The first inkling of trouble cut through the dangerously cold air and caught Jeff Stockwell’s ear in the predawn quiet of Monday morning.
It sounded like the wail of a cat desperate to get inside and out of the well-below-zero temperatures, Stockwell thought to himself as he delivered newspapers off of Johnson Drive in Shawnee about 3:30 a.m. Monday.
Then he heard it again.
“It registered with me that it was something strange,” the longtime Kansas City Star employee said.
Stockwell got out of his vehicle to investigate and found 77-year-old Tony Soetaert had fallen outside and could not get up.
“He was definitely scared,” Stockwell said. “He said he thought he had been there about an hour.”
Stockwell tried unsuccessfully to help him up before calling 911.
When the ambulance crew arrived, Soetaert had a core body temperature of 92 degrees, which is classified as mild hypothermia, said Angela Fera, a public information officer for Johnson County Med-Act. Clad only in a jacket and shorts, Soetaert had begun to experience a “decreased level of consciousness,” Fera said.
Soetaert, who served as Shawnee’s mayor from 1977 to 1989, was taken to a hospital in stable condition. He was admitted into the intensive care unit as a precaution.
“He clearly made a difference in this gentleman’s outcome,” Fera said of Stockwell.
Stockwell had been delivering papers on a long cul-de-sac when he heard the noise then saw a trash can on its side in the driveway of a house with an open garage door. Soetaert apparently had fallen while taking out trash. Stockwell found him leaning against a vehicle inside the open garage.
Soetaert’s daughter Julie King said the family thinks he fell outdoors but made it back inside the garage. King said her mother was asleep in the house and didn’t hear anything.
If Stockwell had not come along, it could have been hours before anybody else was up and about in the neighborhood, King said.
“I don’t want to even think about it,” she said. “We’re so thankful for Jeff.”
King said Monday afternoon that her father was doing much better. His body temperature was back up, but doctors wanted to keep him overnight as a precaution.
It is important when venturing outside in such extreme cold to dress properly and have some way of summoning help, such as a cellphone, if something happens, Fera said.
Stockwell said he was glad that he was there to help.
“I don’t ever remember it being this cold,” he said. “This morning was brutal.”