Facing Death (A Fathers Day Post)
It was a Monday afternoon and I was in Portland, Oregon for college, settling into my dorm room as the Fall semester was approaching. My mom called me that day, I think it was August 13th, 2007. She said my dad had been in an accident. Fast forward two days, I was in Boise, Idaho, standing in the hospital at my dad’s side when I said possibly the worst thing someone could ever say to someone on their death-bed. But before I get to that, let me start at the beginning of this story.
Fall dawning on the mountainous terrain of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness was a sight to see for its steep walls and varying sights. From the water eroded rocky forms, to wood country, to a bare wilderness summit, none can compare with all it has to offer. The Salmon river cuts through the gorge here, similar to the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, and is the second largest wilderness in the lower 48 states, second only to California’s Death Valley Wilderness. Alone in these kinds you find yourself and you find God.
Three men were on a horseback camping trip, my dad, and his two friends, Randy, and a man my children call “Idaho Mike.” Their plan was to fish from different lakes, for every meal, for three days. So between each meal they would travel on horseback to their next location, totaling 9 different destinations points on their three-day journey.
It was early and crisp that morning. My dad woke up and heard God speak to him. “You have the right two men with you.” At the time he did not know what that meant. They saddled up. My dads horse was a quarter horse named Bruno. They rode out. They were headed to their first lake, soaking in the grander of the wilderness and the solitude that comes with the bare and rocky spaces that were exposed by the early light. Not everything about this place was beautiful though.
The paths they were riding on were narrow and raw. To the left of the rider is a wall of rock, and to the right of the rider is the edge. The edge that drops to the raging white waters of the River of No Return. The tracks and turns on these paths were tight, so tight that the men rode their horses in single file along them. Mike was riding up front, my dad in the middle, and Randy in the back. The morning had progressed, but the men didn’t even reach their first destination. My dad was looking out on to the horizon, breathing in the fresh air and taking in the sights of the desert. On one sharp turn, Bruno had to step down, and that is where my dad flipped over the head of the horse, over the edge of the cliff, and landed on a rock the size of a basket ball, breaking eight ribs that punctured his left lung, shattering his spleen, lacerating his liver in four places, and bruising every major organ in his body, except for his heart. The horse fell with him, and in order to not fall off the edge they landed on, the horse had to step on my dads face to catch his balance. The horse should have been spooked by the smell of blood, but Bruno was a good horse, he knew his rider and was smart. His hoof brushed my dads face, scraping it instead of crushing it, landing on the gravel beside it. The horse and his rider had fallen. (My dad stresses to me, the fall wasn’t the horses fault.)
The details of the next few hours cannot be adequately described in the next few minutes but I’ll try.
Mike being in the front couldn’t turn around due to the narrow track, so he had to risk his life and sped up his ride forward to find a clearing ahead of him to turn around. Randy rode forward and started shouting to my dad, “You can’t stay out there!” My dad was on an edge. By the amazing grace of God and adrenaline, my dad was able to crawl away from the edge, then stayed there propped between two thin small trees. He laid there on his side, in the middle of no mans land, for a total of five hours.
God was right. Randy and Mike were the best two men out there that morning. Mike was able to turn around and get to my dad, and told Randy where he and my dad would be. Randy left in a hurry, also risking his life due to the dangerous track. Once he reached a vehicle, he purposely drove 100 miles an hour on the highway, towards Stanley, Idaho, hoping to get attention. Once Randy got to the nearest stop, he said “I have an emergency!” to which the lady at the desk held out her finger and said “please hold, while I take a message.” It’s funny now.
Back at the accident, Mike, being highly experienced and a Christian, looked at my dad and started talking to him. He said a helicopter would be there in three hours. During that time Mike would pray, pour water in the lid of a water bottle and toss it at my dads mouth. If dad would have drank anything, he would have drowned due to his lung injury. Small details like this set Mike apart as the right man for the experience. When dad could talk, he would tell Mike what his last words were to my mom and us three kids. No one was to call us kids, but my mom. Between the conversations Mike and my dad had, Mike would walk away to pray and yell to release the stress, so he could stay collected in front of my dad.
Randy was able to report the emergency, and a team from Idaho Search and Rescue was sent out. About three hours after the accident, the S&R helicopter arrived, it circled the area and they flew away. Disheartened and in pain my dad asked “where did they go?” Mike being experienced and trying to keep things positive said “They are circling the area to make a plan.” The truth was that the area was so steep there was no place for the helicopter to land. So they began to make rotations throwing medical supplies to Mike each time they went by. Randy was waiting to get a ride back up the mountain back to my dad, from the same helicopter during one of the rounds. Over the radio Randy heard one of the men say that my dad isn’t going to make it, so he started praying. Randy called my mom and told her about the accident. Randy’s son went to pick up my mom and they waited to find out where to meet my dad once he was rescued.
On foot another S&R team made it to the accident, one man was a physicians assistant and the other was a retired marine. Upon assessing the situation they realized they weren’t able to carry my dad out due to the medical supplies not fitting correctly so they had to improvise. For example, they used a poncho to hold my dads head and neck, to brace him. At the same time, a man who had previously fought in Iraq, was flying a black hawk helicopter helping fight a forest fire within proximity to the Frank Church Wilderness. The pilot heard about the accident and headed with an eight man crew towards them. This crew was able to land about half a mile away, and these men gave my dad what he explained as the best level of care he received from the whole experience. Dad and Mike could tell the Idaho National Guardsmen were used to saving lives under stressful situations by how well the crew was following orders. We couldn’t have asked for a better team that day! We are so grateful for their expertise and their care.
Due to the injuries and complexity of the situation, no one was expecting my dad to live. One of the crewman said “just last week a man died in this exact same spot.” They put dad in the black hawk helicopter and were off. Once the black hawk was able to get to a meadow, my dad was transferred to the search and rescue helicopter, that was low on fuel due to the rotations. The S&R helicopter was forced to land at a fire station. The gas attendant, in charge of keeping inventory of the fuel, yelled and fiercely argued with the pilot. Both men needed the fuel for immediate emergencies, the helicopter fighting the fire and the helicopter trying to save my dad.
It was at about that time my mom called me. She said my dad had been in an accident. My brother was also in Portland, working at the Lloyd Center when mom called and we decided to leave for Boise. We drove. It took forever. I hated it. My sister, who lives in Idaho, called Robert Zeko a friend of ours, and as soon as they found out what hospital dad was at, the waiting room was filled with at least 35 people. Actually, the waiting room was full, Monday through Thursday of that week. Many of our friends and family brought meals, blankets, magazines and other small items to keep everyone comfortable while they prayed and just waited together, as a family. So many people were calling to find out about my dad that it shut down the phone system at the hospital. When people started asking my mom how they could help, she asked if they would bring cookies and thank you cards to the nurses station and the medical staff. My mom stayed so calm and collected, the doctors told a family friend to talk some sense into her. The main doctor believed she was in denial. Little did they know, but would soon learn, there was a baby church learning to stand on it’s own two feet as a family, there was a community of believers in the local area, churches passing on prayer requests to their teams, and emails going out around the world. My mom’s faith was solid and her emotions did not control her, when her children’s father and her best friend, was facing death. Because of her faith, all three of us kids in our own way, had a sense of peace beyond our understanding of the facts, and faith to face death.
Dad blacked out during the flight to the hospital, and woke up in the trauma center at St. Al’s in Boise, Idaho. He had three MRI’s taken. Three, because the results were puzzling. Between the tests he was healing right before their eyes. They have proof of four lacerations in dads liver after the first MRI, and they have record of ONLY TWO lacerations after the third MRI. God was there in the middle of the hospital with the staff and with my dad.
When my brother and I arrived at the hospital, I remember not being ready for what I was about to see. The waiting room was packed, people from our new church were there, leaders from other churches were there, and people I thought we had lost relationship with after starting a church were there. I wasn’t expecting the support (and unity) I saw that day. Walking into my dads room, was another surprise. His bed was propped up at an angle so he could breathe, draped over him was a thin white sheet. Blood and dirt had dried black and crusted on his face and lips, tubes coming out of his body to drain the blood from his lungs, and he had bruises everywhere. My dad was broken. I grabbed his hand and looked at him in pain, facing death and against all the odds. He softly squeezed my hand back. For that moment time stood still.
In his room, we had worship music playing on repeat. People would come in one at a time and read the Bible, speak the Word over dad, pray and of course share positive stories to lift our thoughts. Then we began to see miracles happen right in front of us. First, we saw dads spleen begin to heal in the hospital. The staff was amazed and my mom kept telling them we are praying, she then asked them, “what should we pray for next?” They told us his liver. So we updated the prayer list and voice mails and sent it out. People started praying for his liver, and it began to heal. Then his lungs.
Each of us in the family and a few others took shifts, and always made sure someone was in the room with my dad. Two personal accounts from family taking shifts with dad in the ICU: First, my sister was on shift and he asked her for a piece of ice because his mouth was dry. She knew she couldn’t give it to him or he would drowned, so she had to tell him no. It was very difficult for her. Second account, one of the nights my dad was awake, sweating and fevering, he looked over at Trevin and said “is it hot in here?” Trevin was in a zipped up hoody with the hood on, shivering and said “It’s freezing!” They laughed because my dad was able to understand he was hopped up on drugs at that point.
When it came to my shift with dad, I remember thinking about the prayers from around the world and specifically the unity of prayers in the Treasure Valley. I wanted to encourage my dad, and let him know his accident was growing believers. Their prayer lives were being challenged and strengthened as they prayed, some of them for the first time. Others were praying for miracles and seeing an answer for the first time, or the first time in a long time. (This accident happened over 10 years ago and we still hear about how people were somehow connected to the horseman who fell in Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.) But it was during my shift that I made my dad mad on his death-bed. That’s when I said it. That thing I wish I wouldn’t have said, but I did, and if I had to do it again, I would probably say it again, just maybe slower or in a softer tone. I told him, his accident was growing people in their personal prayer lives, and I was confident if he had to live through pain for their growth, he would do it again. To which he replied with a sigh and shook his head. He was exhausted, but he understood.
I share this story with you to honor my dad this Father’s Day. Of course, there are so many more details that I have not shared, one important detail is Dad is alive! And I wanted to share something specific about my dad. My dad loves the church. He loves God’s people, and knowing that his accident moved people past “Jesus bless our food” prayers into a place of intercession, is something that he is encouraged by. Many pastors give their time and attention to God’s people, and yet so many have their limits when it comes to comfort, but the truth is, my dad would go through it again if he knew others would somehow benefit from the experience. From this experience, here are three things (found in the Bible) that I can tell you are true:
- God is always with you. Deat. 31:6, Josh. 1:5
- God’s people can pray and miracles do happen! John 14:12
- If it takes a painful experience to grow, then Lord, use me. I surrender all. Acts 20:24
If you have father figure in your life, think of a memory that they are apart of that has had an impact on who you are today. Share that with them and with others. Does that make sense?
“Ye, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Psalm 23:4