By Kyle Eller
The Northern Cross
The weather was beautiful that summer Saturday morning, and a lot of parishioners turned out to watch their young priest finish second in a local triathlon.
But Aug. 8 was not a normal day for Father Ben Hadrich, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas in International Falls. “It was just a beautiful day, and it got really weird at the end of that,” he said.
|Photo courtesy of Buzzy Winter
One of the poignant moments of Father Ben Hadrich’s recovery from a stroke came during the Eucharistic Procession for the diocese’s 125th anniversary in September, about a month after his stroke. As the procession route wound past St. Mary’s Medical Center, Father Hadrich was able to come out and briefly carry the monstrance. In October, he was back to serving his parish.
He had put his heart into the race. He felt a little dizzy and had a little headache, but nothing out of the ordinary. But he had given an interview to a local reporter for the sports section, and he remembers his words being a little off. He said when he talked to his mom, in retrospect she noticed the same thing.
He went home and got some medicine and water and took a nap in preparation for the Saturday evening Mass, and when he woke up, he could not speak effectively. His dad told him on the phone to get someone to bring him to the hospital, but he brought himself. He had a big headache when he walked in wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
Father Hadrich was worried about getting the 5 p.m. Mass covered, but soon he learned the doctors were trying to save his life from a stroke, preparing to get a helicopter to Duluth. His doctor told him he was going to be fine. Although he couldn’t form the words in his heart, he was praying.
Then he was on his first helicopter ride.
That wasn’t going to be easy, either. Duluth was under a tornado watch, and it was “foggy and brutal,” Father Hadrich said. He remembers that the sky looked green. They eventually had to land in Cloquet and put him in an ambulance back north to St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth.
His brain surgeon came in straight from a camping trip and told Father Hadrich’s mother, “I might not look it, but I am a brain surgery doctor,” Father Hadrich said.
He has memories of his parents crying, of the presence of Bishop Paul Sirba and of a couple of priests praying. When he woke up, they were taking a tube out of his mouth.
Father Hadrich said the whole experience was hellish — for other people, like his parents, his parishioners, those he had grown close to at his previous assignment at St. John’s in Duluth and at the diocese.
But other than the initial few seconds of the news, it wasn’t that way for him. “That whole time I wasn’t scared,” he said.
He described an experience in the intensive care unit, where he was praying and could say the word “God” but could not form the word “Jesus,” but it was like a heavenly mystical experience. “It was like God was holding me,” he said.
He says Jesus was evident in his path to recovery.
By the day after surgery he was able to receive visits from friends, and after five days he was out of ICU and starting to talk, but he sounded like a baby. A first request was for bacon, which he was able to eat — pureed, something he described as a “first-world problem.”
He shortly transferred to Miller-Dwan to begin recovering, and on the sixth day after his surgery, he was able to receive the Eucharist from his close friend Father Richard Kunst. The next day they concelebrated Mass, although Father Hadrich says, “I didn’t know any words. I didn’t know much of anything.”
They did that for the last 33 days he was in the hospital, sometimes joined by Bishop Sirba and other priests.
In fact, he said most of the priests of the diocese came to visit him in the hospital.
“Every priest in our diocese, they’re my brothers, they’re my best friends,” he said.
A number of priests were also covering Mass for him in International Falls. But about eight weeks out from his stroke, he was back, covering all the Masses.
Father Hadrich wasn’t done with recovery. He has had a long road of therapy to regain his speech, including working with one of the best speech therapists in the country, who is based in the Twin Cities.
But his recovery was once again remarkable. They had to go from the language test for stroke patients to one designed for normal adults to track his progress. His caregivers say that likely has to do with Father Hadrich himself, who was early reader and has an advanced math degree as well as the six years of philosophy, theology, Greek and Latin from his training for the priesthood.
“Learning has been a huge part of my life,” he said.
On his own, he has continued to build his language with reading — the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and regular books — as well as Rosetta Stone software in English.
He now feels like an average adult or average high school student with his writing, lower than where he was before, but a good start.
Every day he takes a nap, he tries to sleep well, he prays a holy hour, celebrates Mass and prays his breviary. He spends a couple of hours a day learning.
Father Hadrich said he’s visited the doctors and nurses and others who cared for him and thanked them for their life-saving work. That doctor in International Falls who put him on the helicopter?
“He said, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re alive. You’re a miracle,’ ” Father Hadrich said. They thought he was dying.
And he has his ticket for Grandma’s Marathon this year; doctors say there is no indication that his stroke was caused by the race.
Father Hadrich said he hopes the attention to his story will draw attention to all the good Jesus Christ does in the world through priests.
“Priests are unbelievable for everybody,” he said. And as for him, he considers it the best job in the world.
“I love being a priest.”