When Carol Spear takes part in Sunday's TCO Vikings 5K, she won't be expecting to set any time records.
She may even need assistance from family members – 16 of them, to be exact – to finish the race.
But Carol is just happy to be here.
Two years ago, Carol and her husband, Larry, were invited by their son, Brian; daughter-in-law, Cathy; and grandson, Zac, to participate in the 2017 iteration of the 5K at U.S. Bank Stadium. They didn't hesitate to accept.
"I thought it would be exciting to actually walk through the [tunnel] where the players come out onto the field," Carol said. "I won't say how old, but I'm older, and I thought, 'This is something that I'd like to do before I go to Heaven.' We just thought it would be a fun weekend."
Carol and Larry had spent time training for the 5K in their small hometown of Granada, Minnesota – population 286 – and on race day traded in gravel roads for a finish line on bright-green turf.
They both felt wonderful, pink-faced and smiling in post-event photos with family members.
Two days later, however, everything changed.
Carol remembers standing on her porch at home, raising a hand to her chest and saying, "Larry, something is wrong."
What happened next is a blur.
She was rushed to Fairmont Hospital, where she spent the next four-and-a-half hours before being transferred to Mayo Clinic. Weather prohibited helicopter travel, so she instead was taken via a small airplane. Upon arriving at the hospital, she was taken into surgery in an attempt to repair damage caused by what was determined to be a "widow-maker" heart attack.
While on the operating table, Carol died.
For 10 minutes, she had no heartbeat. Doctors performed CPR for more than an hour, breaking all of her ribs and crushing her sternum in the process. Internal paddles were used on Carol's heart six times before a rhythm returned.
"The doctor came out and told the family that he didn't think I was going to make it," Carol said. "He wanted my husband to continue ending it. My husband said, 'No, I'm not ready to let her go yet.' "
At one point, the surgeon realized a blood clot was moving toward Carol's heart and made a last-minute decision to not sterilize an instrument because there wouldn't be enough time.
"I did develop a terrible infection, but his decision saved my life," she said.
Carol survived the 19-hour surgery against all odds but was not expected to wake up. In fact, for seven consecutive days, she was given a zero-percent chance of survival.
The doctor increased her odds to 50 percent on day eight, calling her a fighter.
Each day for 97 days, Carol continued to prove medical professionals wrong. Her chest was left open for 28 days so that her heart could physically be scrubbed against spreading infection. She underwent 40 surgeries. Fifty-two pounds of water weight gained made her unrecognizable to family and friends, who said her hair was the only familiar part of her appearance.
Damaged nerves during surgery left Carol with very little mobility; she retained some movement in her left arm and hand, and she could turn her head from side to side. She also had lost the use of her voice.
Her room looked like something out of Star Wars; 29 different tubes entered and left Carol's body, which was black-and-blue from her neck to her knees. Three times a day, she received separate injections of heparin and insulin.
Carol was put on an ECMO machine that pumped and oxygenated her blood outside of the body in order to allow her heart and lungs to rest, but due to complications from the infection, she suffered five life-threatening bleed-outs. At one point, she says, a blood pressure reading was 59/35.
And still, Carol fought.
"I think that's my personality," she said recently over the phone, chuckling. "My doctors and therapists, they always tell me not to overdo it, because they know me. They never say, 'You have to get up and do your exercises and your therapy'; They all say, 'Don't overdo it.'
"My faith in Jesus Christ, that's who I am. That's what I'm about. And I can't even tell you how much support I had from my family and my friends," she added, saying that Larry spent all but six nights with her at the hospital. "I think the whole little town of Granada was praying. So many people would come to me and say, 'We're praying for you.' I just was overwhelmed by everybody who was praying for me and would come to visit me, and I just felt, 'I've got to keep going. I've got to keep going.' "
Seeing the way that Carol continued to overcome each physical challenge, her surgeon, Dr. Stulak, recommended her for inclusion in a rehab program that would include three hours of physical therapy per day; if Carol was unable to keep up with that regimen, she would be excluded from the program and would be faced with moving instead to a nursing home.
Carol recalls being overjoyed at Dr. Stulak's willingness to refer her to the Mary Brigh Building for rehab but wondered how she possibly could meet the requirements due to the paralysis she continued to experience.
"When Dr. Stulak left my room, I started crying," Carol said. "I prayed, 'You know, God, you're going to have to do this for me because there's no way that I can do this. You're going to have to step in here and help me.' "
Each day, Carol met the rehab requirements and worked toward recovery. She gradually regained mobility in her extremities, and after two months being unable to speak, she regained her voice.
Now, she's using that voice to encourage and inspire others. In addition to writing a book, My Million Dollar Miracle (Spear's hospital bills actually surpassed $4 million), she plans to be available for speaking engagements.
"I believe … that God has a purpose and a plan, and I believe that this is His purpose for me – to go out and be available if people want to hear my story," Carol said.
Her journey isn't over. After returning home, Carol overcame additional hurdles that included a blood clot and bout with pneumonia. Her voice is weak and she still is working on walking and on strength in her right arm and hand, but she faces every day with a smile and confidence in continued recovery.
"I'm going to be OK. It's just going to take some time," she said.
When Carol announced that she had her sights set on this year's TCO Vikings 5K, family and friends initially urged her to slow down. But doctors have cleared her for the event, and she is looking forward to once again participating in the event, this time hosted at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
"I guess I wanted to show people that God is good all the time. This is kind of where it all started, and I guess I feel like it's kind of some closure for me," Carol said. "It was a happy time in my life, and I don't want to leave the 5K remembering, 'Oh yeah, that's the time I had my heart attack.' I want to remember it as [a victory and moment of overcoming]."
Carol, this time around will be accompanied by 16 family members, whom the Vikings gifted with complimentary race tickets.
"What a wonderful blessing. Otherwise, they wouldn't have all been able to come," Carol said. "This is a wonderful thing that the Vikings have supported this – it's just unbelievable to all of us. I'm grateful and thankful to them for doing this so that we can all be together.
"You know, we shared the whole heart attack experience," she added. "And now what a wonderful thing that we get to experience a really fun thing and can do it all together."
To learn more about Carol's story or to inquire about purchasing her book, you can write to her at the following address: 2596 50thStreet | Granada, MN 56039