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Jacob Eichelberger

Fargo teen lucky to survive cold, mother says

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DeAnn Eichelberger knew something was wrong with her son when the former high school hockey player tried to give her directions to pick him up from a New Year's Eve party.

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"He said, like, 'The puck's going south, Mom,' " she recalled.

For the next few hours, family members of Jacob Eichelberger frantically searched for the 18-year-old in subzero temperatures.

Someone eventually called police about a man screaming and pounding on the door of a south Fargo church. Officers found the jacketless teen suffering from hypothermia, his shoeless feet severely frostbitten.

He was rushed to Innovis Health in Fargo and airlifted to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he was listed in serious condition Monday.

His feet won't need to be amputated as doctors initially feared; he finds out Wednesday whether he gets to keep his toes.

"But he's alive," his mother said.

The North Dakota State University freshman had called his mother just after midnight to tell her he was going to drink his first soda in almost a year, she said, noting he'd lost 60 pounds after giving up fast food and pop.

He called her back about 1:30 a.m., "and he was acting really weird, and he was trying to come home," she said.

Family members went looking for him in Moorhead and north Fargo, places he had mentioned on the phone.

They also called Fargo police, who put an emergency trace on his cell phone, placing his last call within a mile of the tower near the Microsoft campus in south Fargo.

More than a dozen family members and friends scoured roads and fields in that area, DeAnn Eichelberger said.

"I was stopping people in the street," she said.

At 3:51 a.m., someone reported a male screaming and pounding on the front door of Calvary United Methodist Church at 4575 45th St. S. Police didn't release the caller's name, and staff at the church and its custodial service said they hadn't called.

DeAnn Eichelberger doesn't know who the caller was, either - only that it was "a blessing."

"I'm so glad they called the police, 'cause if they didn't, we would have been looking for this child, and we would have found him frozen," she said.

Jacob Eichelberger wrote on his CaringBridge journal Saturday that getting to Innovis Health and hearing that nearly half of his feet may need to be amputated was "the best news I got since I now knew that I was going to live."

"God must have been with me on Friday morning after leading me to a church where I was minutes away from leaving this world," he wrote.

Fargo police Sgt. Mark Lykken said alcohol appears to have been a factor in the incident. Police are investigating who supplied the alcohol to the minor, he said.

DeAnn Eichelberger said she hadn't yet spoken to her son about whether he drank alcohol that night.

Police are asking for help in finding Eichelberger's shoes, red flannel hooded coat and cell phone in the Osgood and Woodhaven subdivisions and the area around the church.

His mother said doctors told her that her son may have shed his shoes and jacket because hypothermia made him feel hot.

The phenomenon, called paradoxical undressing, occurs as the body moves from moderate to severe hypothermia, said Dr. Tony Hamilton, an emergency room physician at Innovis.

"They're so out of it, they don't realize that that's a problem," he said.

Eichelberger, a Fargo South graduate, will likely spend two to four weeks in the hospital, his mother said. Doctors began debridement, or removing dead skin, on Monday. It's unclear whether he will need skin grafts, she said.

Eichelberger's young age and lack of medical problems helped his chances of survival, Hamilton said, adding that the teen was "to the point where the potential for loss of extremities and cardiac irritability could cause death."

"He was very lucky," he said.

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