Help in Humboldt

Why do I spend my Sunday mornings like this?

HOPEspotters, most of you know I am a devout lover of sports. I follow all the major leagues and teams at both the college and pro level and really put the “fanatic” in the fan for the teams I love. And while I may not be an expert at the X’s and O’s for each game, I study all the players and the coaches in order to keep current.

I am genuinely not a competitive person, by nature, which is probably good since my own career in sports forced me to get pretty familiar with the “L” column. Sure, I like to win, maybe even love it, but the thrill of the kill isn’t the thing that sports feeds me.

Following sports, from pee-wee softball to the NFL, fulfills my love of stories. Stories that provide the most fascinating allegories for life. So many stories, so many lessons.

And no one- I mean no one- tells those stories better than the team at ESPN that produces “E:60”.

On the busiest of days, I have found myself stopped in my tracks, suddenly captivated by the tale of a legless wrestler, a deaf football team, a college basketball player who survived TWO plane crashes, presented by Jeremy Schapp and Bob Ley.  And at the end of each story, I’m usually crying, often breathless, and always reminded of the resiliency of the human spirit. There’s gifts, there’s hardships, there’s redemption and there’s inspiration. Sometimes, it is better than church.

I had the chance to meet Jeremy Schaap at an ALS Fundraising Gala in Atlanta two years ago and  I went kind of ‘fan girl’ on him. He was a true gentleman and asked why I was attending the event. When I told him I was generously asked by a family who lost a loved one to the awful disease, and I had participated in her care, he was effusive with praise for the role of the hospice nurse. A table turn I did not expect. What we agreed upon in the course of our conversation was this: we loved our jobs. The people we meet inspire us and their stories never leave us. Sometimes it can be very emotional to listen to their stories, but when we allow ourselves to be open to them, there is always beauty.

So me and Jeremy… ya… peas and carrots…

Anyhoo, Mr. Schaap and his team just produced another doozy, “Humboldt Strong”. While unloading the dishwasher this morning, I turned on the TV which was already tuned to ESPN from last night’s Final Four games.

“Humboldt Strong” is narrated by Wayne Gretzky and tells the unbelievably tragic story of the horrific bus crash involving the Junior Hockey team, the Humboldt Broncos, from Humboldt, Saskatchewan. On April 6, 2018, on the way to a play- off game, the Broncos’ bus was hit by a semi- truck that ran a stop sign. This catastrophic and devastating event led to 16 deaths. There were 13 survivors, two of whom were paralyzed and two with significant traumatic brain injuries. The number of hearts broken by the incident is immeasurable. The accident sent the community, the country, the hockey world reeling. It was the worst mass casualty auto accident in Canada’s history and it was another example of the unbelievable and incomprehensible fragility of life.

The story of the Humboldt Broncos can be dissected on so many different levels. There’s loss, there’s grief, there’s anger, there’s determination, there’s community spirit. There’s a lot in the mere 60 minutes allowed to the story. A story, I am sure, that only one year later, isn’t over yet.

But there was one detail, a fairly small one, in fact, that has stuck with me today- resonated, perhaps.  During this. season of Lent, this detail seemed to illuminate a timeless and often redundant question that has to do with feeling forsaken and seeking healing.

In classic E:60 fashion, the narration gets slower as the recounting of the inevitable accident approaches. The bus is shown traveling a two lane highway that seems to be in the middle of nowhere.

“At 4:58 PM, the charter bus carrying 29 Humboldt Broncos players and coaches, crossed the intersection of…. and was hit by a semi truck driving at….” “The top of the bus was literally ripped in two….” “The cargo that was carried by the truck had been spilled all over the landscape..”

“At 5:16, the first batch of emergency responders arrived…”



18 minutes.

1,080 seconds.

Impressively fast for the middle of nowhere. And yet… 18 minutes. E.I.G.H.T.E.E.N minutes. One thousand eighty seconds.

As I watched the rest of the documentary, I was utterly distracted, fairly haunted, by those eighteen minutes. What was it like for the people who survived the initial impact to wait 18 minutes? And I bet 18 minutes seems a lot longer when one doesn’t know if it will “only” be 18 minutes? And you’re in pain, and scared? And I think it is pretty cold in Saskatchewan, Canada in April, eh?

Eighteen Minutes.

And then I started to think less about the length of time those poor young men, and a few women, had to wait for help and more about if they wondered if it was coming at all. When your life gets literally blown apart by a semi truck going at full speed, I would imagine it would be normal, understandable, in fact, to question or even lose faith. Maybe in their panic and pain, they felt forsaken.

And then, of course, I started to think of all of us, who at times have been lying in a cold field, in pain and scared, and wondering when help is coming and if it will come at all. And sometimes, in the metaphor, we sit in that cold and in that pain for a hell of a lot longer than eighteen minutes.

“Mr. Jones, there were some unusual findings in your colonoscopy. We’d like you to schedule an MRI but it looks like the next available appointment isn’t available until next month.”

“There are clearly some abnormalities on the fetal ultrasound but things might change throughout the course of the pregnancy and the severity won’t really be clear until…”

“We won’t know how quickly this is going to progress and while there are some medications that might slow things down, statistics generally show that at Stage IV…”

“You’re leaving? Just like that? You’re leaving me?”

What about the people who love someone with an addiction and wonder if he or she will ever get “clean” (I hate that term, by the way) and sober?  Or the poor people who have a loved one that has gone missing, been taken, run away- and they lay on that metaphorical field in Canada wondering when the HELL help is ever going to come? Waiting out the storm can seem unbearable…

And maybe, sometimes, the wait is so painful, the thought of just surrendering to death seems inviting. Case in point, the recent suicides by the Parkland shooting survivors or the father of the Sandy Hook shooting victim. That man, Jeremy Richman, lay in that cold Canadian field, in apparent acute pain, so profound that the help he waited for for 6 years and 3 months, seemed for him to never come. And he couldn’t wait anymore.

And that, is terribly sad.

Just like some of the Humboldt Broncos, some bodies cannot stand the injury any longer and they cannot survive the wait. I pray that help has arrived for him, and others who’ve suffered like him, in a more peaceful and less tormented place.

My faith, my life experience and everything I stand for has taught me that help will always come- some way, somehow, some day a first responder will arrive. Sometimes it takes an excruciatingly long time. Maybe we’re not ready for them when it does arrive. Often times it isn’t in the form we expect, but I believe to the core of my soul that help always comes.

16 Humboldt Broncos died that day, but 13 survived. And after seeing the footage from the actual wreckage, that is 13 undeniable miracles. Because help showed up. It got there and it did what it needed to do.

Last year, I was giving a few remarks at our annual hospice bereavement service- an hour of remembrance for the loved ones of those who died in our program the previous year. My remarks included my “go to” phrase “I know it is never anyone’s best day when I, the “hospice girl”, shows up.” I understand the gravity of the situation if I have been called in. I was pleasantly surprised, however, at the end of the service, when a family member of a former patient came up and told me, “You should stop saying that. I was thrilled when you came. I felt like we were finally at a place where Mom wasn’t going to suffer anymore. I was so relieved. Throughout the course of her terrible illness, I think it was my best day.”  

Huh. Help- in a form other than expected- but help, nonetheless.

In my limited experience talking with people who’ve battled addictions, they are often very open about their rock bottom day. In trusted conversations, they share the circumstances that caused them to throw up their arms and cry, “Mercy” and most bless that day, because when they courageously surrendered their substance abusing ways, that was when the help came. And that was when they let the help in.

Ryan Leaf, former NFL quarterback, known for being a big time ‘bust’ with a bad attitude fell deeply into substance abuse after his career ended prematurely and he wound up in prison. His life is now turned around completely and he is devoted to helping others battle addiction and prevent drug abuse, through regular speaking engagements and one on one counseling. He’s taken his painful past and given it grace by sharing his experiences with others so that they may avoid similar pitfalls. On April 1, 2019, he tweeted, “7 years ago today I woke up on the floor of a prison cell.. I had nothing to live for, or so I thought. If I had known the size of the blessing that was coming, I would have understood the magnitude of the battle I was fighting. I got up, there is Hope!! #7yearssober”

Ryan’s 18 minutes played out of the course of a very scary and lonely and painful decade, but help did come. (And look at that, I am back to sports…)

And, oh yeah, there is another really good story about fear and pain, waiting and praying, wreckage, loss and redemption. Some people call it, in fact, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and it’s final chapter is coming to churches near you in just two short weeks.

Spoiler alert: help comes. Not before sadness, not in the absence of fear, but it shows up BIG TIME.

Back in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, there is a large memorial at the site of the crash that occurred just over a year ago. The documentary shows how each of the featured ‘victims’ and their families are getting on with their lives. Clearly, there is still a lot of grief work to be done. No one is lying by the side of the road anymore, but there is still a lot of pain. The wounds are deep and large and the fractured hearts and hope and dreams are extensive. It is clear as the survivors and the family members of those that didn’t survive speak, there is a longing for help- or better said for healing- to arrive.

I hope they know that it will.

It absolutely will.

Fly HOPE Air.

Thirteen years ago today was a day that took my breath away. In past blogs, I have mentioned by beautiful niece, Casey. Tomorrow, February 20th, she will turn 13. Every child’s birthday is a milestone and an opportunity to celebrate their growth and accomplishments. Casey’s birthdays are admittedly an extra special celebration for those of us that love her because we can reflect upon all that she has overcome.


What I am remembering tonight, however, is the feelings I had on this day thirteen years ago. Today was the day we found out that Casey was no longer thriving and she had to come out. Tomorrow.  This new date put Casey only two weeks premature, but the necessity of taking her out of the womb to “take her chances” in the outside world was a terrifying reality.  We already knew about Casey’s heart condition but none of us, doctors included, were really quite sure what else might be going on with her. There were plenty of horrific possibilities and minimal assurances that they wouldn’t occur.


As I think back on this day, thirteen years later, I think I can better articulate my feelings. And there is a reason why I want to do that. When we found out that Casey would be arriving in the next 24 hours, I felt like I was getting on an airplane, going on a trip. All of a sudden, I was boarding, filing in with other uncertain passengers. I had baggage that I wasn’t sure where to store. I didn’t know where to sit. The people around me seemed nice enough, yet I wanted NOTHING to do with them. Why were they on this flight with me? Once sitting, I was taken back about the seeming inadequacy of the lap belt. A flight attendant was talking about exits I couldn’t see and oxygen masks I wasn’t sure I could manage.


After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, we take off.  Why is it so shocking/ exhilarating when it happens when you’ve known it was coming? My stomach dropped. Ground is getting further and further away and I am having a hard time hearing. We are really off here in a confusing blend of thrill and terror.


As we level of to our “cruising altitude”, I have more thirst than I have ever known and yet the professionals on this flight offer me what seems like a thimble full of liquid.  How can they not see my profound needs?


And then there is turbulence. Holy Hell! I was beginning to acclimate to this plane, this flight, and we are dropping, we are bouncing, I am c.l.u.t.c.h.i.n.g. The turbulence is over pretty quickly, but the memory is lasting. Will it come back? Will it be worse?


It is the turbulence that leads every passenger of every flight EVER to ask (don’t lie, you do), what in the hell holds this plane up anyway? If you are an aeronautical engineer, please don’t ruin it. The gen pop among us question how we remain suspended in air. It seems unfathomable.


Getting back to thirteen years ago today, I remember anticipating the turbulence and wondering what would hold each of us up in the air? A precious baby was being born and the universe had already dealt her an unfortunate hand. How would we reach the destination of her growth and health? Where would we land? Every day I see patients and families that ask these questions.


Casey’s thirteenth birthday isn’t the only reason I am having these thoughts. This week, a young boy at our elementary school was diagnosed with a very scary and aggressive cancer. He is in first grade. I don’t know this family personally and I don’t share his story pretending in any way that it is my own. Being a part of a tight and loving community, however, there is some element of all us sharing in each other's joys and battles.


This precious little boy’s family just got on the plane. They didn’t even know they would be flying that day. Every day, families board planes they weren’t expected to fly. Without warning, they have been herded into what feels like a very small and nauseating place and they are taking off.  My guess is that as they watched the ground become more and more distant, they wondered why they had to leave that familiar place.


I can’t help but think about the turbulence that awaits them on their very very long trip. I pray the “professionals on board” will give them the needed fluid, food, oxygen, and probable barf bag.


But as they hang in the atmosphere, if I could share one thing with them that I learned thirteen years ago today, or thirty years ago when I had cancer, or last week when I met the most wonderful young woman with ALS, or so many other times,  is that I have learned what is keeping the plane in the air.




The plane will not, can not crash as long as HOPE keeps it suspended. The phrase, if you keep hope alive, it will keep you alive, is the absolute truth. What I cannot promise this sweet and scared family and what none of us can have promised, is where the plane might land. What I can assure them, and you, and me when I need it is the uncomfortable plane can’t crash while HOPE keeps it in the sky.


Tomorrow my family will get together to celebrate Casey’s thirteenth birthday and it will be extra sweet this year. As we blow out her candles and offer gratitude for her safe landing, we will also blow some HOPE into the sky. Those of us that have ridden a plane suspended and protected by HOPE, I think it is our responsibility to put in back into the air.

P.S. If you are so inclined to support the Pope family and their sweet son, Wyatt, please follow #wywystrong