People Issue 2016: Frezgi Hiskias, the giver

Hospice nurse Frezgi Hiskias battles his own pain to care for terminally ill patients.

Hospice nurse Frezgi Hiskias battles his own pain to care for terminally ill patients.

The City Pages People Issue celebrates ordinary folks who do extraordinary things. Though their triumphs are rarely acknowledged, they make the Twin Cities a better place.

Frezgi Hiskias has been around a lot of death.

The St. Paul man was born to a shepherding family in war-torn Eritrea. During the East African country's 30-year freedom fight, bombings and still bodies were familiar sights. But it wasn't the violent communist regime that nearly took his life.

His semi-nomadic family spent half the year traveling with their cows, goats, and camels in search of green pastures. On one trip, a young Hiskias and his cousin Berhe became separated from their group in the midst of strong winds and heavy rain. By the time the 13-year-olds caught up, the rest of their crew had taken shelter under a large tree. The boys found another 100 meters away.

That's when the lightning hit, splintering the tree and sending electricity through their bodies. Hiskias was burnt inside and out.

He doesn't remember anything until he woke up freezing by a midnight fire, half a day from the nearest village. Berhe wasn't so lucky.

"He died," Hiskias says faintly. "He was not breathing by the time they found him."

There wasn't a Mayo Clinic in rural 1970s Eritrea. Hiskias' wounds didn't heal properly. His growth plates were damaged and his left knee twisted sideways. He developed a severe limp and relied on a cane.

"I was in so much pain, it was just agonizing," he recalls. "Over there it's so primitive, there's no medical treatment. It's like a remote village you see on TV."

Thirty years ago, he came to Minnesota, where his sisters lived, on a medical visa. He has since had at least seven surgeries on his legs, spinal nerves, and even his brain.

Hiskias didn't speak English when he arrived, but after gaining political asylum he eventually earned his high school diploma.

In 1984, Hiskias enrolled in the University of Minnesota's nursing school. His pain was so bad he couldn't sit down in class, so he stood along the back wall. Crisscrossing between the West and East Banks was "torture."

His anguish helped Hiskias realize his calling. He's spent the past 12 years working as a hospice nurse at Our Lady of Peace. The St. Paul charity provides free care for terminally ill patients who are out of money.

Every day Hiskias sets aside his own ailments to make the final days of others as comfortable as he can. Some mornings, Hiskias hurts so bad he prays that God will give him the strength to get through it, to help him help them.

"It humbles me, really," Hiskias says. "You become so sensitive because you go through that, then when you see somebody in pain you understand how they're feeling."

While he still struggles with his health, landing in the ER a few times a year, Hiskias has found happiness in helping others die peacefully and with dignity.

"I make a difference," he says with humble pride.

Fortunately for the Twin Cities, lightning couldn't kill Frezgi Hiskias.

Click here to read the rest of our People Issue 2016 profiles.