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When trouble strikes in the Boondocks

Members of the Boondocks First Responders recently undertook training in the "Take Heart Minnesota'' initiative to improve the odds of surviving sudden cardiac arrest. Training are, left to right: Paula Peterson, Dee Knoshal, Lance Knoshal, Mark Morlock. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

HAVELOCK TOWNSHIP, CHIPPEWA COUNTY -- Who do you turn to for help if you have an emergency in the middle of the boondocks?

Who else but the Boondocks First Responders, who have been responding to calls for help since 1991.

These volunteers will come to your aid if you're on the edges of the Boondocks too. The borders of their coverage area are loosely defined, says Lance Knoshal. He and his wife Dee, Chad Payne and Marc Stevens are charter members still serving the group.

The five women and five men who comprise the Boondocks First Responders are trained first responders who answer emergency medical calls in an area that includes the northern half of Chippewa County, a slice of southern Swift County and a bit of western Kandiyohi County as well. The roughly defined borders range north and south from Chippewa County Road 13 to two miles north of the Chippewa-Swift County line; and east to west, about two miles west of Minnesota Highway 29 to the Chippewa-Kandiyohi County line.

In between these borders are roughly 264 square miles of territory.

There isn't a village or hamlet in the entire area. There are widely separated farm homes, one small highway convenience store, and nearly boundless fields of corn, soybeans and sugar beets.

Cornfields can be a mile wide and a mile deep, as Boondock's First Responder Janet Bosch can attest. She drove her van through one to reach a farmer who was suffering a heart attack in the middle of it. She had to replace the tie-rods on the van after that call, but has never second-guessed her decision.

"What am I going to do, park it on the side and say 'sorry?''' she said.

The Boondocks of west central Minnesota may not be as wild or as remote as northern Minnesota, but the challenges of serving this area are very much the same.

There are roads to all points, but the sheer distance means that an emergency call can easily require a 20-minute drive, according to the responders.

Cell phone service is "iffy'' at best, and consequently the volunteers rely on two-way radios and a pager system.

The responders know that when they hop in their vehicle to respond, they may be the first and only person available to provide emergency aid until an ambulance can arrive. Ambulance squads from Montevideo, Benson, Raymond, Clara City, Kerkhoven and Willmar can be summoned, depending on where in the Boondocks the help is needed.

The Boondocks First Responders have come to the aid of victims in all types of serious motor vehicle crashes, some on Minnesota Highway 40 but plenty of others on county and township roads as well.

They've also responded to all other types of emergencies. They've come to the aid of an 18-month-old child injured by a fall in an abandoned well. They have cared for seriously injured people who have fallen from roofs and ladders or been catapulted from all-terrain vehicles.

They've saved lives by rushing to homes -- and fields -- to help people suffering medical emergencies ranging from heart attacks to diabetic reactions. They may start administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation at the scene and stay with the patient all the way to the hospital.

The hardest part is the same challenge faced by rural first responders everywhere: They've come to scenes where lives can't be saved and not infrequently, they know the victims.

Knoshal grew up in the Boondocks, where he farms. It remains a sparsely populated area, but like everywhere else it is changing, he said. He no longer knows everyone.

On some calls, he and the other responders have to keep their eyes open. He arrived at one scene just behind the flashing red lights of law officers converging on the remote farm home to make a drug bust.

More often, the responders come to the aid of the stoic types it takes to make a living on the farm. One morning's pager call brought the responders to a farm home where the elderly couple was dressed and waiting at the door. "She started having pain about two in the morning, but we didn't want to bother anybody,'' the husband explained to them.

Along with being "on call'' whenever they are in the Boondocks, the first responders also devote time to regular training sessions. They meet at the Havelock Lutheran Church. They used to meet at a town hall, but it lacked a bathroom, they explained.

The group counted more than 20 members when it was first organized. The relatively small population and the lack of businesses within the area makes it a bigger challenge to raise the funds needed for the life-saving supplies and gear they carry.

The difficulties may be many, but so are the rewards, according to the responders.

Asked why they do it, the answer came quickly: "The need is here.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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