Real Name: Don "Donny" Hamilton
Case: Medical Mysteries
Location: Menahga, Minnesota
Date: November 8, 1987
Details: On June 10, 1989, thirty-six-year-old Don Hamilton and Donna Johnson married in Maple Plain, Minnesota. Their happy day was, in a way, a miracle. Just twenty months earlier, teams of specialists had been working around the clock to save Don’s life. He was in a deep coma. Some of the doctors thought he was already dead. According to Dr. Carson Gardner, Don was not breathing. He did not have an effective heartbeat. He had serious damage to body organs when he arrived. Statistically, his likelihood of surviving was very low, close to zero. That night, his mother, Marilyn, stood by his bedside and wiped the blood from him. They told her that it would probably be his last night. He was bleeding from his eyes, nose, and mouth. She felt like wiping the blood off his face was the last thing she could do for her son.
Don’s recovery is a shiny example that happy endings do occur. His story is one of those unexplained events in the field of science and medicine, which proves that medical science and simple faith can turn out to be wondrous and mysterious partners.
Just before dawn on November 8, 1987, Don and a group of friends set out deer hunting near Menahga, 175 miles north of their hometown, Maple Plain. Don split from the group, drove his ATV out into a field, and parked at the edge of the woods. He walked into the woods to a tree that he previously planned to be in. With his climbing harness and straps, he got himself strapped into the tree. He then pulled his gun up to him, loaded it, and sat back, relaxing on a branch. At one point, he loosened up his grip on the gun. He had it balanced on his legs. He then shifted enough that it got off balance. When he loosened his grip, it slid off his legs, hit against the ground, and shot him.
Don yelled out that he had been shot, then began to lose consciousness. For twenty-five agonizing minutes, his friends searched the dark woods. Finally, they found him in the tree. A bullet from his own rifle had severed crucial veins in his leg. He seemed completely lifeless. They placed a tourniquet on his leg and put him on an ATV to take him out of the woods. Twenty minutes later, an ambulance rushed him to the nearest hospital in Park Rapids. Technically, he was alive, but he had no blood pressure or pulse at all. Dr. Gardner recalls that when they started working on Don, he was not breathing, he was not moving, he was comatose, and his heart was not pumping blood. There was no blood to pump. He lost more than half of his total blood volume, possibly two-thirds or more.
Dr. Gardner was afraid through the whole process of working on Don. He was afraid because he knew it would take everything his team could do to pull Don through. The farther along they went, Dr. Gardner became afraid in a different way. He was afraid that they as a team – doctors, nurses, anesthetists, respiratory therapists, lab personnel – would have saved a body but not a brain.
According to Dr. Gardner, they ran out of options for Don in their hospital very quickly. After being technically dead for twenty minutes, they resuscitated him. Their surgeon operated to repair massive damage to the veins in his left leg. They gave him all the blood and blood products they had, but he needed more. At that point, the only thing they could do was transfer him. He was helicoptered to the North Memorial Medical Center in Minneapolis, 200 miles away. There, a team of specialists waited for him. They stabilized his physical condition, but his brain showed no sign of life.
When Dr. Bruce Norback did the initial neurological evaluation on Don, Don failed all of the tests. In essence, he basically did not have any breathing, any response to pain, or any basic, deep-seated reflexes that are very well protected in the brain. Dr. Norback then had to give the difficult news to Don’s parents: Don was brain dead. He told them that it was the same as if someone had been underwater for an hour. He did not believe that Don would ever recover. However, Marilyn could not believe or accept it.
Don’s loved ones and members of his church prayed for him every day. Church members were also a support for his family. From 7am to 11pm, his parents were never alone when they were at Don’s side. There was always someone with them. The church members even had a schedule made up so that his parents would not be alone if and when he died.
Don remained in the ICU. Tragically, his body began to fail him. First, his kidneys stopped functioning, then his lungs. Once, he even suffered a cardiac arrest. Nevertheless, his family talked to him as if he could hear every word they said. They prayed and searched in vain for a glimmer of response. Doctors offered them the option of turning off his life support systems. They refused, and despite the overwhelming odds, never gave up.
Dr. George Nemanich, a surgeon at the hospital, recalls that Don’s family kept up the hope of survival, even when it seemed like it would never occur. On several occasions, when Nemanich would bring the family bleak news, they would accept it because they had to accept it. However, he could tell that they were going to "rise above" the bad news and continue to believe that, somehow, Don was going to make it. Marilyn says that her feeling was “very positive” all the time. She knew that Don was going to be okay.
At one point, Don's family was told that they would have to start looking for a nursing home for him, because doctors believed that he was going to be comatose for the rest of his life. However, his family continued to insist that he would get better. After five weeks, his friend, Karen Speeder, and Marilyn went in to see him. When Marilyn said, “Hi Don, Karen Speeder is here to see you,” he nodded three times. When she asked him if he knew who Karen was, he nodded three times again. When she asked him, “Isn’t that nice that Karen came to visit you?” he nodded three times once again. To Marilyn, that was the breaking point. She knew that he was able to hear them.
By that point, Dr. Norback had been dealing with Don’s family on a day-to-day basis. He says that he continued to give the family news that was couched with, “Well, I don’t think things are still going to go well long range.” But after the visit with Karen, Don started to get markedly better over a period of just a day or two. He started recognizing visitors and gesturing when they talked to him. Several days later, doctors removed him from his ventilator. Dr. Norback says that it was a great feeling all around to see him improve that quickly.
On December 14, shortly before Christmas, Don awoke from his coma. His sister Ruth's only wish for the holidays was that he call her and wish her a Merry Christmas. On Christmas Eve, he was able to do just that. In four weeks, he made the miraculous journey from brain death to walking away from the hospital on crutches. Within six months, he threw the crutches away. The doctors and Don’s family were united in the awesome feeling that they had witnessed a wonderful and mysterious event. Dr. Norback says that Don’s case was a very memorable one. He says that doctors love being wrong in situations like Don’s. He says that it sort of “balances the ledger” for all of the other cases where things do not quite go as well.
Dr. Gardner believes that Don’s survival was a miracle. Don says that the doctors do not know why he lived. He thinks that God had a reason for him to stay on Earth, and that God helped him pull through. Twenty months after his accident, he and Donna married. Every day, he feels awe. He no longer takes life’s joys or life itself for granted.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the November 15, 1989 episode.
Results: Unsolved. Don and Donna have since had two children, Emily and Melissa. Fortunately, other than some memory loss and issues with his injured leg, he has had little impairment.
- All the mysteries of life and death aren't covered in medical books (Page 1) (Page 2) - December 26, 1987
- Once supposedly dead, man now getting married (Page 1) (Page 2) - March 6, 1989
- A miracle? Recovery defies medical reason - March 8, 1989
- A Christmas miracle; Part 1: The accident that changed it all - December 16, 2012
- A Christmas miracle; Part 2: Coming back for Christmas - December 21, 2012