WASILLA — Many times, Jimmy Stewart has heard the word “miracle” whenever he talks about his near death experience two years ago, when he was caught in a propane explosion at his family cabin.
“It’s an incredible blessing,” Stewart said.
On Friday, Stewart met with first responders from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and LifeMed that did everything they could to save the local minister’s life. Stewarts’s extroverted and magnetic personality was apparent when he walked up to the crew at LifeMed’s Wolf Lake base in Wasilla.
“Thank you for what you guys have done. I heard great things. One of the things that was amazing to me was how fast we got down to Seattle and I heard that was kind of an anomaly that everything came together as quick as it did that night. It seemed like a miracle,” Stewart said.
The dire circumstances called for dire actions and all the usual steps were skipped to get Stewart to the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, as quickly as possible. That’s the nearest burn center for all Alaskan burn victims.
First responders responded swiftly, like they would any case, but Stewart’s infallible love for God and his people left a lasting afterglow on the crew, especially since the odds were certainly against him.
“Statistically, he shouldn’t have made it,” responding paramedic CJ Prager said.
Two years ago, Stewart was with his family at their vacation cabin in Talkeetna when a leaky propane tank doused him and eventually ignited him when a spark went off. They don’t know what that spark was. It could have even been static electricity.
Whatever it was, Stewart was set ablaze and he was the only one to sustain injuries in the explosion. As a father and grandfather, he said that he was glad that he was the only one hurt with so many loved ones nearby.
“I’ve got so much to be thankful for,” Stewart said, beginning to explain that he was a minister, asking if they knew that.
“I did. You told us that night,” responding paramedic Corey Jackson said to Stewart.
“I did?” Stewart said.
Jackson said that he was frank with Stewart and told him he might not make it to Seattle and the minister prayed for Jackson. He prayed several for crew members times during his transport from Talkeetna to Anchorage before he went under and they flew to Seattle.
“You did, you told us that night. As we told you we’re going to put you to sleep for the helicopter ride and you’re going to wake up in Seattle and you said, ‘Okay. I’m a minister. Do you mind if I pray for you?’ That was the first time in a long time in my career that I’ve stopped and then completely speechless. Because, I’ve never had anyone pray for me as I’m getting ready to take care of ’em with your skin melting off... I will never forget that,” Jackson said.
Stewart’s recollection after the incident and his subsequent transport are obviously foggy due to the intense trauma, and medication and sedation that followed. He remembers “bits and pieces.”
This meeting with the crew members responsible for his rescue was his chance to get caught up on all the details of that fateful day, saying, “I’d love to hear anything that you want to share with me about that.”
Tyler Merritt was one of the paramedics who flew Stewart to Seattle on a jet. Merritt said that from injury to bedside, it took about five hours total for emergency crews to get him to Seattle.
“It was kind of a balancing act of trying to keep your comfortable and make sure your blood pressure came up. You’d come straight from the field, which isn’t normally what you get on a jet so we were putting extra tubes in, more lines, getting all manner of sedation and everything hooked up,” Merritt said. “When we save the extent of your burns, we were trying to give you every advantage that we could but it seemed like a hopeless situation.”
Prager said that Harborview called him their “miracle patient.” He too was deeply touched by Stewart’s payers during transport.
“It still shocks me today, the testament of your character, praying for us because of the trauma we had to see helping your state was just remarkable,” Prager said as his eyes welled up with tears. “It was unbelievable to see your character and what I would believe, the embodiment of someone that would call them self as a Christian to be, to be so thoughtless about themselves and the just worried about people around them. Even though, you were the one everyone was worried about.”
A usually charismatic minister, Stewart found himself at a loss for words when he heard this, taking a literal step back and absorbing what he heard with a soft smile.
“I don’t know what to say, you know, ” Stewart said before his wife Kathryn stepped in and sung the first responder’s praises.
She commended Prager for the personal note he sent her husband while he was in the ICU.
“Well I can say something. I really appreciate you writing a note,” Kathryn said. “I carry the note in my purse all the time… I know that’s not something you guys do usually.”
Stewart’s severe burns could have easily killed him. That’s not lost on anyone who talks to him.
“It shows you guys did absolutely everything right. Probably one thing that didn’t do, he wouldn’t be here you know? You guys were really spot on in everything,” Kathryn said.
Kathryn asked her husband to take off his shirt to show everyone the extent of the damage. Stewart laughed and said that he’s already done it many times and he’s never been one to be shy.
“You talk about the miracle. Every doctor that I go to, they look at me, they look at my chart, they look at me, look at my chart, then they all look at me and go, you’re a miracle,” Stewart said. “I’m glad to show it, I’m a show and tell kind of guy.”
Stewart took off his shirt, revealing all his scars, pointing out each part of his condition with Kathryn assisting with the details. From his shortened ears to trimmed fingers, Stewart’s lasting damage is apparent. He said that he’s compared notes with local burn victim survivors about their tight skins and recovering nerves.
All things considered, he is just happy to be alive telling his story. The people who helped ensure he survived were evidently happy to hear him go on, helping to fill in the gaps of his blurry memory with teary smiles on their faces. Merritt said that in his line of work, he seldom gets follow up updates with patients.
“It seemed like a hopeless outcome… The outcomes are usually poor so it was amazing to see you recover,” Merritt said.
Stewart said that when word got out about his situation on social media, people and churches across the nation sent their prayers, going as far as the east coast. He said that while he ultimately left his fate up to God, he thinks the “power of prayer” certainly helped and it was very much appreciated.
Several laughs were shared during this exchange. Stewart said that aside from his relationship with his higher power, a sense of humor has been vita. He shared a joke he’s used several times.
“I used to be original, now I’m extra crispy,” Stewart said with a laugh.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at email@example.com