The Ice Man
There's plenty Scott Romfo doesn't remember from that night 18 years ago. Sure, he has a sense of who he was with, and where he was, and what he was drinking. But these recollections remain fluid, changing over time according to what he gleans and what he is told. For all the dark romance we apply to boozing, there's nothing more perfectly mysterious than the blackout.
Most of what Romfo knows for sure stems from what he no longer has. He can look down at the plastic brace that curves over where his right hand used to be and realize the impossibility of opening a bottle of wine. He can ponder the cigarette he holds in the metal claw that functions as his left hand. And eventually he'll harken back to the last night he danced, in loafers and cashmere socks, on his own two feet.
"There are a few things I can't do," Romfo says, citing a list of everyday chores that won't let him forget. "I can't crack an egg in the morning." He states this matter-of-factly, while sipping a Bombay Sapphire and tonic in a corner booth at the C.C. Club. It's been more than 15 years since I last saw Romfo--at the time, we were in high school together and in attendance at a classmate's party. When I tell him the lasting image I have is of him holding a plastic beer cup in his claw, he nods. Then he begins telling the story of the night he froze to death and was brought, miraculously, back to life.
It was a cold Friday the 13th in December 1985, just 10 days after Romfo's 17th birthday. Temperatures hovered around the 20 below mark; the wind made it feel even colder. It would have been a good night to stay in, except that Romfo was intent on attending a winter dance scheduled to take place in the cafeteria of our suburban high school. Prior to the dance, Romfo tried and failed to score booze at a west metro liquor store with his older brother Chuck's ID. He and some friends managed to find a buyer of age, and soon they were all swigging from a bottle of Absolut in his Jeep in the Orono High School parking lot.
Does it matter what happens at a high school dance? A band--the Urban Guerillas--played. Romfo remembers that much, and also the black jeans and cashmere socks and loafers he wore. He vaguely recalls driving to a house party afterward. There he was, all five and a half feet of him, perched on someone's kitchen counter in Webber Hills, a tony neighborhood in Long Lake, sipping the vodka that had been perfectly chilled on the car seat in the brutal cold. He passed the bottle around. The party was packed when the cops came. End of party.
Romfo got a ride home, he's told, and someone trailed behind in his car. Sometime after midnight, his escorts dropped him off at a house on Hamel Road in Medina. Romfo, feeling very drunk, waved them on and smoked a cigarette on the front step. He remembers that the front door was locked, a safety precaution that his parents never took, and wondered why the family dogs weren't barking. It didn't immediately occur to him that he was at the wrong house, three doors down in an exurban expanse, half a mile from home.
He lost a shoe. "I remember thinking to myself, I just need to rest a minute and I can walk home," Romfo says. "And that's when I lost consciousness." He stepped off the stoop and tripped backward into a snow bank, arms akimbo, like a snow angel.
When he was found after ten o'clock on Saturday morning, Romfo's eyes were frozen open. It turned out his neighbors--the ones who lived in the house he'd mistaken for his own--had sold the property and moved out. They just happened to stop by on Saturday to pick up a few remaining belongings. That's when they discovered the icy body in their front yard.
A Medina cop arrived to examine Romfo, still on his back in the snow. The officer rifled through Romfo's pockets and found the ID he'd used in an attempt to buy alcohol the night before--the cop was certain he was looking at a dead Chuck Romfo. Hamel Road was cordoned off, and another neighbor came to see what all the commotion was about. He noticed two things: First, that the boy was Scott, not Chuck; and, more importantly, that when he looked into Romfo's eyes he saw life. Authorities immediately called for a chopper to fly Romfo to North Memorial Hospital.
Meanwhile, before the helicopter could arrive, Anita Romfo made her way down Hamel Road toward the local grocery store. She was stopped at the police line in front of her neighbor's house. That's when she saw her son. Because she was too distraught to drive, an officer walked her back to her house and then drove both parents to North Memorial in the back of a squad car.
At the hospital, doctors worked to save Romfo by draining blood from an artery in his groin, warming it in a machine, and then pumping it back into his chest, near his heart. Doctors had never recorded such a low body temperature in a living human--he'd set a rather maudlin world record. The previous low was 61.9 degrees, but, says Romfo, "We don't know how cold I was. All the thermometers only went down to 60, and I bottomed out all the thermometers." His internal organs worked to save themselves at the expense of his limbs. "There were lines at my extremities where blood stopped flowing," he remembers. "The blood was being used for the heart and lungs. They all said it was a pretty amazing thing, and that's why I was still alive."
The blood warming took more than four hours. Romfo, amazingly, had suffered no brain or lung damage, and by Saturday evening he was awake. "When I first woke up, I knew what had happened," Romfo says. It's not so much that he remembered details, it was more that somehow, subconsciously, with his eyes wide open, his brain had been processing what was going on. "All I was asking for was a glass of water."
As the hours and days wore on, the pain became excruciating. Three times daily, nurses changed the dressings on his hands and feet and each time, the air stung his limbs to the extent that he would scream for Demerol--he eventually developed an addiction to the painkiller that had to be cured by acupuncture. He begged doctors to amputate his hands and feet and they did, finally, during a nine-hour operation.
Romfo recalls that during his long hospital stay, he experienced recurring hallucinations, due equally to trauma, pain, and drugs. "In one, I was an actor in a play at the Guthrie," he says, "and there was a call for the second act, and the call came over the intercom." Romfo stops to remind me that he was in our school's theater program before the incident. "I couldn't get out of the bed. I was calling backstage to get out of the bed. Another one was, I thought I was in a rock band and I was trying to catch a plane. They were very vivid."
While Romfo was still recuperating, he was asked to stand in the glare of a very real spotlight. The media had somehow discovered his sensational story and they came calling, cameras and microphones in hand. When I tell Romfo that I remember an entire episode of Donahue devoted to the dangers of teen drinking, stemming from news of his incident, he shakes his head. He says members of the local media hounded his family for years, and that local reporter Pat Miles worked overtime to figure out who he was and went so far as to call his hospital room pretending to be a family member. He's still amused by a headline on the cover of the Weekly World News: "Tipsy Teen Spends Night in Subzero Snowbank--and Lives!"
Romfo never talked to the media. He refused to tell his story for a made-for-TV movie. And when groups like MADD wanted to exploit his case as the ultimate cautionary tale in high schools around the country, he had all of his medical records sealed. He points out that his family never sued anyone. It was a point of pride, and perhaps necessity, to move on and not become a poster boy for anything. Within six months of his near-death, he was again behind the wheel of a car. He returned to school and completed his senior year. He went on to graduate from college and today makes a living selling real estate. He just turned 35. "I was clinically dead, whatever that means," Romfo says. "I went back to living."
While telling his story now, in a booth at the C.C., Romfo pulls out a well-preserved stack of cards he received from classmates while in the hospital. He praises the team of doctors and nurses who took care of him. And he remembers his recently deceased father, Bob, who always told him he was strong enough to overcome anything.
He casts no blame. "It was my choice to drink. It wasn't anybody else's. I made the choice and I have to pay."
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