When St. Bonifacius carpenter Eugene Rakow left for work on Friday, Sept. 27, he had no way of knowing that his experience that day would ultimately become an international news story highlighted in major newspapers, magazines and television networks, from Good Morning America to the National Inquirer.
The excitement began around 1 p.m. while the 58-year-old father of seven was building a deck at a home in St. Bonifacius.
“I had the joists all on and was putting on the rim joists. I got to the third one, which was up a little high, about chest high, and I was nailing at an angle to try to drive the joist down,” Rakow recalled. “I was holding it and had my thumb on the trigger of the nail gun. I shot it and it kicked and it came down on my chest. My thumb was still on the trigger and with the momentum, I shot myself in the chest.”
It happened so fast that initially, Rakow had a hard time believing it had actually happened.
“It only took a second or less. The gun shoots nails faster than you can think,” he said. “The first thing that went through my mind was ‘I can’t believe I just did this.’ It was disbelief.”
Rakow felt a stinging so he looked down and saw a hole through his shirt, along with a little blood. It was then that he knew for certain that there was a nail — a 3.5-inch long nail, to be exact — in his chest.
“The second thing I thought was this could be serious and I need to get some help,” said Rakow, who dropped the nail gun and walked to his truck, which was parked about 60 feet away around the corner of the house. As he walked, Rakow continued to feel that stinging sensation and was a bit short of breath.
“As I was walking to my truck to get my cell phone, I heard crunching and gurgling sounds. I was trying to diagnose where the nail was … was it in my heart? Was it in my lungs? I figured it wasn’t my lungs otherwise I would have been coughing up blood,” said Rakow, who noted he did not experience much bleeding with the wound.
Once at the truck, Rakow found his cell phone and called Carmen, his wife of 25 years, whom he knew was home with the couple’s seven children, ages 6 to 22, only two blocks away.
“I got the answering machine and said ‘Pick up! Pick up! I shot myself in the chest with the nail gun. You need to get me to the ER right away!’” Rakow said.
“We had just sat down for lunch when we heard the call,” Carmen recalled. “We just took off. Our main thing was to get him to the hospital. I was in shock this happened as Gene is usually very careful. He’s one of the best and has never been hurt like this so I guess it proves something like this can happen to anybody.”
In no time flat, Carmen and the couple’s 16-year-old son, Samuel, arrived at the scene.
“Carmen looked at me and said, ‘Are you going to die?’ I said, ‘Just drive!’” recalled Rakow, who said he stayed calm during the quick, somewhat frenzied drive to Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia. “I just kept thinking how we had to just hold it together and get there.”
For Carmen, her mind raced as she drove the trio to Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia. “I was nervous. I was thinking about things like, ‘Was I mean to him that morning?’ and ‘This could be the last time I might ever be talking to him,’” she said.
At Ridgeview, Rakow kept his sense of humor as the medics started their work.
“They went to cut off my T-shirt and I joked, ‘Are you really going to cut that off? That’s my favorite T-shirt!’” said Rakow, who learned that he would soon be taken by ambulance to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in Minneapolis. “Our daughter, Laura, and the rest of the kids drove to the ER and saw me off.”
Laura actually rode with her father in the ambulance to HCMC while the rest of the family arrived separately.
Once at HCMC, the family gathered and prayed over Rakow. Ironically, the surgeon that was needed to work on Rakow was already performing in surgery, so HCMC officials made the decision to send Rakow to Abbott Northwestern Hospital, which is located about eight blocks down the street from HCMC.
At this point, four hours had passed since the nail had entered Rakow’s chest. “It kind of blew me away when they told me it was 5 o’clock. I was thinking time was of the essence,” he said.
Carmen agreed that the afternoon had a surreal feel to it.
“It was happening but it felt like it wasn’t,” she said, noting that news of the accident had already traveled far and wide and she was comforted to know that thousands of people were praying for her husband.
At Abbott, Rakow learned that open heart surgery would be necessary to remove the nail and fix the damage.
“The last thing I remember is taking a couple of pills with a shot of water. The next thing I knew, I was waking up and people were saying, ‘Eugene, Eugene, you’re okay!’” Rakow recalled.
The surgery took about an hour and after waking up, Rakow learned how lucky he had been.
“The nail went through the sternum, which stopped it from going all the way through,” he said. “The nail went through two chambers of the heart and out the back. It was only two millimeters away from the main artery. Had it hit that, I probably would have died right on the spot. The doctor told my family, ‘You don’t realize how serious this was … most people don’t make it through the surgery.’”
Rakow is aware of how fortunate he is and what might have been regarding the incident. “If that nail gun had any other angle, it would have hit that artery and I would be pushing up daisies,” he said, noting that Carmen keeps the nail in her purse as a memento of the incident.
As Gene recuperates, the Rakows are working hard to keep things as normal as possible but it can be difficult.
For example, it’s hard for Rakow to see things that need attention around the house but not be able to help take care of them because he is on lifting restrictions. Another challenge adding to the situation is that Rakow was without health insurance at the time of the incident. That, coupled with the loss of income from not being able to work for up to six months, has caused considerable financial strain on the family.
In an effort to help alleviate this difficulty, Rakow’s friends and family invite the community to attend a benefit fundraiser at Island View Golf Club in Waconia on Saturday, Nov. 23.
An optional pasta dinner starts at 5 p.m. and is $25 for adults and $10 for children. If you’re interested in attending the dinner, RSVP at (952) 240-5768. Following the dinner, a silent auction will start at 6 p.m. and a benefit concert featuring Jason Swensen, formerly of The Boneshakers, will begin at 8 p.m. Monetary donations can also be made to the Eugene Rakow Benefit Fund at any area KleinBank location.
Rakow is appreciative of the support he and his family have received following the incident.
“It’s very humbling. We were always on the giving end and it’s hard to be on the receiving end,” he said. “You’re taught to help people out, not be on the receiving end. It’s humbling, it’s hard.”
“It’s overwhelming,” Carmen said of the support. “It has been amazing already. The food and gift cards for gas and groceries. It’s hard to comprehend what people have done for us already. It’s humbling. I just have to remain thankful. The people from the community have been really amazing. We’re going to get through this. It’s an absolute miracle. The bottom line is that Gene is still supposed to be here. God wasn’t finished with him yet and wanted him here. There’s no other explanation.”
As noted, Rakow’s story attracted a lot of local, national and international attention. He described the attention as “absolutely crazy” but he understands why people were so interested in his story.
“It’s a miracle but we shouldn’t concentrate on the miracle, we should concentrate on the miracle maker,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the Lord and His providence. Without Him, what’s the point?”
Contact Todd Moen at [email protected]