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.

The Agony Of Loss

When I was in nursing school, one of the most vivid lessons I can still recall is when a professor taught us how to easily identify a patient suffering from kidney stones. She explained that patients come into the ER, typically clutching their lower backs and walking frantically in a circle. The professor explained, you can spot these patients because they are “visibly trying to escape from their pain.”

Years later, as a newly married lady, I observed Kevin doing exactly what my nursing professor described, early one Sunday morning,  and a trip to the ER confirmed he had kidney stones. It was clear to me watching him that day that when the pain is so intense, a primal instinct seems to take over in an attempt to get away from the thing that hurts so badly. Unfortunately, the pain is deep inside and there is no easy escape.

Monday night, the University of Georgia suffered a devastating overtime loss to the University of Alabama in the College Football playoffs. The stunning touchdown by Alabama abruptly ended a dreamlike season for the Georgia Bulldogs and its fans who have hungered for a championship for over 20 years. For a large part of the game it seemed that Georgia would be victorious, but Alabama dashed those hopes and stole away a long anticipated joy. And to be fair to Alabama, they suffered a last second loss in last year’s National Championship game to Clemson, so they also know how quickly one’s heart can sink. 

In Georgia this week, it seems as if many of the people I’ve seen are walking around “visibly trying to escape from their pain”. And it wasn’t hard to spot because I’d seen it, in fact experienced it, only 11 months before. In Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons blew a historic lead against the New England Patriots to lose in overtime and hence deprive the city of a long awaited championship. 

Loss is universal and the band, R.E.M was right when they sang the sad song, “Everybody Hurts”.  For the Georgia Bulldog nation, I really offer my sincere sympathy. I remember how crushed I felt for a long time after the Falcons defeat and as much as I tried to escape it, the pain of the loss, like a kidney stone, was deep inside me. There was no easy escape. It had to be a process- kind of a painful process. 

Now if you’ve read this far and have no heart for sports, you may be making the obvious judgement: such upset over a GAME. As a hospice nurse, SURELY you have perspective on what really matters and REAL problems people face. 

I assure you, I do. And that is why I think it is important to seize a teachable moment, such as the ones sports offer us, to gain that critical perspective. 

The agony of defeat is brutally painful. Even if you are not a sports fan, every person alive can relate to the devastating feeling of waking up and remembering a loss; dedicating the first few moments awake to reliving the pain and sadness. It is shocking each morning, then painfully familiar and it thrusts us out of bed, “visibly trying to escape the pain.” Ask any parent who has lost a child. Or a person who has lost their spouse. Or someone who has witnessed the collapse of what they thought they could rely upon in their life, like their marriage or their career. Their first waking thoughts are to inventory the ownership of what they hold most dear and each morning they have to reintroduce to their brains that they’ve suffered the most devastating loss. 

I remember an episode of “Glee” that addressed the death of lead character, Finn, played by Cory Monteith. The episode was predicated to the actor’s actual untimely death at the age of 31 from a drug overdose. In the memorial episode, his TV mom gave a very compelling performance as she sorts the belongings in his room. She cries that she used to wonder about parents who’d lost a child and how they woke up in the morning and now she knows that a bereaved parent can wake because they have those precious 5 seconds of wakefulness before the painful memory surfaces. And then they remember that everything is different.

So where am I going? I ask myself that all the time. I’ve gone from a painful football loss to the worst pain imaginable- a parent’s loss of a child. I am really all over the place.

Every week when I take my son, Sean, to the allergist for his shots, I pass a church that boldly advertises its weekly bereavement support group. They have a big banner on the front lawn that asks, “Got grief?” Every single time I drive by, I wonder how many chairs they set up for the group meetings. EVERYONE has GOT GRIEF.

No one is going to attend their group and bemoan the Bulldogs or the Falcons historic losses, I don’t think. However, I guarantee you there are people there that are fans and right now they are trying to visibly escape their pain. Because the thing about sports battles is the better, stronger, faster is SUPPOSED to prevail. And every fan of a team believes that their team is better, stronger, faster. The outcome, we lull ourselves into believing, should be fair. 

Losing a child is not fair. Watching a parent battle cancer is not fair. Seeing a loved one succumb to ALS is not fair. More often than not, our greatest battles are not fair. So when a battle, like a sports championship, lifts your heart in belief that good will prevail, it is supposed to be fair. There are rules in sports, after all. There are no god damn rules whatsoever in end stage disease. 

My wonderful mentor tells a perfect story about a day when her newly renovated basement flooded and caused much destruction. When she, who’d worked in hospice for over 20 years, and her husband went to assess the damage, he, after a moment, shouted, “don’t tell me at least it is not pancreatic cancer because I DON”T want to hear it!”

His reaction to what he suspected her response would be is what I imagine and Dawg fans still reading might be guessing I am going to say next. I’m not. You are mad and you are sad and you should RAGE! It didn’t go your way and everything up until that point had you believing that it would and it HURTS!!!!!

We’ve all heard of the expressions “a school of fish” or a “pride of lions”. As the English language has evolved some of the collective nouns used to describe groups of animals have become less used. I recently learned, however, that a herd of elephants used to be described as “a memory”. “A memory of elephants” is a gathering of the most majestic mammals and I, for one, think it remains a perfect descriptor. 

Elephants, to me, are amazing. They are massive. They are filled with love. They leave a deep impression on the Earth where they roam. Grief and loss is also quite amazing. It is massive. It is generated by love. It leaves a deep impression.

I get some reasonable peace if I continue to extrapolate the analogy of a memory of elephants and loss. When the elephants move on, the impression remains. But over time, it does soften. The majesty can’t be forgotten but the hardened footprint fills in with new soil and fresh grass. 

So to my grievers, please accept this as a love letter to you. If you are “visibly trying to escape your pain” that lies deep within, whatever its cause, I am really sorry for what you are feeling. After you have your five seconds of peace upon awakening and your sad truth returns to your mind, know you are not alone. And I fully believe, because I have seen it throughout my career, that no matter how deep the impression made by your “memory of elephants”, it will soften. It. Will. Soften.