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Life After The Thaw: A Havre Man Gets A Second Chance After Nearly Freezing To Death

Tim Harmon almost died twice within the last year. Now he has a new perspective on life.

On Feb. 18, Harmon got lost in a field in subzero night temperatures after locking himself out of his pickup truck. By the time he was found, well into the next day, his frostbitten hands were frozen clasped, he was incoherent, and his pants were so ice-covered the weight had dragged them down to his ankles.

It was determined Harmon may have trudged 10 miles in about seven hours through a windy, snow-packed field based on how far from his pickup he was found and the early morning hour he was found.

Harmon will lose most of his left hand pinky finger for sure. The finger looks like a piece of meat that had been burned to a crisp. He visited his surgeon April 25 at Benefis in Great Falls to discuss his hands. He’s receiving weekly hand therapy and May 22 he’ll find out when he’ll have surgery on his hands.

Harmon is not somber, despite his inevitable loss of limbs. He seems quite the opposite.

“Because of things that have happened to me in my life, I’ve learned to be grateful for the little things in our lives — our kids being healthy, having loving family, these kinds of things,” Harmon said during an interview in his Havre office. “But (the incident) amplified that even more, where I really am grateful to be alive even though this has happened to me.”

The last year has been so hellacious for 41-year-old Harmon that it’s prompted him to existential contemplation of an unprecedented degree. The ordeal where he got stuck in the snow was the third traumatic event, part of a list that started with a crash in September.

Harmon drove to Great Falls to pick up his 4-year-old son and was on his way back to Havre — somewhere between Loma and Big Sandy — when he approached a delivery truck traveling slowly. He signaled and began to drive around. And that’s when it happened.

“Last second he turns right in front of me at 70 miles an hour. I smashed right into him, so hard, I mean, huge impact, and smashed the hood all the way to the cab. It was horrific,” Harmon said. “He rolls — it was the biggest Schwan’s truck that they make — into the ditch.”

Harmon said he then forced his way out his crumpled vehicle. “I like, with superhuman strength, kick my door open, because it’s wedged. I get Eli out, and I’m holding him. He’s crying, I’m bleeding.”

His son incurred only minor damage from the car seat restraint, he said. And aside from damage in his left leg, which he still receives physical therapy for, he was mostly OK.

The crash messed with his head.

“I had these terrifying dreams about that car wreck, that the freezer door breaks off and comes through the windshield, hits me. I’d wake up sweating from it. Crazy stuff. It affected me.”

“Last second he turns right in front of me at 70 miles an hour. I smashed right into him”

The next emotionally taxing event happened Christmas Eve, when the family business, Big Equipment Co., of which Harmon is second-in-command to his father and founder, Ron Harmon, was razed by a fire, taking with it millions of dollars in equipment and infrastructure.

The story of Big Equipment and Ron Harmon’s signature Big Bud 747 tractor, hailed as the largest agricultural tractor in the world, is a story of valleys and mountaintops on its own. Ron Harmon bought Big Bud company in 1974 and built the 747 under the influence of passion for speed and power, a result of his love of motorcycles. In 1984, the company ran into a problem getting transmissions for about 80, mostly pre-paid, tractors, leaving the business holding the bag for those expenses. As a result, Big Bud was forced to close.

Ron Harmon eventually overcame those difficulties and started Big Equipment Co.

Tim Harmon remembers his family struggling in the ’80s after that colossal setback. His childhood changed, as “Dad sold everything off to pay the debt.

When he heard on Dec. 24 that an inferno was engulfing their dealership, his mind went back to those difficult childhood days.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God. We have millions of dollars in tractors in there. What are we going to do? How are we going to pay for all this? Again, we’re going to have to go back to zero, sell everything off just to pay for the losses?”

This time, however, the story would play out differently. Ron Harmon called his son — Tim Harmon was in Mesa, Arizona, visiting his mother — and told him he could relax and stay south because their insurance agent assured them they were covered and everything was going to be OK.

Big Equipment is in the rebuilding process and plans to build a new dealership in the place of the charred remains of the former are in progress.

On Feb. 18, Harmon drove to Conrad to look at a dealership, which had also been rebuilt after being burned, he said. The architect who designed the Conrad dealership, a local woman, was being considered for the Big Equipment dealership project. It was on his way back from Conrad that Harmon would run into his second brush with death since September.

It was dark and he was driving when nature rang.

“I feel like I have to pee — real bad — and I’m on this rural road. So as guys, we pull off and we go pee. So I pull off, and my truck sinks off into the ditch,” he said.

He tried turning the wheel and driving out, but it didn’t work. And he still had to go to the bathroom. Harmon said he took the keys out of the ignition, put them on the console and went to take care of business.

His relief was short-lived. He got back to his pickup and discovered another unpleasant surprise.

“I go to check the door, my heart totally sinks. ‘Oh my God, I’m locked out of my vehicle in this situation? Jesus.’”

Harmon believes he may have accidentally pushed the lock button on his way out and locked himself out his pickup.

“I have no coat on. It’s 14 below.”

Bob Hoenisch with the Weather Service in Great Falls said the reported temperature Feb. 19 in Cut Bank, about 35 miles from Conrad, was a high of zero degrees and a low of minus 11. Snow had also fallen the previous days.

The next decision is one, he said, has been criticized and even been the target of “vicious” insults, mainly by internet commenters.

“You can get yourself into a really precarious situation really quickly by making a decision like I made, and I regretted it immediately.”

“There’s a sinking feeling that something is so wrong that you don’t know how to turn it around”

Harmon said he saw an artificial light just past a nearby embankment and decided to follow it in hope of finding help. He walked through a deep snow-covered field in a cap, jeans, a long sleeve shirt, and Ugg boots.

“I would get on top of (the snow), boom, break through, fall down, break through, fall down.”

Harmon thinks he may have trekked about a half mile — further than the light seemed to be when he started — before he finally found out what it was. “I walked and I walked and I walked to get to it. I get to it and it’s some sort of quonset light … a rounded type building where farmers keep machinery on a remote location on their farm.”

Off in the distance, he saw another light. That, he thought, must be the farmhouse. So he went after that light. But halfway through, the wind picked up, the snow began flying, and his vision was exponentially impaired, “total whiteout conditions.”

He decided he needed to turn back, realizing he should’ve never walked away from his pickup in the first place.

“At this point I think I can break a window out, I have options at my vehicle.”

There was one major problem. He couldn’t find his footprints, the ones he planned on using as a map back to his pickup. The wind had washed snow over them. And to make a bad situation worse, he also lost sight of the lights.

Tim Harmon was in trouble. He was very cold and blind to anything beyond his reach.

“There’s a sinking feeling that something is so wrong that you don’t know how to turn it around.”

At that point, he began to think he was going to die.

“I start thinking about stories I’ve heard of people dying out in the cold.”

He yelled for help repeatedly, but the only response was silence. “I’m lost in a field that seems endless, and it seems like it goes on and on and on and on. … It’s just snow. Just snow. And no matter how far I walk in one direction, it doesn’t end. These fields go on forever and ever. I must’ve fallen down hundreds of times in the snow.”

The temperature began to take its toll.

“I noticed that my hands began to quit working after a while. They were frozen back, all of them. And because there was so much ice on them, I would try and pull up my pants, and after a while I wasn’t able to do that. I’d have to shimmy them somehow and get them back up, ’cause the ice was pulling on them. I was crashing through the snow all the time and it was building up around the bottoms of my pants.”

It was time to give up. He was exhausted.

“The one overarching thought was that, ‘I’m going to die out here. They’re going to find me with my mouth open or something. Weird things I was thinking. … To say that and to actually feel that are two different things. To really believe you’re never going to come out of this thing, like you’re never going to make it, was a horrifying, terrifying thing. I would think about my kids, and my dad, how nobody will know how to find me. It’ll be a long time before they see me out here. I’m done, this is it.’”

He thought about how people who froze to death — “who are now dead” — probably had the same thoughts he was having. In High School, Harmon said, he ran track and took state in the 800-meter, a “really tough race.” The effort it took to plod through the snow that night was 100 times gretaer — “I absolutely thought that I need to sit down and let this overtake me, because it’s too hard.”

But for reasons that would prompt him to questions and reflections of God, Harmon didn’t lie down. Powered by more than he knew to had in himself, he kept moving until he eventually came to a makeshift dirt road lathered in ice.

“Sometimes it feels like somebody took a baseball bat to my hands and it feels like they’re broken inside”

“It’s like one of those roads where in the summer time grass grows in between the two tire tracks, just a little field road,” he said. “I get on it. It’s icy where the tire tracks are, but I stay on them. At least it’s a road.”

Harmon doesn’t know how long he slogged on that sleek, faux road. What he knows is he saw lights again. These lights were moving toward him.

A woman stopped her pickup and asked him to get in, he said. He told her she was asking too much.

“I tell her I can’t. My hands don’t work to open the door. She then opens the door and asks me what’s going on. I don’t have any clue. I said I was stuck. I know that. She said, ‘Oh my God, you need to go to the hospital immediately.’”

The woman told him she was an ER nurse on her way to work. Harmon said he remembered trying pull his pants above his ankles as she, a nurse at Pondera Medical Center, walked around to help him.

From Pondera Medical, Harmon was put in an ambulance and rushed to Benefis Medical in Great Falls, where he was stuck him with IVs to pump fluid into his hands. He spent 10 days at Benefis, five of them in the intensive care unit.

His hands, purple from exposure, had ballooned to an unnatural size. Along with the fluid, he also received Botox shots.

The nurse who found him told him she didn’t want any acknowledgment. She told him she did what anybody else would’ve done in that situation and wanted to leave it at that. She declined multiple requests for comment.

In general, in cold, dry environments, hypothermia happens within hours, according to Death is likeliest when severe hypothermia, during which the body’s core temperature dips below 28 degrees Celsius. “Despite hospital-based treatment, mortality from moderate or severe hypothermia approaches 40 percent.”

Some people, even in the medical field, were bewildered at the condition he was found in, Harmon said. When someone is exposed to extreme cold as long as he was and gets frostbite, the ears and nose are usually some of the most common parts to be affected, he’d been told. One doctor, he said, told him why that didn’t happen. The reason was simple: The effort it took Harmon to plod through that field increased and kept blood flowing to his head.

Harmon now waits. He waits to see what parts of his fingers will die and be cut off, and what survives. He is nervous, he said, about losing part of himself, even if it’s dead already.

In addition to his pinky, Harmon will also lose part of his thumb, also on the left hand. The cutoff point still has to be determined. The demarcation process — waiting for the flesh that will die to do so — must conclude before doctors cut it off. His left hand index finger, also on the left hand, is the question mark. It’s purple, but hopefully it can recover. Nobody’s sure what will happen with that yet, Harmon said.

Despite damage to it as well, Harmon’s right hand has fared better. Although still unable to completely clinch it, he has regained a lot of movement, and he hopes, with the help of physical therapy he is receiving, to regain pre-incident flexibility. As of now, Harmon is mostly one-handed. His left hand is often wrapped in full gauzes that look like a white, oversized mitten. He often cradles items between his side and left elbow and uses his right hand to open doors or lift things.

Harmon lives with daily pain from the dying tissue in his fingers: “Sometimes it feels like somebody took a baseball bat to my hands and it feels like they’re broken inside.” Doctors have examined to see if his hands were broken. They weren’t, he learned. They just hurt really bad.

“The doctor says there is no worst pain than having something decaying on your body. It makes nerves go absolutely crazy. … They have to wait for a really long time for the surgery to go well so the surgery will go well. So you have through this hellacious period to get to a point where they can cut off your fingers and you feel OK.”

He takes two types of prescription painkillers. During the interview, Harmon was alert, understanding and articulate, without signs of mental haziness. He’s been told the pain absorbs all the medication.

He is aware of the dangers of painkiller addiction. So the goal is to taper off after the surgery to the point of total independence from the drugs.

Because of his mangled hands, he can’t really write or type, which makes work more difficult.

There is reason to expect that he will be able to in the future, even if not fully.

“I think God was with me whether I lived or I died out there”

Nearly freezing to death has brought new perspective. The experience has changed what matters.

“There’s something really powerful about facing such a situation,” he said. “It makes life raw in the way that it becomes very real at that point. Superficial things like money, cars — whatever — just don’t have the same kind of hold on you. You begin to look at life from a mindset of gratitude, love — these kinds of things. It definitely has changed me for the better, I would say.

“These kinds of things, as terrible as they may be, in the end, I think actually bring out the best in people. Maybe not everybody feels that way, but that’s how I see it. “

Harmon is thankful for the help he receives, including from his girlfriend, Hailey Donoven, who has been helping him eat, bathe, and take his medicine.

While some priorities have become more clear, other things haven’t. He doesn’t know why he didn’t die that freezing night.

“I’m not a super religious person at all, I’m really not. But I think God was with me out there and I think he was prompting me to keep moving, ’cause I could feel that. It was more than I had in me to keep going. … For some reason, something kept me going that night, and I believe it was a God thing. That’s just what I think. I don’t know what else it could be.

“Horrible stuff happens in this world and you think, ‘Why doesn’t God intervene?’ For me, I think God was with me whether I lived or I died out there, because I had prayed to ask him into my heart many years ago, and I think that’s all it takes. I really believe that’s all it takes. I don’t think he’s in the business of removing you out of a situation and putting you in Florida because you’re freezing to death in a field in Montana.

“I think that He wanted me to live and prompted my spirit to keep moving, but was there whether I lived or died that night. … We have free agency, we got free will on our lives. We decide what we do. I think that he wanted me to continue on. Some people say ‘He saved you from that,’ and in some sense that’s right. But in another way I don’t know that he prevents all things from happening. I think he can nudge you in certain directions to do things and you got to be receptive to that. If you’re not receptive, it doesn’t really matter. But if you’re receptive to it, it can lead you to places that are awesome, that are great.

“That’s what was happening to me that night. I didn’t have a lot of willpower left to continue moving my legs, but thoughts would overcome me of family and things an why I needed to keep going. I just know He was a big part in that.”

Write to Paul Dragu at [email protected]

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