Jon Tevlin
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“They cut my toe off on Friday,” said Mike Krueger as he looked up from his bed at the Veterans Hospital. “Then, had a heart attack, some sort of infarction, I don’t know. So the rapid response team comes, my guy Russ comes in to rescue some fat guy laying on a bed, saves my life.”

Krueger pointed to the nurse monitoring him from the doorway in the intensive care unit. “Look at this guy. Jorge. He’s a freakin’ star. They’re all stars, these kids. I call them kids. I just really, seriously want to give these kids some recognition. They’ll do anything for you, and they get no recognition. They get nothing.”

Krueger’s medical adventure started back in July, when he went to the hospital with a blister on his little toe. He got pumped full of antibiotics, but he’s a diabetic with poor circulation in his feet, and the infection continued to get worse. Doctors had to remove his toe.

“Took the bandage off and it stunk,” said Krueger, a 63-year-old truck driver who speaks with poetic bluntness, some of which has to be altered for the newspaper. “Then I started going through the heart stuff. I had no heart problems before, unless you count the times I tried to haul my fat [posterior] up the stairs. It was fate, I guess.”

Krueger has been lying in the hospital’s ICU, waiting until Tuesday, when he will undergo a quadruple bypass. I asked him if he was nervous.

“I’m flippin’ terrified,” Krueger said, and then the burly truck driver’s voice quavered. He took a sip of water to stop himself from crying.

“I think I’m in manopause,” he said.

Lying in bed this week, Krueger called me out of the blue, saying he had a story about the VA. Reporters will tell you they are likely to return those calls because you never know what you’ll get. People who are sick or in pain are often cranky and scared and they want to blame someone or report incompetence.

Not Krueger.

He just wanted to tell someone how grateful he was for the dozens of strangers who do everything for him as he lies helpless in bed. I feel exceptionally lucky that he chose to tell me. A nurse asked Krueger if he might not want to wait until after surgery to talk with me, but he said, “What if I die on the table? No, I’m doing it now.”

“My friends call me ‘The Walmart greeter,’ ” Krueger said. “I’ll gab with anyone.”

Krueger served in Germany in 1972. He was about to be sent to Vietnam when President Richard Nixon stopped sending troops. “Spent 2½ years in Europe and had a ball.”

Krueger has been a bartender, and for the past 16 years, a truck driver. He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to do heavy work again, but he’s got to do something when he gets out of the hospital.

“Got to pay the bills somehow,” he said.

Despite his shaky health and fear of surgery, Krueger is filled with gratitude. He had written down a list of people he wanted mentioned in a story.

“I’ve got a gal named Alanni,” said Krueger. “Gal named Misty. Gal named Karen. Just freakin’ unbelievable.

“On the lower level, I’ve got Kristy, Vicki and Paula,” Krueger continued. “I got rapid response, I got my doctors, Green and LeJeune. I call them ‘the dream team.’ There’s Michael the food kid. There’s Jorge and Katie and a gal I had last night, Aleta.

“Jorge is what, 24? And he’s at the top of his deal,” Krueger said. “Flippin’ star.”

Krueger gave me a list with more names, but I warned him I likely wouldn’t have room for all of them. If you work at the VA and met Krueger, you should know that he appreciates you more than you can imagine.

Before I left, Kruger wanted to tell me one more thing, which he had written on his list. It said, “Walk of honor.”

“A patient passed away here,” he said, his voice shaking again. “All these kids lined up, walked past his door.”

Krueger’s eyes filled with tears and he had to stop the story.

“To show respect?” I asked him.

Krueger nodded his head but barely got the word out.

“Respect,” he said.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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