Eugene Rakow, the 58-year-old carpenter who fired that nail directly into his heart. All photos courtesy of his daughter, Naomi Rakow.
Getting a two-inch splinter while sanding plywood is a drag. Smashing your thumb into gooey pulp with a hammer is also a drag. Accidentally shooting yourself directly in the heart with a fucking nail gun is the sort of thing that makes you stop and wonder what the hell you're doing with your life, and why you're anywhere near a situation where that's even possible.
Eugene Rakow is a 58-year-old self-employed carpenter living in St. Bonifacious, Minnesota. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of it—a 2010 census set the town at just 2,283 people. Not too long ago, Eugene was helping his neighbor build a deck when he made a little mistake, and accidently fired a three-and-a-half inch galvanized framing nail directly into his heart. Worse still, Eugene doesn't have health insurance, and he's got seven kids, all homeschooled. Luckily, his daughter Naomi has set up a Paypal account where people can donate to help him pay the bills.
The whole thing became a bit of a local story, and I'm fascinated with the macabre, so what the hell. I hit up Naomi on Twitter and she actually got back to me and was really, really nice, especially considering that her dad just went through the scariest thing that could happen in professional carpentry. I wanted to know what it felt like to fire a nail into your own heart, so I gave Eugene a quick call. He turned out to have more bravery in one little punctured chamber than I probably have in my whole body.
VICE: Hi Eugene. So I read in the Minnesota Star Tribune that you're the guy who shot himself in the heart with a nail gun.
Eugene Rakow: Yes. Well, I was building a deck for a neighbor, and I was driving in nails at about chest level. I was pushing the nail gun up, and my arms were in the air. Then the gun bounced and hit me, and just sort of shot a nail right into my chest.
I don't understand. Did it bounce out of your hands?
No, not quite. It bounced up in the air and I caught hold of it. When the weight of the gun came back down it hit me in the chest, but I still had my finger on the trigger.
Would you say that you actually pulled the trigger and fired a nail directly into your heart?
No, not exactly. I was pulling the trigger when I was nailing the wood, and these things have a pretty good kick to them, seeing as they're guns. So when it came down and hit me it went off again, and I just shot myself in the heart.
About how long of a nail are we talking about here?
It was a three-and-a-half inch framing nail.
Oh, my God. Did you get to keep it?
Yeah, they gave it back to my wife, so I've got it now.
The nail, with Eugene's iPhone for reference. Look at your own phone and imagine that thing burying into your heart at a high speed.
What was your first reaction when you realized you'd shot yourself in the chest?
Well, the first thing was just saying, "Jeez, that was dumb. I can't believe that just happened." Then I realized that I'd shot myself in the chest, and that this was probably going to be serious. I knew I had to get someplace, and fast. I thought if I'd hit myself in the heart or lungs, I'd bleed to death right there. So I called up my wife and told her, "Get over here right away, I just shot myself in the chest." I was having a hard time breathing, that's for sure.
Do you think it was hard to breathe because the nail was in your heart?
Well, maybe, but I was also in shock, you know. It was a burning pain, but when I moved, it would kind of crunch and gurgle.
So you mean when you moved you could kind of feel the nail in your heart?
Yeah. And I could also feel the wound, which was sort of crunching like a broken bone when I tried to breathe. The doctors said that the nail was in the "kill zone." Anything that happens there, you almost never survive.
An X-ray of Eugene's heart taken at Abbot Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.
You were with people, right? Did they freak out?
Well, my wife panics pretty easy, and she started crying on the way to the hospital. I told her to hold it together, because we had to get there quickly. By the time we got there, they had to cut my shirt off. The surgeon told me that things were going to start happening pretty fast.
Did you have microsurgery?
No, it was exactly the same procedure as open-heart surgery.
OK, so you must have been in an exorbitant amount of pain at this point.
No, not real bad. It was still hard to breathe, and I couldn't catch my breath, but there wasn't a whole lot of blood, to be honest. The nail went through two chambers of my heart, but my sternum stopped it from going all the way in. I couldn't even see the nail head sticking out of my chest, it had buried itself too deep into my flesh. It missed my main arteries by two millimeters, and the doctors told me if it'd hit a main artery, I would've been dead on the spot.
Eugene's chest, postsurgery.
Had the hospital ever seen anything like that before?
No. They'd dealt with gunshot wounds, but never a nail. The doctor told me I should buy a lottery ticket, because I was the luckiest person he'd ever seen in his entire life.
How do you feel, now that this whole nightmare is over? You seem pretty calm, actually.
Well, I'm glad I didn't panic. When things like this happen, you have to keep your head about you and do the right thing. If you panic, there's a whole other set of things for you and everyone around you to deal with. I was trying to keep calm in the hospital, so I tried to tell the occasional joke to lighten the mood.
Wait, what joke?
It's not appropriate.
Well, they asked me if I smoked, and I said, "Only after sex, or if I walk too fast."
OK. Well, in closing, do you have any advice for anyone else out there who might accidentally shoot themselves in the heart with a nail gun?
Yeah, uh... Don't do it.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @b_shap
Eugene stayed calmer than you could ever possibly have stayed during this ordeal. You should really do him a favor and spend five bucks to help pay his medical bills—hit up his daughter Naomi's PayPal account, linked to her email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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