at 21, began to creep down. She curled up inside her long red wool coat, took off her scarf and wrapped it around her legs.

"I was wearing two layers of [long underwear] on top and bottom, a turtleneck and slacks," she said. "I always dress warm because I'm always cold. I hate the cold."

As the wet clothes pulled the warmth from her body, she shivered uncontrollably. At 5 feet 9 and 120 pounds, Goodger has no body fat to inslate her.

There was no one to call out to, so she lay silently. "I didn't know if I was going to die or not," she said. "I'm not that religious, but I said, 'Now I'm in God's hands. ... I'm not afraid of death. If it comes, it comes. If it doesn't, it doesn't.'" Soon she lost consciousness.

At about 9 p.m., Goodger's daughter, Traci Petrich, and her family pulled into the driveway. Seeing her mother, who was fighting to breathe, Petrich burst from the car. Her 6-year-old daughter, Allicia, asked if she could get blankets for her grandma.

Petrich worked to free her mother, who was partly wedged under her car, as the ambulance arrived.

That's when Goodger's heart stopped.

An astounding recovery

As body temperatures drop to dangerous levels, the heart becomes unstable, Delp said. Any movement can stop the heart.

But the ambulance and firefighter crews who arrived on the scene knew exactly what to do, Delp said. They immediately began chest compressions to keep blood circulating in Goodger's body, preventing damage to her brain and other organs. They also knew not to try to restart her heart because of the dangers it poses until the body is warmed, Delp said.

With Goodger's heart stopped, medical workers continued the chest compressions for at least 45 minutes, and Delp and his colleagues in the emergency room pumped warm air through a tube down her throat and warm fluids intravenously through her body.

Goodger was taken to the operating room, where her body could be warmed quicker by a cardiothoracic surgeon who drained her blood, warmed it and then returned it to her. Less than two hours after she arrived in the emergency room, doctors restarted Goodger's heart.

Still, doctors told her daughter to prepare for the worst. Her mother might not survive. And if she did, she might suffer neurological problems.

Petrich talked to her mother as she lay unconscious. "I said, 'You know I love you, but I'm at peace for you to go up to heaven with your sister. But I know how much you love your grandchildren, and I know you would love to be here to watch them grow up.'"

Goodger had moved four months ago from North Dakota to be closer to her daughter and three grandchildren.

'I want my grandchildren'

A half-hour after Petrich went home, Goodger stunned nurses and doctors by waking up. Goodger said she had heard her daughter's words.

"I thought to myself, 'I don't want to go up and see my sister,'" she said. "I want my grandchildren."

When Delp arrived the next day, he expected Goodger to be on life support. Instead, she was "chatting me up. I was floored," he said. "We see a fair share of tragedy in the ER and to have something like this will keep me going for many years."

Delp, a Colorado native, is surprised there aren't more cases of severe hypothermia in the northland. "But I think these are Garrison Keillor's people. They dress warmly. They're sensible."

As for Goodger, she plans to modify her shoes. "I'm going to glue sandpaper on the bottoms so I don't slip," she said. "It worked for me when I lived in North Dakota."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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