Our trip to Oregon for the Hood to Coast relay took an unexpected detour - to the trauma unit of Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland.
On Aug. 22 - while preparing for the race that would begin in three days - we were driving the course to map the exchange points. We started at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, where the race begins, and had driven down the mountain, through the Portland suburbs and the city to Highway 30, the Columbia River Highway.
As we drove northwest in the afternoon, with the sun beginning to set on Mount St. Helen's, an elderly driver in the oncoming lane of traffic lost control of his car and crashed head on into our vehicle.
In that tragic, intimate moment, two lives were lost and two were transformed.
Good Samaritans stopped immediately and carried us, barely aware of what had just happened, from the smoking wreckage of our car. Providing blankets, water and kind words, they waited with us, and held us in their arms until EMTs arrived on the scene, and loaded us into one ambulance so we could be together on the way to the hospital. As we held hands in the ambulance, we gradually became aware that we had survived and we were joyful at the simple fact that we were alive.
During our week at Legacy Emanuel Hospital, we were cared for by an amazing staff of doctors, nurses and social workers who fixed our broken bones, held our hands when we were teary and snuck us root beer floats in the middle of the night. We were competitive runners, accustomed to being physically strong, now unable to move without pain. We also struggled with the knowledge that we had been a party to the death of an elderly couple, married for 55 years, with a family in the Portland area.
We were visited by priests and faculty from the University of Portland who knew of us only through friends and colleagues at St. Thomas, and who brought us comfort, clothes, music and kindness. Our conversations stretched into hours and we began what we expect to be lifelong friendships with these dear visitors. Joanne Warner, associate dean of nursing, visited us daily and Father Jim Lies '84, a former UST professor of psychology, prayed with us and shared humor and wisdom as we struggled with our reactions to the accident and its consequences.
We were surrounded by our "Tommies to the Coast" teammates as they made their way to the hospital before and during the race and brought hugs and help, laughter and stories, and, finally, news that they had completed the race ahead of our projected finish time. We were buoyed by calls from home and colleagues and friends who sent flowers and cards and competently covered for us during our absence from work.
Our experience in Oregon was heartbreaking. At the same time, we have been blessed - with love and compassion that we never expected from both friends and strangers. We learned that our network of friends and colleagues extended well beyond our neighborhood and the UST campus. We learned that we meant something to this community and that this community means a great deal to us.
We have been humbled and filled with grace and gratitude since Aug. 22. Even as our bodies heal, our hearts are full. We consider every day a blessing.
In our thanks to the UST community via the Bulletin Today, we quoted a William Stafford poem that we have long admired and which has special meaning for us following the accident:
by William Stafford
It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could happen, you know. That's why we wake
and look out - no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
Every day has been a bonus since Aug. 22. We plan to return to Portland to run the Hood to Coast race again.
Dan Gjelten is director of St. Thomas libraries. Lisa Burke is director of Web Initiatives for the Opus College of Business.