Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Widowmaker survivor credits God

Dennis Bergman poses for a photo in his Kahoka, Mo., home on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Feb. 26, 2018 8:30 am Updated: Feb. 26, 2018 8:43 am

KAHOKA, Mo. -- Having died twice before, Dennis Bergman knows the value of life.

The 66-year-old Kahoka, Mo. native credits God with carrying him through a nearly-fatal heart attack that caused his heart to stop twice last fall.

Bergman grew up poor in the town of a little more than 2,000. His father was a POW who dug ditches after World War II, and his mother worked in a restaurant. They struggled, but he earned everything he has ever had "the honest way."

He met his wife, Sharon, at a high school party when he was 16. They married 18 days after graduation and stayed married for 40 years. They raised two children into adulthood together.

"She was my soul mate, and we had a wonderful life together," Bergman said. "Just two horses pulling a wagon together."

For 34 years, Bergman worked seven days a week as a maintenance mechanic at Griffin Wheel. In 2009, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He assumed the worst, but through the use of radiation seeds, his cancer was gone in three months.

"A month after I was clean," he said, "my wife came down with lymph node cancer."

Bergman was sure that they could beat it as long as they kept a positive outlook. Sharon was given 11 months to live if she did treatment.

The next few months were spent in a daze, constantly shuffling back and forth between work in Keokuk, Iowa, visiting Sharon at Blessing Hospital and returning home to catch an hour or two of sleep, if lucky, before starting the cycle again.

"Complete mental and physical exhaustion," Bergman said. "I lost hope; it was just desperation."

Bergman's desperation manifested itself as suicidal thoughts. As he passed through his house one night after returning from a trip to the hospital, he stopped to grab a gun before stepping out on his patio. He set the gun down in the garage and sat down on the patio to think.

"A man and woman came by, total strangers, and asked how I was doing," he said. "I told him my wife was dying, and it's pretty well over for me, too. He said it didn't have to be over, and they talked to me for about 45 minutes."

Before departing for the night, the couple convinced Bergman to call a pastor of a nearby church. The pastor said he would meet Bergman at the hospital, where the man stayed and spoke with Bergman and Sharon for four hours.

"Religion had never been important to me because I was always busy making a living," Bergman said. "When he got ready to leave, we went into the chapel, and I got saved."

Sharon died four days later. Bergman started going to church and was baptized the next summer.

Bergman is now a Gideon -- an international ministry known for distributing Bibles for free. He also is a bus driver for AWANA -- a global nonprofit ministry that works with children.

He met his current wife, Zarina, at church.

"It was almost like God put us together," he said. "She was alone; I was alone, and we're not alone anymore."

Beating the widowmaker

Bergman had his heart attack on Sept. 2, 2017, an average day by all accounts. The week before, one of his best friends had died from a heart attack. The man had refused to go to the hospital, and Bergman wondered if put in that situation, if he would make the same decision.

"I was sitting down at Ayerco and something came over me," he said. "I felt lightheaded. I told Zarina I really need to go get checked out."

The couple dropped everything and rushed over to the emergency room at Blessing Hospital. Still unaware of what was going on, Bergman walked up to the desk, filled out some paperwork, sat down in a wheelchair, and then his heart stopped. He had a condition colloquially known as the "widowmaker," where the left anterior descending coronary artery is completely closed.

"I sat down in that chair and died," Bergman said. "They were doing chest compressions and shocking, and about 15 minutes later, I woke up."

When he came to, Zarina told him what had happened. As she was filling him in, his heart stopped again.

"The third time I woke up on a bed going down a hallway, watching the lights go by," he said. "I thought that this was it."

Bergman was being rushed into surgery, where four bypasses would be performed on his heart. He remembers referring to the anesthesiologist, the last person he spoke to before entering surgery, as "the last man on Earth."

"The doctor poked his head around the corner and told me I looked pretty good for a dead man," Bergman said.

Bergman was in the hospital for four days. He has spent the months since recovering from the ordeal. He's now back handing out Bibles and driving the bus for AWANA.

"God wasn't done with me," he said.

Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.