The following is the first part in a series of two articles on Don Hamilton's brush with death and his subsequent recovery, as told by his family and himself.
When we think about them both, we tend to put Christmas and miracles in the same category. Both are fanciful and abstract, ideas rather than concrete objects. One can't touch Christmas, or measure a miracle. For Don Hamilton and his sister Ruth Richter, though, Christmas and miracles are linked for a different reason.
The fact that Don is alive is the perfect example of a miracle.
After a hunting accident, Don was left with almost no blood in his body. For an agonizing amount of time, he was technically dead. After being resuscitated, Don was trapped in a coma for more than a month. His doctors thought it was unlikely he would wake up. His friends set up a schedule for visiting the hospital so they could be sure someone would be with his parents when he died.
But 25 years after his accident, Don is living well. Other than some memory loss and issues with his wounded leg, Don suffers little impairment. He got married and raised a family. He received a promotion at the forklift dealership where he worked before the accident, and where he currently works as a manager. As much as he can, he leads a normal life. The circumstances that almost took away that life and then gave it back to him, though, are anything but normal.
Don's ordeal began early in the morning on Nov. 8, 1987, while he was deer hunting with friends east of Menahga. Don split off from the group to wait for deer. Since he was an experienced rock climber, he used a climbing harness to fasten himself in a tree while he waited. While he was leaning back in the harness, his gun slipped away from him and went off when it hit the ground. The bullet went through his leg, severing an artery.
"It just felt like my leg was on fire," Don remembered. "It was really bad pain. I didn't even think that I might die, I didn't think about anything else, I just thought it hurt really bad."
Don yelled that he had been shot, before he began slipping in and out of consciousness. Hearing his cries for help, his friends raced over and found him hanging in the tree. Then they frantically placed a tourniquet on his leg and put him on an ATV to get him out of the woods. The journey over rough terrain is one of the last things Don remembers before the coma.
"It was a pretty brushy area, and I just remember them telling me to cover my face because the brush was hitting my face as they were hauling me out," he said.
It took 45 minutes before Don was finally in an ambulance on his way to the nearest hospital in Park Rapids.
While he was en route, his sister Ruth got the news.
"My brother-in-law called ... it was 7 o'clock Sunday morning, so everyone was still in bed," she recalled. "I got up to answer the phone, and ... my brother-in-law said, 'Ruthie, there's been an accident, and your brother's been shot.'"
Ruth woke up the family and sped them to the hospital in Park Rapids. What they found there was heartbreaking. Don's wound wouldn't stop bleeding, to the point where the doctors needed more blood flown in from other places in order to try to make him stable. Those caring for Don soon realized he needed to go to a place that was better equipped to handle cases as serious as his, and he was transferred to North Memorial hospital in Robbinsdale, Minn. When his family caught up with him, his status had deteriorated. Doctors declared him brain dead, and wanted to talk about taking him off the machines keeping his body alive.
Don's family disagreed with taking him off the machines. The next morning the doctors thought they saw an improvement, and his family went into his room to visit him. Don's mother, Marilyn Hamilton, remembers what happened next.
"He kind of shook, and squeezed my hand a little bit," she said. "That was the only sign we had that there was any life. It was just like he heard me and understood."
Although Don would slip back into the coma, that small glimmer of hope may have been what helped his family through a trial that was to last for months. Little did they know that come Christmastime, their perseverance would be rewarded. They had no idea they would witness a miracle.