I’m Alive: Courage, Hope and a Miracle is the story of Edina resident and former high school hockey star Duke Pieper, who, at 15, reached both the heights and depths of his young life. A lurking blood vessel malformation in his brain began its siege minutes before Pieper’s debut as a freshman on the Hill-Murray High School varsity hockey team. In place of his dreams of hockey stardom, Pieper found illness, surgery, infection, paralysis, months of hospitalization and lingering disability.
And yet, by his own admission, Pieper has emerged a better person, a bigger person. He now knows what is important, he says, and it isn’t being at the top of high school hockey. Instead, I’m Alive is in the world because Duke Pieper is alive, because he survived a surgery with a 95 percent fatality rate. “I wanted to be that person for others—that person who survived,” he says. “I wanted to help people, in this and every kind of bad situation they face. I wanted to help them overcome obstacles.”
Obstacles like learning, after months of paralysis following a post-operative infection, to walk, talk, dress and eat. Obstacles like hardly recognizing the face he saw in the mirror. In fact, the obstacles Pieper has addressed and overcome during and since his year-long ordeal are nearly unending. He’s battled residual balance difficulties and weakness with grueling physical workouts and practice, practice, practice. He’s accommodated exasperating double vision, passed his driver’s test, and now drives independently. Despite a year of illness and another year of home schooling, he graduated from high school with his Hill-Murray classmates. He’s finished three years of study at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, maintaining a fine GPA while living independently, far away from home.
I’m Alive is co-written by sports biographer Jim Bruton, who admits he wasn’t going to do the book because he didn’t know Pieper and “was pressed for time.” But Pieper called Bruton, and they met. “Duke is a wonderful, humble kid. I came home and told my wife, ‘I have to do this story.’ ” Bruton adds that the book is designed for people waking up to days they can’t face, people involved in any kind of tragedy. “But it’s also great for everybody else,” he says. “It’s an amazing story.”
Bruton particularly recommends the book’s “Strategies for Survival” chapter, featuring 15 no-nonsense strategies.“I’ve done a lot of books,” says Bruton. “But somehow, more than ever, it’s this book I want to sell a million copies.”
Pieper is starting a foundation, to which all profits from his book, he says, will be donated. A foundation will allow him to give the book to hospital patients—those who may be as devastated as he once was and, he admits, occasionally can still be. Pieper’s plans would inspire anyone: completing a college degree in sports management and/or entrepreneurship, working in professional hockey administration, changing lives as a motivational speaker. “Why would you want to mope,” he asks, “when so many things are possible?’
Bill Lechner was Pieper’s hockey coach at Hill-Murray. Of the book, Lechner says, “It’s an amazing story. It makes you kind of sit back and think. Parents scolding their kids in the back seat after a bad hockey game…it’s just not important. It’s life that’s important.”