Don’t Take Life for Granted

Every now and then we are reminded how fragile life is. You just can’t take it for granted.

For example, a few years ago I was attending the early service at our church. My family was coming in a separate car and had not yet arrived. About ten minutes into the service, one of my friends walked up behind me and whispered in my ear, “Mike, your family has been in a car accident. You need to leave … now!”

Celebrate Life

This is about the worst possible news I could imagine. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any details. The wreck had occurred about two miles from our church.

I raced to the seen of the accident. But the traffic was backed up. I suspected it was because of the wreck. I parked my car on the side of the road and started running. I could see a fire truck, police cars, and my family’s Suburban laying upside down against a telephone pole. It was completely crushed. All the windows were blown out and the roof was crushed into the body.

Initially, I was confused, because I didn’t see my family. Then I heard my youngest daughter scream, “Daddy, Daddy.” I looked to my right and she was running down the hill toward me. The other five members of my family were seated on the ground crying.

I picked up my daughter and kept walking toward my family. I couldn’t believe it. There wasn’t a scratch on any of them. They were shook up, to be sure, but no one was hurt.

My oldest daughter had been driving. It was a country road. She ran off the road for a fraction of a second, over-corrected and flipped the car. The sheriff told me that when they arrived on the scene, they called the life flight unit in. He was just sure that the people in the car were either critically injured or dead. He kept describing what had happened as a miracle.

Indeed it was. I still tear up thinking about it.

Yesterday, I got an e-mail about Philip Yancey’s recent accident. (Philip is a popular author in our industry and a friend.) Here’s what he wrote:

So many have called to express concern, and a few wild rumors have been floating around, so I thought it would be best to send out an “official” report of my accident on Sunday, February 25. I’m OK! Honest. Here are the details.

I had spent a lovely weekend in Los Alamos, New Mexico, speaking to a unique church that combines six different denominations. Janet traveled with me so much during the book tour these past few months that she felt obligated to stay home and do her duties at the senior center where she works, so I went alone. My New Mexico hosts met me in Taos for a delightful day of bam-bam bump skiing on Thursday, then we drove together to Los Alamos. It’s quite a place, created in the 1940s for the Manhattan Project, and the fabled home of the atomic bomb. The town has more Ph.D.’s per capita than any place in the world. I had a fascinating meeting with some of the physicists and other scientists from the lab during which we discussed matters of science and faith and nuclear terrorism and pacifism and other weighty issues. Friday night I spoke on my book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?—a very appropriate topic in view of what follows. Saturday I did a seminar consisting of three one-hour lectures and a booksigning, and then took off early Sunday morning for Denver, where I planned to meet Janet for a friend’s wedding.

I was driving alone on a remote highway, curvy but not too hilly, at about 65 mph. A curve came up suddenly and I turned to the left, perhaps too sharply. As you may know, Ford Explorers are rather notorious for fishtailing, and this one did. I tried to correct, but as best as I can reconstruct what happened, my tire slipped off the edge of the asphalt onto the dirt. That started the Explorer rolling over sideways, at least three times and probably more. Amazingly, the vehicle stopped right side up. All windows were blown out, and skis, boots, laptop computer, and suitcases were strewn over 100 feet or so in the dirt. I tried my hands and legs and they worked fine. I was able to unbuckle the seat belt and walk away. Within five minutes a couple of cars stopped and their occupants, Mormons on the way to church, called for help.

I had a lot of minor cuts and bruises on my face and limbs, but except for a persistent nosebleed, nothing serious. I did have intense pain in my neck, though. When the ambulance came, they strapped me into a rigid body board, taping my head still and immobilizing it with a neck brace. It took almost an hour to reach the town of Alamosa in southern Colorado.

Looking back now, I see so many mini-miracles that all contributed to a good outcome. The Mormons (two of whom were E.M.T. trained) traveling that route on a Sunday morning. The most experienced X-ray/MRI technician, normally off on weekends, filling in for a sick colleague. The E. R. doctor, featured that day on the cover of the local paper, a graduate of the University of Michigan med school who had just returned to his small town in Colorado to be of service. And, most of all, the injury itself.

Alamosa has no radiologist on duty over the weekend, so all images had to be modemed to Australia (where it was Monday morning, a normal work day) for interpretation. The images are so dense that the high-speed transmittal takes an hour, and then the diagnosis can take another hour. After the initial batch, the doctor came in with those prefatory words no patient wants to hear: “There’s no easy way to say this, Mr. Yancey…” I had broken the C-3 vertebra in a “comminuted” fashion. (I didn’t know that word either; look it up and the dictionary says “pulverized.”) The good news was that the break did not occur in the spinal cord column itself. If it had, well, C-2 is where Christopher Reeve’s break occurred, so you get the picture of what can happen up there. The spinal column has three channels, one for the spinal cord, and two for arterial blood supply, which is where my fracture occurred. The bad news was that due to the splintered nature of the break, a bone fragment may well have nicked or penetrated an artery.

“We have a jet standing by if needed to airlift you to Denver,” the doctor explained. We’ll do another MRI, this time with an iodine dye solution to reveal any possible leakage from the artery. This is a life-threatening situation.“

Meanwhile Janet, whom I had called from the ambulance, had scrambled to throw things together and begin the drive to Alamosa (4 hours from Evergreen) to be with me. Our Good Samaritan neighbor Mark insisted on going with her, a magnificent gift as it freed her to make phone calls and compose herself during that tense drive. They were about halfway to Alamosa when the doctor gave her this news via phone, explaining that if they found arterial leakage they could not hold the plane for her; I would be shipped immediately. You would have to use a cell phone in Colorado to understand some of the tension here: about every third word gets dropped and, in the mountains, the call cuts off every thirty seconds or so. Poor Janet was trying to decide whether to turn around and drive back to Denver or continue on to Alamosa, with the possibility of watching my jet contrails in the sky above her.

I went in for the iodine-dye scan, and then was left alone to wait for the transmission to Australia and the results. In all, I lay strapped onto that body board for seven hours. The emergency room was quite busy that day, mostly crying babies. I had plenty of time to think. I’ve done articles on people whose lives have been changed overnight by an accident that left them paraplegic or quadriplegic. Evidently I had narrowly missed that fate; and I mean narrowly—my break was about one-half inch from the spinal cord. However, if my artery was leaking, an artery that feeds the brain, or if it threw a clot, well, a fate worse than paralysis awaited me.

I stayed calm throughout, my pulse holding steady around 70. And as I lay there, contemplating what I had just been teaching in Los Alamos about prayer, and facing the imminent possibility of death for the first time, I felt very peaceful. I reflected on what a wonderful life I have had, with a life-giving marriage partner of 37 years, all but three of Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot mountains under my belt, adventures in more than 50 countries, work that allows me both meaning and total freedom. Just that weekend I had heard again story after story of people who have been touched by one of my books. I looked back on my life and felt no regrets (well, I would like to get those last three fourteeners climbed). And as I thought of what may await me, I felt a feeling of great trust. No one raised in the kind of church environment I grew up in totally leaves behind the acrid smell of fire and brimstone, but I felt an overwhelming sense of trust in God. I have come to know a God of compassion and mercy and love. I have no clue what heaven or an afterlife will be like but I felt sustained by that trust. OK, the morphine drip was beginning to kick in too!

Those were the tense hours: Janet riding down the road with our neighbor, feeling helpless and unsure, with scenes of how her life would change with a dead or paralyzed husband; and me utterly helpless, strapped on a table with the images that would determine my future bouncing off some satellite en route to Australia.

As it happened, thank God—oh, yes, thank God—the results were far better than either of us could imagine. The MRI revealed no arterial leakage. I was released within half an hour of Janet’s arrival, fitted with a rigid neck brace that will keep my head from moving for the next 10 weeks or so. If all goes well, the vertebra may heal back appropriately on its own; if not, I may need surgery down the road.

We got a hot meal, my first of the day, and began the drive back to Evergreen. Before midnight I was sitting in a bathtub discovering new cuts and abrasions, warming up, and getting ready fora challenging night’s sleep in my own bed.

I am profoundly grateful to so many who put the word out, who prayed and continue to pray for my recovery. I’m sure I will face new challenges, and my schedule over the next few months definitely needs some major adjustments. But I am alive, my fingers and toes are moving, my brain is functioning. I remember sitting in the seat of the Ford Explorer as it finally stopped rolling, with its engine still running, and thinking, ”This begins chapter two of my life.“ Indeed it does, though with considerably brighter prospects than it seemed at the time. I hope to ski long mogul runs again, albeit not till next year, and I have another chance to climb those last three 14ers, to gaze at the wild flowers along the way, to cherish friends and love my wife and family and thank God for every minute of this precious gift of life. Praise God.

Like I said, you can’t take anything for granted. Every day is a precious gift. Thank God that Philip wasn’t hurt more badly. And thank God my family made it through, too.

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