As the temperatures plummeted, Jay Mitchell huddled in his truck thinking he would die in the relentless cold.
He’d spent the past three weeks living in his vehicle. Cancer killed his wife a month earlier and he lost the month-to-month lease on his home in Randall, Minn. He had nowhere to go because he refused to give up his 10-year-old dog.
“He’s all I have left in the world,” Mitchell said from his hospital bed in the burn unit at HCMC. “All my other family is in the ground.”
Mitchell, 57, and his dog, Hero, moved into his ’94, single-bench seat pickup truck Jan. 2. He’d spent his meager savings to bury his wife, Kathy.
“I wanted to make sure her funeral was dignified,” he said.
He had taken care of her for two years and knew her death was inevitable. And yet, it seemed unfathomable that he would have to live on without her after 27 years of marriage.
“We had a love that a lot of people hope to find,” he said.
Grieving the love of his life, who “disintegrated before my eyes,” his sorrow soon was subsumed by a fight to stay alive.
He and Hero buried themselves under a pile of blankets in the truck, sleeping an hour at a time, turning on the engine every so often to gain some precious heat.
“It was pure survival, an hour at a time,” said Mitchell, who spent years working construction and odd jobs as a handyman. They moved from one Walmart parking lot to another, parking in the sun during the day, trying to stay out of harm’s way at night.
He felt desperation, solitude and fear, Mitchell said. “But the worst was not having hope.”
Mitchell drove by the Humane Society twice, figuring it was time to give up Hero and find shelter for himself. “But I couldn’t do it,” he said, anguish cutting into his words. He and his wife had a pact, pinkie-swearing never to leave each other behind. That’s why he never left her side as cancer ravaged her body, he said. And it’s why he refused to give up Hero, “who’s like my son,” Mitchell said.
He had to survive the elements until his Social Security check came Feb. 1. But eventually, the unforgiving cold pushed him to ask for help from people at a church. They offered to pay for a room at a Motel 6 for a week.
Within two hours of checking into the motel, Mitchell began to feel warm again. And then he felt the pain. Horrible blisters swelled up on his feet.
He had no idea his feet had gotten frostbite. “I hadn’t been warm for days,” he said. “My feet were cold but they weren’t in agonizing pain. They were just numb.”
Fifteen minutes after arriving at North Memorial Health Center, Mitchell was whisked away by ambulance to HCMC’s burn unit, where he was treated for severe frostbite.
Doctors there treated his injuries, which included restoring blood flow to his feet with the help of a drug — tissue plasminogen activator (tPA).
It’s a waiting game to determine whether the tissue will heal or if amputation is needed, said Dr. Ryan Fey, the hospital’s burn center director.
But Mitchell couldn’t wait. He insisted on getting back to Hero, a black lab-golden retriever mix. He left HCMC on Saturday against medical advice, promising to return once he found a place for Hero.
Days passed and the pain became unbearable. He couldn’t stand, and his feet were discolored, blistered and swollen.
When he woke up at 3 a.m. Wednesday, he didn’t think he could go on. “What am I going to do, Lord?” he prayed. “I think I’m dying.”
When the phone rang at 9 a.m., hope arrived. A hospital case worker had found a temporary home for Hero. He returned to HCMC, his calves red and swollen from infection.
“He’s responding to antibiotics,” Fey said. But there’s a chance doctors might have to amputate one or both feet.
In cases of severe frostbite, doctors have had “pretty good” luck salvaging tissue with the use of tPA, Fey said. The key is getting treatment within a few hours after the body warms up, he explained.
That’s the message Mitchell wants people to hear — seek treatment immediately.
“Don’t take it for granted,” he said. “It almost cost me my life.”