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'Miracle Man' Defies the Odds

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As she got ready for church on a September Sunday back in 2018, Carolyn Harkness heard a faint call for help from her husband down in the living room.

“I heard him call and I rushed downstairs,” Carolyn says. “He wasn’t very loud because he didn’t have any breath.”

Carolyn found Dale leaning against a pillar between the front hallway and the living room in pain so severe he could barely speak. He was trying to remain upright because he was struggling to find his breath in a seated position. Overwhelmed by the pain, he soon slumped to the floor.

“I got weak and it felt like someone threw boiling hot water on me. I went down and had a hard time getting back up,” Dale recalls of that morning. As he dropped to the floor, Carolyn called 911.

“I thought I was having an allergic reaction of some sort, so we called for the ambulance,” Dale says.

Within minutes, a law enforcement officer arrived at the couple’s farm eight miles north of Elk Point, SD. The officer helped get Dale into a seated position to ease his breathing. As soon as the ambulance arrived, they loaded Dale and sped to the Emergency Department in nearby Vermillion, SD.

When Dale arrived, the care team attended to his pain while performing a series of tests to try to sort out what was happening. It soon became apparent that Dale would need a more advanced level of care. Dale and Carolyn informed the providers in Vermillion they would like to be transferred to UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s in Sioux City.

One Thing After Another
Upon arrival at St. Luke’s physicians suspected Dale was suffering from sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition caused by the body's response to an infection. In Dale’s case, it appeared the underlying condition was an allergic reaction – something Dale had experienced in the past. In most cases, the body normally releases chemicals into the bloodstream to fight an infection like Dale’s.

But when sepsis occurs, the body's response to these chemicals is out of balance, triggering changes that can damage multiple organ systems.

For Dale, it was his kidneys most acutely impacted.

“My kidneys just shut down,” Dale says.

Carolyn adds, “He continued to have the allergic reaction, the kidneys weren’t functioning right and there were so many other things. It was like his body was shutting down, they even talked about him needing dialysis at one point, so they moved him to intensive care.”

Only the Beginning
With aggressive treatment of his sepsis underway, Dale was unknowingly at the front end of what turned into a cascade of serious health scares. Just as he began to respond to the heavy medications he was on, he had a serious heart attack.

“I started to shake and my heart began to hurt so bad and they asked me what was happening,” says Dale, who was being attended to by the team in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the time. “I told them that it felt like I had a train going in three different directions in my heart and that’s when they knew I was having a heart attack.”

“When he had the heart attack, there was really nothing they could do because he was on so many medications to treat the sepsis and everything else that was going on,” Carolyn adds. “He had to fight on his own until they could wean him off some of those medications to give him something to slow down his heart.”

The odds were against Dale surviving the attack. As a result, his physicians recommended the family gather to be with him.

“My daughter and I had gone home quick to get a change of clothes,” Carolyn says. “While we were there my grandson called and said we needed to get right back to the hospital. At the same time, our son from Tucson was landing at the Sioux Falls airport. I texted him and told him to come right to the hospital and to not even stop for food.”

Dale’s cardiac care was overseen by Jon Peacock, FACC, MD, a non-invasive cardiologist with UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Cardiology and Cardiovascular Associates.

“Dale was dealing with a ‘perfect storm’ situation,” Dr. Peacock says. “His case was incredibly complex to manage because of how many of his vital systems were impacted at once. The immediate hours after the heart attack were touch-and-go. His sheer will to live was undoubtedly a factor in saving him.”

“Once we were able to wean him off some of the medications addressing his sepsis,” Dr. Peacock adds, “we became confident we could administer therapies that would stabilize his condition.”

Another Setback
As family assembled, Dale’s condition remained critical. But minute by minute, as Dr. Peacock and the care team had hoped, he showed modest improvement. Soon, he was out of the woods—just in time for another serious diagnosis.

This time, it was cancer.

The cancer in his lymph nodes showed up in a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. The diagnosis “came out of left field” and further complicated Dale’s treatment, increasing the number of physicians serving him to six.

Recognizing the stress Dale’s continued cascade of health issues presented, Carolyn says the ICU staff worked hard to ensure the family was cared for. When they felt it would give the couple an emotional boost, they encouraged Carolyn to lie in bed with Dale. Knowing that the Harkness family was large and coming from long distances away, arrangements were made to keep them as close to Dale as possible.

“It started right away,” Carolyn says. “They made sure we had a place to stay in The Levitt Guest Center so I didn’t have to go back-and-forth the 30 miles home each day and our children and grandchildren who came from further away could remain with Dale and have a place to sleep. They took care of the whole family.”

The team also made open and clear communication on Dale’s progress a top priority.

“Everyone was so good at explaining everything to us,” Carolyn says. “The nurses always took the time to be sure we understood what the doctors said and when we didn’t, they would explain it to us to make sure we did.”

The Miracle Man
The cancer diagnosis wound up being the peak of Dale’s health issues. Within days of the diagnosis, he began to show marked improvement. As he began to gain strength, his care team gave him a nickname.

“The doctors and the nurses on the sixth floor started calling me the ‘Miracle Man’,” Dale says, smiling. “They didn’t think I was going to make it because I had so much wrong with me and I just started coming out of it. I had three doctors in the room at one point and they said they didn’t understand it and they couldn’t believe it.”

Dale and Carolyn have no doubts their miracle was made possible by the care team at St. Luke’s – with a bit of an assist.

“If I had been anywhere else, I don’t feel like I would have made it,” Dale says. “The doctors and nurses there gave me 100% of what I needed to pull through.”

“The doctors were great, and the nurses were wonderful, but ultimately, it was God,” Carolyn adds. “It was God working through those wonderful caregivers.”

The outpouring of support in the form of prayer continued to inspire Dale and Carolyn after he was discharged from St. Luke’s. Swiftly and surely, Dale gained his strength back, receiving an additional boost from an unexpected test result just days after he returned home.

“Once he was released from the hospital, all of the prayer began working,” Carolyn says. “He just started getting better and no one could explain why. About a week after he was released, he went back for a PET scan for the cancer and there was absolutely no cancer. It was gone. It was like God reached down and healed him.”

Better Than Ever
Now months removed from his harrowing ordeal, Dale is back to farming corn, beans, hay and attending to his cattle. He has also returned to his hobby of rehabbing and painting old tractors.

“It turned out my hospital stay was just a nine-day vacation where I couldn’t leave town,” Dale says with a chuckle. “Really, though, if they hadn’t done what they did, I wouldn’t have made it. They were so well organized and took such good care of me.”

Dale’s only lasting reminder of the “vacation” is a pacemaker that was implanted around nine months after he was discharged. He gets a little more winded than he used to on hot and humid days, but he just uses that as an excuse to take it easy.

Looking back, he and Carolyn are thankful for the care they received.

“Our first choice is always St. Luke’s,” Carolyn says. “They were just so kind. I don’t know what to say other than that. They just treated us very, very well. We could have asked for about anything and I’m confident they would have delivered it. We have four kids and 13 grandkids that were there on and off during the time Dale was there and they treated all of us like family.”

“St. Luke’s has been my choice since 1966,” Dale says. “I stayed five-and-a-half weeks back then after I got broken up pretty good in a truck wreck. Since that time, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. There’s not one thing bad I can say about the hospital or the staff. Everything was excellent.”