The Paris sky was still dark as I sat in the den talking with the Lord, at six o’clock that February morning. The peaceful silence was shattered by shrill of the telephone. Fleetingly I thought as I reached for the receiver that it must be someone in North America. The tone of my daughter’s voice, made my heart sink.
“Mom,” said blurted, “There has been an accident. It’s John.” Icy fear gripped me at her words.
“Is he alive?” I asked anxiously.
“Yes, but he is paralyzed,” she replied.
Stunned, I passed the phone to Glen, my husband who was by this time at my side. He tried to speak comforting words to Elizabeth and assured her we would come, as soon as we could get a flight.
Within hours, we had thrown some clothes into our suitcases and were winging our way to Montreal. John had been visiting Elizabeth there that weekend. He left Sunday evening to drive back to Boston.
He was near St. Alban’s, Vermont when his rented vehicle hit black ice. In the few seconds, it took to roll over and slide to a stop in the meridian, John became a quadriplegic.
The flight across the Atlantic seemed interminable. I was unable to concentrate on anything. I just wanted to be at John’s side. Occasionally when I glanced at the in-flight movie, all I saw was young men striding across the screen. Inside me, something cried out, “It’s not fair! They are walking around and my son cannot.” I did not know it at the time, but not walking was only one of many challenges that John would face in the ensuing months.
Friends met us at the airport in Montreal and whisked us into their waiting van. They had packed a lunch and offered us their cell phone to call Elizabeth. By this time, she was at the hospital in Burlington, where Vermont State police had taken John.
“Mom,” she said, when I reached her. “Prepare yourself. This is going to be difficult. He is hooked up to a lot of machines.” My apprehension mounted.
The next few days, it was difficult to drag myself away from John’s side. Somehow, I felt that if I stayed close, I could somehow will life and health into my son. I sat by the bed, my eyes darting back and forth between John’s swollen body and the monitors recording his vital signs. If the indicators on the monitor dropped below desired levels, I would immediately pray until I saw them come up again.
Friends and family insisted that I leave John to go to the hospital cafeteria or a nearby restaurant and eat. For the first couple of days, I just could not swallow. As soon as I put anything in my mouth, I felt like my throat closed and I could not get it down. I just wanted to get back to John.
What amazed me, in the midst of the traumatic fog was the support that we received from all kinds of unexpected places. It seemed that the news spread fast. John’s friends from Harvard Business School were on the phone to us asking how they could help and if they could come to see him. Our friends from all parts of the globe, and many people we did not know personally sent us cards, e-mails and phone messages to let us know that they were praying for John and for us and offering to do anything they could to help. This outpouring of love carried us over the rough road we journeyed during those months.
Weaving around and about all of our experiences seemed to be a sense of divine grace. This kindness was evidence of it but we saw it also in many circumstances that you could interpret as chance.
About a month earlier, a friend from England had given me a book by one of my favourite British authors, Jennifer Rees Larcombe. It was called, “Where is God in our Deserts?” I had thrown the book into my suitcase in Paris, in case I needed something to read. As the acute crisis began to pass and John’s vital signs stabilized, sitting by his bed, I opened the book and began to read. As I did, her words ministered to my own soul and gave me hope.
As we learned more about the accident, we discovered that the Border Patrol spied John’s white vehicle in the white snow and they called the Vermont State Police, who rescued him, entrapped in the vehicle.
Coincidentally, as I had been traveling back to Paris on the train from Valence, in the south of France that Sunday evening, I was constantly praying for John. I had not felt good about him taking this trip. I felt an urging to pray in what was for me an unusual manner. I found myself asking the Lord to send His angels to watch over John on this trip. When I heard about the Border Patrol, I knew they were the angels God sent to preserve John’s life.
Several months earlier, I had established a prayer support team for our ministry, as Glen and I found ourselves facing some huge challenges. We needed their support when the crisis came. Habitually, I sent the prayer requests in a newsletter to our team on the sixth of each month. Three days after the accident John had surgery to put rods in his neck. Then they could remove the halo that was holding his head in place to avoid further injury to his spinal column. The day of his surgery was the sixth. While John was in surgery, I was able to spend the time productively, preparing and sending out our prayer newsletter. It was an activity that gave me something meaningful to do during the long hours of the surgery. In addition, we had a ready support system in place for us.
The accident happened in ski country. Sadly, the hospital was accustomed to dealing with this kind of injury, but fortunately, for John they had all the necessary equipment available. Knowing the story of Joni Eareckson Tada, I was afraid that I was going to find John in a Stryker frame. Instead, the hospital had just ordered a mattress with air chambers, programmed to inflate and deflate, so that the body was not in the same position too long, thus avoiding pressure sores. John was the first to use the mattress.
John was in the surgical intensive care unit for three weeks, before his transfer to a semi-private room on a post-surgical care floor. We faced huge complications with arranging for his transfer back to Toronto, Canada where we would be moving from France.
There were bureaucratic differences between funding systems for his rehabilitation. The methods of payment seemed irreconcilable for the coverage that was available to him in the two countries. It seemed for a long time that somehow we would have to come up personally with a huge amount of money so that he could come home. Grace showed up again when from an unexpected source came the offer of an interest free loan. It turned out we did not have to use this. As grace prevailed, we were able to make contact with someone who knew the right people and unblocked the communication, the day before John was to fly by air ambulance from Vermont to Toronto.
In addition, the rehab hospital in Toronto was not equipped with oxygen, so John had to develop his breathing enough to be able to function without any oxygen supplements before they would accept him as a patient. Healing from a tracheotomy and learning to breathe without using chest muscles, because of his injury, required a significant length of time to adapt his breathing. The day before his scheduled discharge, he was finally weaned off all additional oxygen.
The air ambulance itself was another huge obstacle where grace once again intervened. Although John’s health plan did not cover the air ambulance, a generous donor came forward and underwrote the cost.
Frightening as the intensive care experience was initially, I gradually adjusted to the environment. Facing the next stage of the journey again filled me with apprehension. An ambulance took John and I to the airport at Burlington, where he was transferred in the stretcher to the waiting Lear jet. A nurse accompanied us and John’s stretcher took up one side of the plane. (He is over six foot two.) Another ambulance greeted us in Toronto, along with Canada Customs and Immigration officials. John had lost his passport. Again, grace had been at work. When Glen went to the crash site, and the automobile wreckers to find John’s vehicle, he had been able to recover many of John’s personal effects, including his driver’s license. This was necessary to get John back into the country.
Through the months of rehabilitation, we expected people would forget about John, once they had learned of the initial shock. We assumed they would get back to their own lives. However, many did not forget. John constantly received cards and notes and letters and remembrances. We often heard from those told us that they continued to remember John in prayer. It was while John was still in rehab that he was invited along with the family to attend the graduation of his class at Harvard Business School. It gave John the incentive he required to learn the necessary skills for adapting to life as a quadriplegic. In a wonderful way, solutions came as we encountered the obstacles that made this adventure such a challenge. When we discovered that his power chair would not fit though the door of the plane that someone hired to get us to Boston, we found out that a power chairs were available for rent in Boston. Going to his class-mates’ graduation gave to John and to us the hope that perhaps one day he would be able to return and complete his degree.
To see my son, who had the world by the tail, lose all his dreams and start again with a huge deficit was something I never believed I would have the courage to face. Yet when tragedy strikes, we have no choice. The wonder is that grace is there, flowing in, around and through all the experiences. One grace was simply to be in the presence of the courage shown by John. There were times when my husband, Glen and I sat silent in awe overwhelmed by such courage knowing the challenges John was facing.
In 2005, grace renewed hope for us and for John as we met him again on the campus of Harvard Business School. We cheered him on as he wheeled across the stage to receive his degree three years later than originally anticipated having overcome obstacles we could have never imagined.