by Jim Boyle
Willard Hanson could feel his life slipping from him, so much so he sought out end-of-life information to begin preparations for his eventual demise.
This 85-year-old man, who was born and raised in Zimmerman and loves to sing, knew his body — the rise and fall of it. He had been the picture of health most of his adult life when he found out he needed single bypass heart surgery.
That was back in 1995, when the left arm of this farm implement salesman went asleep, and he couldn’t wake it.
Doctors, however, fixed the valve problems before a heart attack could strike.
Hanson had always been healthy. He stayed active. He played baseball when he was young. He got involved with bowling as he got older.
He traveled the United States and Canada. There was not a farm implement dealer in the the state of Minnesota that he didn’t call on.
But when breathing problems surfaced again in 2006, he underwent triple bypass surgery. Doctors installed a pig valve.
That could serve him another 10 years, doctors told him. But it didn’t.
It was failing again in 2.5 years, but a heart surgeon said in 2009 it would be too risky to go back a third time.
That was until he saw a kidney specialist at the beginning of 2010 who told him it was a risk he was going to have to take. The specialist told him: “Your wife needs you.”
Hanson went back to his cardiologist, who admitted him to the hospital. “I got on the roller coaster, and there was no getting off,” Hanson said.
The two doctors arranged it so the heart surgeon who had balked at doing the surgery was there to do the surgery.
“I asked if he was one that should do it, if he didn’t want to do it,” Hanson recalled. “They said he was the one to do it.”
He pulled no punches with the family. He told them Hanson’s chances of surviving the surgery were not in his favor.
He could easily slip into a stroke that he would not recover from.
But after 5.5 hours of surgery, he came out smiling to tell Hanson’s family the surgery was a success.
“That’s all they needed, was his smile,” Hanson said. “That’s all I needed was his smile.”
The smiles return at every doctor’s visit, whether it’s to see the cardiologist, the heart surgeon or the kidney specialist.
“They know they did a great job,” says Hanson, who now lives with a valve from a cow heart.
Hanson has been enjoying his new lease on life. He lives at Guardian Angels with his wife, Betty, and 150 of his newest friends. That’s how Hanson describes his move to Guardian Angels.
“It’s a happy place and its managed so tremendously well,” Hanson said. “Elk River should be very proud to have Guardian Angels.”
Hanson has taken his cardiac rehabilitation very seriously. He gets his walks in, and his wife, with the help of a wheelchair, gets around better, too.
“I love it here,” he said. “I can walk with the squirrels, rabbits and the birds out in the courtyard,” Hanson said, noting he graduated early from his cardiac rehab. “My success has been living at Guardian Angels and being with my wife (Betty).”
At Hanson’s suggestion, Guardian Angels hosts a hymn sing once a month. He got the idea when the church choir from the local Methodist church came over and sang.
“The room just lit up,” Hanson said. “That’s when I got the idea.”
He and Bill Heck even do an Ole and Lena skit that Heck’s wife, Mary, dreamed up about eight years ago. The routine has landed them gigs elsewhere, like a recent show at the Hopkins V.F.W. to recognize Purple Heart veterans.
One of the veterans to be recognized was one of Hanson’s former bosses, Joe Kovar, of Kovar Manufacturing.
“That was quite a thrill,” Hanson said.
The glimmer in his eye suggests there will be many more thrills.