By Scott Thoma
If Tim Berens was a cat, he would have used up all nine of his lives by now.
“My life has not been boring,” laughed the 68-year-old single Benson man.
Despite facing one injury, illness or death-defying moment after another, Berens is still able to find humor in most things.
“I’m like the old Timex watch commercial,” he joked. “I take a licking and keep on ticking.”
Before he reached adulthood, Berens had already gone through a myriad of health issues related to a malfunction in his heart that he was born with. He also contracted polio one month before the vaccine came out.
When he was six years old, he miraculously survived open-heart surgery at the University of Minnesota Heart Hospital at a time when that type of surgery wasn’t nearly as common as it is now; especially for someone so young.
“They did (open-heart) surgery a lot differently back then,” said Berens, lifting his shirt to reveal a horizontal scar from his chest to the middle of his back instead of today’s traditional vertical incision. “I had 127 stitches.”
During his lengthy hospital stay, Berens developed pneumonia and later double-pneumonia. He also had a life-threatening allergic reaction to penicillin.
“My face puffed way up like a blowfish,” he recalls. “I remember my mom and dad coming into my room and turning around and walking out. They went out to ask where their son was because they didn’t recognize me.”
Doctors then put Berens on a morphine drip every four hours to combat his pain. But the nurses on his wing were having a hard time ignoring his cries when the pain intensified. So they would give him his dose of morphine every 3 1/2 hours, and then eventually every three hours, as Berens was becoming addicted to the opioid medication.
When the doctor found out the dosage was being administered more often, he ordered it to be returned to the prescribed four-hour intervals again.
“The nurse’s station was right across from my room and there was another nurse’s station at the other end,” Berens said. “The nurses by my room all moved down to the other end so they didn’t have to hear me crying when I was in pain.”
Berens, unknowing at the time, was in excellent hands. His chief surgeon at the U of M Heart Hospital was Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, who pioneered open-heart surgery. And Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant surgery in 1967, was second in command.
After being released from the hospital in Minneapolis after several months, Berens returned to Benson and spent some time in the hospital there before he was able to return to his parents’ farm home northwest of Benson.
Berens then underwent polio surgeries on his ankle, foot, hip and knee in 1963, ‘66 and ‘69.
“They removed the front half of my right knee joint so I could walk better with a full leg brace,” said Berens, who continues to wear the brace whenever he goes outdoors. “When I had my surgery in 1966, I was put in a full-body cast from my armpits to the tips of my toes for three months in the summer; June, July and August. And that was when we didn’t have air conditioning.”
The heat and inability to wash his skin inside the cast caused him to itch.
“I wanted to scratch so bad,” he said. “They had used a type of metal stitches back then, and I soon found out that when I drummed on my cast, it would cause those stitches to vibrate. And the vibrations helped soothe my itching. I started to learn where to drum on the cast so it would vibrate in the area that itched.”
And life didn’t get much easier in his adult years either. Berens was struck by a freight train 25 years ago, got his foot caught in a grain auger in 1982, and was struck by a vehicle while walking across the street in Benson in 2010.
“I have also been in three motorcycle accidents, one snowmobile accident, and a truck accident,” he said with a smile. “And I had total hip replacement on my good (left) leg in June of 2019. And those are only a few of the situations I’ve been involved in.”
The train accident occurred on Jan. 25, 1985, outside of Benson as he was going home to his farm around midnight. Back then, there were no crossing arms or flashing lights at the tracks.
“That track had been abandoned for several years, too, so I was used to crossing it with no train coming,” Berens said. “But they started using the track again just before my accident.
“There used to be a night light on the west side of the road near the tracks, but it wasn’t shining that night. I figured it must have been burnt out.”
As Berens got closer to the tracks, he looked to the east and noticed a “big, monstrous light” shining through a bunch of willow trees.
“I wondered why the night light was on the wrong side of the road,” he said. “But then I saw the light move and it got twice as bright. I figured it had to be a train.”
A light coating of snow had fallen that night, and when Berens tried to stop, the Oldsmobile Toronado he was driving began to slide. So he tried pumping the brakes, but they wouldn’t grab.
“I tried everything,” he said. “I put the car in reverse, I put it in neutral, I tried slamming on the brakes and I tried flooring it. But nothing worked. So I just said ‘Well God, it’s all up to you if I live or die.’”
Berens remembered hearing the sound of the train colliding with the front fender of his vehicle before blacking out when his head hit the windshield.
When he regained consciousness Berens noticed his vehicle had landed on a field approach, and the radio was still playing.
“I was listening to an Alexandria station playing country music,” he said. “And when I came to, the song on the radio was Kris Kristofferson singing ‘What a friend we have in Jesus.’”
Berens suffered only a small scratch on the top of his hand.
Three years prior to that train mishap, Berens got his right leg caught in a grain auger when he slipped trying to turn a partially frozen wheel to open the chute to allow the corn to flow.
“I lifted myself off the ground so I could use all my weight to try and turn the wheel,” he explained. “I came down on my bad leg and slipped down into the auger.”
The metal brace he was wearing due to his polio as a child saved his leg. The auger gripped around the brace and squeezed it tight against his ankle, but did not crush his foot.
Berens’ cousin was talking to another man approximately 75 yards away at the time, but because the auger and tractor were still running, couldn’t hear Berens yelling for help. And when Berens motioned for him to come over, the cousin thought he was waving and waved back.
“Finally, he noticed the smoke from the belts burning because the auger was still running but was stuck on my brace,” Berens said. “When my cousin came over, he asked why I hadn’t seen the belts burning. So I told him because my foot was stuck in the auger.”
The cousin shut the auger off and then helped to get Berens’ foot out of the auger... they also had to bend the metal brace away from Berens’ foot using a pipe wrench.
In December of 2010, while crossing the street in downtown Benson, Berens was struck by an elderly motorist who didn’t see him.
“I sort of stiff-armed the car so it wouldn’t hit my chest,” Berens said. “When the vehicle hit me, I flew about 30 feet and bounced three times on my butt.”
He managed to escape that accident with injuries to his rotator cuff and left hip.
Berens isn’t one to sit around and feel sorry for himself, nor does he wonder why he has managed to survive this many tragedies during his lifetime.
“I just figure that God isn’t ready for me up in heaven yet,” he said. “And the devil hates competition.”