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Friendship by accident

First responder, victim share bond that’s lasted 20 years 

Dan Stecker remembers the day well. It was 6:30 a.m. Sunday, June 6, 2004. He was riding his 1977 BMW motorcycle eastbound on Interstate 90 at 75 mph, descending into the river valley on what’s known locally as the Nodine hill. He had been attending a motorcycle rally in Money Creek near Houston, Minn., but he had to get on the road early to get home for a birthday party and baptism.

As Stecker cruised along, he knew, at that time of morning, he had to be on the lookout for deer; they were moving around. But as the fog lifted, he eased up a bit, and that’s when it happened.

“All of sudden, here he is from the left,” said the 44-year-old Stecker. “I T-boned that sucker going 75. I would not have had enough time to react if my hands had been on the clutch and brakes. No time at all.”

Stecker, along with Vicki Baumgartner, a first responder and Health Unit Coordinator at Gundersen Health System who responded to the accident, shared their story of the harrowing incident during Gundersen’s annual Trauma Symposium for area emergency medical services personnel on May 13.

Upon impact, Stecker was thrown off his bike into a steep ditch along the highway. From that point, he struggled to survive. Almost everything hurt, and after several failed attempts to gain attention from passing motorists, he fumbled for his cell phone to call 911.

Nodine Fire and Rescue – one of several agencies – was paged out, as it is for many accidents on that stretch of interstate. First responders combed the shoulders looking for any sign of a person, and finally, after a couple passes, they located Stecker. The first person to make it to him was Baumgartner, a 30-year member of the department.

“His arms and legs were twisted in ways they should not be,” said Baumgartner, who in the past has worked with Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance.

“She still won’t tell me what directions they were pointing,” Stecker quipped, though he did find out that he broke 16 bones that day, including a femur fracture.

While waiting for Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance and GundersenAIR to arrive, Baumgartner kept talking to Stecker, keeping him informed of what they were doing – and keeping him conscious. Those long moments were when the pair bonded, she said.

Stecker finally was transported to Gundersen La Crosse, where he was treated for his injuries.

“How he survived that was beyond me,” Baumgartner said.

Stecker became emotional as he recalled that day. He knows it was Baumgartner and those who arrived after her who saved his life. It left an impression on him, so much so that three years after the incident, Stecker decided to pay Baumgartner a surprise visit at her home.

“This guy shows up on a motorcycle and I have no clue who this is,” she said. “He walks up to me and says, ‘Hey, are you Vicki? Do you remember me? I’m Dan.’”

Baumgartner still didn’t know who it was until he said something to her that she remembers hearing at the scene three years earlier. “I’m alive.”

“The tears just flowed,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

From that moment, the two have shared a bond that is, as Baumgartner puts it, immeasurable. Ten years later, in 2017, Stecker married his wife in a ceremony in Hawaii, then returned home for a local reception. He asked Baumgartner to be there at his home near Milwaukee. Along with her partner at the scene that day and their spouses, Baumgartner made the trip over to this time surprise him.

“It was the most amazing experience that I’ve had,” she said.

In 2019, Stecker returned to the scene of the accident to see where it happened, then got a tour of the Nodine fire station before returning to Baumgartner’s home for a cookout with several of the EMS personnel who were there that day. It was just another chapter in a friendship that grew out of trauma.

“This story impacted us in such a way in that it just does not happen in the history of EMS,” Baumgartner said. “It’s very rare, but also very treasured to me.”

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