Nearly three weeks after Linda Radtke’s mud season disaster, she was still finding mud in her ears.
Radtke, host of VPR’s ‘Choral Hour,’ spent seven hours overnight stuck on a soupy dirt road in Middlesex. It was unseasonably warm that evening, but the temperature was falling fast. Less than a mile up the road lay Radtke’s husband, Bob Jervis, sick in bed with a fever. Both of them requested towing service. It never arrived.
Finally, sometime after 4 in the morning, a tow truck driver discovered Radtke after receiving a call from state police about an abandoned vehicle. She hung inverted out the driver’s side window. She was freezing, unconscious, her mouth in the mud.
Radtke’s doing better now, undergoing rehabilitation at the Fanny Allen Campus of the University of Vermont Medical Center. She even expects to return home on Saturday — far more quickly than anyone expected.
But the question remains: What exactly happened on the night of March 17?
At about 8:45 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, Radtke’s car became stuck in the mud on Center Road in Middlesex, according to a state police report. She was on her way home from singing with Counterpoint, a Montpelier-based professional vocal ensemble.
According to Jervis, Radtke called AAA to request a tow. Around 10 p.m., she also called Jervis at home, and he too called AAA.
Later, Jervis tried Radtke on her cellphone. It went to voicemail. He called again. Same thing. He wanted to assure her that help was on the way, he said.
But according to the Vermont State Police, AAA was not able to provide service.
At 3:30 a.m., state police received a call from a passerby about a car stuck in the middle of Center Road. Police called The Auto Clinic — a service center in Barre — and asked it to tow the ostensibly abandoned car.
When Matthew Collins, a driver for The Auto Clinic, arrived on the scene, he could not initially make sense of what he saw. Something was hanging out of the car window.
It was Radtke. She was wrapped in a dirty sleeping bag. She had one leg stuck through the driver’s side window of her car, lodged beneath the steering wheel. Her face, buried in the mud, was obscured.
“You could hear gurgling,” Collins said. “She had a very, very faint, shallow heartbeat, just barely breathing. Her airways and all that, her nose, everything was full of mud.”
A layer of grime coated the car’s sides, hood and floor. The front bumper drooped into the road.
Collins called state police to request help. Although Radtke “looked dead” and “was ice cold to the touch,” Collins knew she must be alive. He tried and failed to lift her from where she hung. From his truck, he grabbed a rubber mat and placed it beneath her upper body.
“That was the first saving of her life,” Jervis said of Collins’ quick thinking. “He’s a hero.”
Had Collins not stopped Radtke’s inhalation of mud, Jervis believes his wife would have died.
The first state police trooper arrived around 5:26 a.m., according to the police report, at which time it was around 32 degrees fahrenheit. Another quickly followed.
It would eventually take six people to carry Radtke through nearly knee-deep mud to an ambulance, Collins said. Radtke was then taken to Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin.
Around 8 that morning, police arrived at Jervis’s door. They told him what had happened and told him to prepare for the worst. “I just couldn’t imagine life without her,” he recalled.
In the emergency room, the medical team got to work. Radtke’s temperature had fallen to 77 degrees, Jervis said — a life-threatening level of hypothermia.
The staff managed to raise Radtke’s temperature to 88 degrees but were struggling to make further progress. She was transported to the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.
As doctors continued to work, Radtke’s heart stopped, Jervis said. Within minutes, she was brought back to life with a defibrillator.
Radtke had aspirated an exceptional amount of mud. It took multiple procedures to begin cleaning out her airways and lungs.
For six days, Radtke required the use of a ventilator.
Mud season nearly killed her. It’s unclear why Radtke did not receive help sooner.
The police report provides an explanation of why a tow truck dispatched by AAA never arrived.
According to the report, a AAA contractor first confirmed it would respond to Radtke’s call at 9:35 p.m. Half an hour later, the same tow service told AAA that Radtke’s car was in a driveway and the service wouldn’t take the call because it “was swamped and not going out tonight,” the report said.
AAA then scheduled a tow for the morning, according to the report.
Reached for comment, a AAA spokesperson said the company was “unable to secure service and both the AAA dispatcher and local contactor communicated this to the member.
“We also were in communication with the member’s spouse and informed him of the situation,” wrote Daniel Goodman, public affairs manager at AAA Northern New England.
“From the onset of this call for assistance the member indicated they were safe and within proximity of their home. We care deeply about our member’s safety and triage our calls based on how the member describes the situation.”
AAA often works with other companies to fulfill their members’ needs. In this case, according to AAA, it tried and failed to get a third-party towing company to help her.
Jervis declined to comment on AAA’s version of the night’s events.
What Collins, the truck driver alerted by state police, witnessed on the scene sheds some light on what could have occurred in the hours before he discovered Radtke unconscious.
When he arrived at her car around 4 that morning, the doors were locked, Collins said. He and Sgt. William Warner later discovered footprints all around the vehicle and found the keys in a puddle not far behind it.
According to the police report, Collins and Warner also discovered women’s glasses and a shirt. It looked like Radtke had tried at length to free her vehicle from the road, Collins said.
The locked doors and lost keys could explain Radtke’s position dangling from the car window. Maybe while attempting to get unstuck, she lost the keys, Collins suggested. Perhaps Radtke was locked out and could only enter through the window.
“No one could come up with, you know, exactly how they thought she would get into that position,” Collins said. “That’s led me to the only explanation that I could think of.”
Radtke herself remembers little of that night.
“I don’t remember the details of the accident at all,” she said. “You might know more.”
From her room in Fanny Allen, Radtke described the harrowing days on the ventilator, and the incredible recovery she’s made since.
“For me, one of the biggest things that I didn’t know I’d have to work on so much was the trauma of those days,” Radtke said, recounting the visions she had while sedated. “I was in spaceships, I was being strangled, I was in Santa Fe, I was all over the place.”
Since Radtke was taken off the ventilator, her condition has continuously improved. She moved first from the ICU to a regular hospital bed, and on March 31 she was discharged and moved to Fanny Allen for rehabilitation. She continues to recover, enjoying visitors daily.
“It’s been interesting to work with a person who specializes in trauma recovery,” Radtke said, “to understand what your body was going through that caused your brain to have this fight-or-flight (response).”
By nature, Radtke deals with difficulty by moving on, picking herself up, she said. Yet she has had to come to terms with the severity of her accident: cardiac arrest, hypothermia, things she won’t benefit from minimizing.
Watching the workings of her healing brain has brought Radtke joy. When she can’t find the words she needs, her mind gets creative. When she needed “glasses,” she instead found “spectacles.” Grasping for “arm wrestling,” her brain created “bicep ballet” — a startlingly poetic substitute.
Her goal for a week ago was to end a sentence remembering where it began. As she spoke, she seemed to be achieving that — and then some.
“I’m talking too much, but it’s fun,” she said.
On Tuesday, Radtke went outdoors for the first time since she was hospitalized. She walked an unsupported lap of the building, fought through quivering, weary thighs, and felt the sun on her face.
Her brush with death has left her awash in empathy. Empathy for the staff members at Fanny Allen, who have braved two years of Covid and continue to devote themselves to their patients. Empathy for her hospital neighbors, suffering from similar disabilities, some without family to visit. And empathy for the first responders who saved her life, risking getting stuck themselves to free Radtke from breathing in more mud.
That position — left with her head submerged — is responsible for the damage to Radtke’s voice. And as a singer, that damage has been foremost on her mind.
To an untrained ear, she sounds normal. But Radtke notices a significant difference.
“It was very hard for me initially as a singer, and as a broadcaster, to say, ‘OK, this is not my voice,’” Radtke said. “I’m not passing the mark, in my own estimation.”
On Tuesday, she worked with a vocal coach, who understands the issues facing Radtke’s future. She had aspirated mud, and her larynx was damaged. While Radtke remains hopeful, she’s had to consider a future without singing, a process aided by the experts surrounding her.
“I might be losing a big passion of my life,” Radtke said from her room in Fanny Allen. “I’ve sort of worked through that here.”