Dave glances back at his passengers, checks their seatbelts and gives them a smile, turns back to his work. The cockpit is carefully designed to put the many instruments and controls within easy reach. Dave adjusts one more lever, twists a key and brings the engine to life, then programs the radios and navigation system, checks it all against his flight plan, keys the mic. Ten minutes later, the ship breaks ground and soars through the clouds, toward a hospital many miles away.

That was three years ago. Today, the mission is different. Dave looks up as we come through the door, gives us a friendly nod, turns back to his work. He is breathing heavily under an oxygen mask, and his wife tells us it’s been a hard morning. Dave’s sophisticated wheelchair is carefully designed to put its many controls within easy reach, but he cannot reach them.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the disease that attacked the great baseball player, Lou Gehrig, is attacking Dave, short-circuiting his connection to his own body. Dave sees and understands and speaks, but like an airplane with no battery, his once strong and graceful body lies dark and still.

“He may not be able to talk”, Cindy warns, and we can see that he is laboring, but he turns his head toward her and nods emphatically. He wants to try and, carefully, she removes the oxygen mask.

ALS is a cruel and patient disease. Its puzzled victims blame themselves at first for becoming clumsy, unaware that a sinister process has begun that will gradually take away their arms and legs and, finally, their ability to breathe. It is a slow drowning that leaves the victim’s mind alert, able to see what is happening but unable to do anything about it.

Dave knows all this, knows what is coming. The arms he used to hold his wife, to embrace his grandchildren, to fly his airplane, now lay limp upon the chair, but he still has the use of his face, and his smile is warm. He steals a breath, forces out a “Hi”. Another breath. “Good.” “To see.” “You.”

For years, Dave has flown sick people to hospitals as a volunteer for Wings of Mercy. For years, he has served on the board and organized events, all this above and beyond his everyday job and his care for his family. He has never been a man to sit around and watch others work, but now he has no choice.

I ask how he deals with the frustration. “I pray.” His voice rises, pinched by the longing in his heart. His words come out one at a time, a pained whisper. “I can’t do anything. They have to do it all for me.” And “they” is often Cindy. She is petite – in her own words, “a peanut” – and she struggles to move her husband’s long body between a hospital bed and the wheelchair. Her mother helps, and sometimes an aide.

This is not their first sorrow. One morning eleven years ago, Dave and Cindy’s seventeen-year-old son bounded out the door and jumped into his car, unaware that he was in his final hour. A large collage now hangs on the wall in the living room – portraits of a handsome young man in baseball and football uniforms, a page from an essay he wrote for school. When Dave received his ALS diagnosis, one of the first things he said was, “I’ll get to see Kyle”.

I ask how he copes with such trouble. “Not”, “God’s”, “Fault”, Dave says, shaking his head slowly but emphatically. “Not God’s fault.” He closes his eyes and, though the words come slowly, memories are rushing through his mind. “I was proud. I was selfish. I wish I had done more.” He confesses weakness that was never visible to us, examines his life critically, prepares his soul. But such severity he reserves for himself. To us, he offers his normal warm smile, nods to underline his quiet words.

He was always a man you wanted to be around, a man whose radiance warmed you. So much has been taken away from him, but somehow, he is radiant still. His smile costs him a great deal and it reaches your soul, a patriarchal blessing that you will carry away and remember.

He loves Wings of Mercy and has high hopes for it. “A good team”, he says. Smiles. Nods again. And when we are forced to continue without him? He pauses, and a different, more focused expression comes over his face. “Be bold,” he says and meets our eyes. “Never be ashamed of the name of Jesus”, quoting a phrase first spoken by his brother, Rick, and frequently repeated by Peter VandenBosch, the organization’s founder.


It has been a few weeks since our last visit and today, as we move into the room, it is apparent that the disease has crept forward, now targeting the muscles Dave needs to breathe. Perhaps it has attacked his spirit, too, but you cannot see it. He smiles through the mask, nods a weak but cheerful greeting to each one of us. The board of Wings of Mercy – his friends and colleagues – have come to the house today to say thank you and, perhaps, good-bye.

Terry Boer presents Dave with a plaque honoring his service and, one by one, each board member speaks of Dave’s faithfulness and courage and friendship, some with tears. Dave cannot speak, but when his friends praise him, he lifts his eyes, lifts his head – uses all he has left to point toward Jesus.

This is not the kind of news we want to publish. We share this now, while Dave is with us, so you will know what kind of man he has been and perhaps join us in saying thank-you.

“And let us run with endurance
the race God has set before us.”

Hebrews 12:1

Not that kind of story

Some stories just come together; the pieces fit, and you seem to see the bigger plan…

Gerald didn’t hear the call, didn’t hear anything until the policeman started pounding on his door. With every nerve jangling, he blinked and struggled out of bed, shuffled clumsily to the entryway. “It’s the hospital!”, the policeman yelled when Gerald opened the door. “You have to call them right now!” Then his wife rushed into the room, the phone to her ear. “Gerald! He’s right! They called!”

There was a time when Gerald had expected this, had prepared for it, but that was in 2007, more than 4,000 nights ago. He had not exactly given up, but, well, maybe he had given up. For most of the 4,000 nights since Gerald was put on the transplant list, he has been hooked to an insulin pump 24 hours a day, his blood sugar swinging from highs that produce crushing headaches to lows that sink him into darkness – and sometimes send him to the Emergency Room. To make matters worse, the diabetes has wrecked Gerald’s left eye. Living without a pancreas is a dangerous business.

So, Gerald took the phone from his wife and made the call. It was true. The hospital had the organ he had needed for so long – a perfect match – and they would perform the transplant today – if he arrived within 6 hours. Gerald lives in Big Rapids, Michigan, an 11 hour drive from the hospital in Minneapolis. His next call was to Wings of Mercy.

Judith picked up the phone and recognized the name; Gerald had updated his application a couple of years ago, just in case. Her eyebrows flickered when he told her they wanted him in Minneapolis this afternoon and, even before she hung up, she started thinking through her list of pilots.

Drew Grooters and Larry Fuerst take a lot of Wings of Mercy flights. Drew is a talented young charter pilot, Larry a veteran of the airlines. Together, they are about as good as it gets and, when Judith told them about the transplant, they immediately said yes. Gerald was amazed when Judith called back so quickly. His vision does not allow him to drive, so he called for a taxi, then rushed to help Cathy get their things together.

The cab pulled up, chirped its horn, and Gerald and Cathy stepped out into a sparkling morning. Last night’s fog had settled over everything, sealed it within a gleaming skin of ice. Gerald started down the steps, skidded, turned to warn her, but it was too late. Cathy came down hard, breaking bones in her arm and hand. The cabbie saw it all, rushed over to help Gerald get her up, then called an ambulance. Through her tears, Cathy looked at Gerald and told him he had to go.

Drew and Larry were ready when the taxi pulled up and they soon had Gerald in the airplane – Gerald, whose mind kept lurching back and forth between sorrow over his wife’s injury and elation because, in a few hours, his body would begin to work again. When the airplane touched down in Minneapolis two hours and twenty minutes later, Larry already had a driver waiting to take Gerald to the hospital. The hospital was ready, too. A nurse met Gerald in the lobby and took him upstairs, started on the labs, EKG, X-rays and CT scan.

Transplants are often a traumatic process. The only person who can donate a pancreas is someone who doesn’t need one anymore – typically a healthy young person who, just a few hours ago, tragically lost their own life. It was so here and, trying not to think about that, a surgeon adjusted his light, got his first good look at the organ, shook his head, and terminated the operation.

Gerald’s tests were complete, and he was just waiting now, chatting with his roommate, an open and friendly man who had donated a kidney the day before. Gerald described his excitement about a new life without diabetes, said how hard it would be to write a thank-you letter to the donor’s grieving parents. There was a squeak of shoes at the door and Gerald looked up to see the doctor walk in, noticed the grim expression on his face, heard him clear his throat and say the car crash that took the donor’s life had also damaged her pancreas. There would be no transplant, no new life.

In the Wings of Mercy office there had been celebration; congratulations to Judith and Drew and Larry for pulling the trip off quickly and well. When Gerald called after meeting with the doctor, the mood changed, but the work still had to be done.

Chad Lemmen is a software developer and one-time charter pilot who operates a twin-engine SkyKnight. We left the Muskegon airport at 3 pm and climbed out over Lake Michigan and on toward St. Paul. We met Gerald in the airport lobby and said we were sorry about the transplant. He thought maybe it was for the best, as he needed to get home to care for his wife.

Two hours later, Chad set the airplane down in Big Rapids. Beth Ranger was working late at the airport and greeted us over the radio as she has greeted hundreds of airplanes over the years. It was a cold night, but she came out to see if we needed anything, asked if Gerald needed a ride home. Not her job, really. That’s just Beth.

As we gathered his bags and walked with Gerald into the lobby, I wondered what to say. Will it be 12 years more before the call comes again, if it ever comes at all? How will he cope, coming home to an injured wife, his own great hope shattered, his body still enslaved by disesase? I ask what he will do, and he says something characteristic of Gerald – something gentle and patient and hopeful: “I’ll go with what God gave me.”

Some stories just come together, but this is not that kind of story. The pieces did not fit. The plan looks broken. But this is the beauty in Wings of Mercy, in people like Gerald and Cathy who soldier on, in people like Beth who are simply kind. People who know there is more to the story, though we cannot see it, a loving Father whose arms we cannot yet feel.

Entering the lobby, we head for a chair and someone points Gerald toward a plate of Beth’s cookies. They would have looked awfully good if he’d come home with a pancreas, but for now, he can only laugh.

Drew Grooters, Larry Fuerst, Judith Brewer, Chad Lemmen. Main photo: Chad Lemmen and Gerald.

Going Home

Ray leans back, nearly invisible in the dim cockpit, scans the instruments again, stifles a yawn. It’s 2 am and the round trip between Muskegon and Boston would have been a long haul in any case, even without the 60 knot headwinds we’ve bucked all the way home.

It’s Ray Kapteyn’s first mission for Wings of Mercy but he knows the drill. For years, during his career as a missionary pilot, he flew injured people to hospitals around Africa. This trip came up suddenly, but he’s used to that.

Behind him, in a car seat strapped into a passenger berth, little Kolten sleeps. He is three years old and receives most of his food through a port in his belly and medicine through a second port in his chest. He and his mom have been in Boston for two weeks, spending a lonely and painful Christmas at the Children’s Hospital. They came in an air ambulance because Kolten was too sick for a commercial flight. Too sick, even, for a Wings of Mercy flight.

When Kolten was finally discharged from the hospital this morning, they took a cab to a place called Rectrix – an impressive airport building that serves impressive people visiting Boston on private jets. Shayla was not feeling impressive. It had been another rough day. She has three more kids at home, all sick, and she’s been on the phone with her husband, who is as worried and exhausted as she is. And the special formula Kolten needs to survive – she has only enough for one more day. For more reasons than she can count, she has to get home. And so, she cradled her fragile son, lugged their supplies into the opulent lobby, found a seat in the corner, and waited for a plane that would not come.

A Wings of Mercy flight was dispatched from Michigan this morning to pick them up, but – after takeoff – the pilot noted a mechanical problem and had to turn around. Six hundred miles away, trying to quiet her son in the lobby, Shayla answers her phone, hears the bad news, pushes down a sense of panic.
Grace Spelde, who manages the office at Wings of Mercy, got the call, too, and she has been on the phone ever since, calling every pilot she knows; kidding, cajoling, pleading. She needs an airplane to bring Kolten home. It has to be big enough for Shayla and Kolten, his stroller and his medical supplies. It has to be fast enough to make the 1,300-mile round trip. It has to be today.

Hanna Koen works at Retrix, stands behind the impressive wooden reception desk, taking care of busy pilots and passengers. She looks the part; blonde hair, friendly smile, stylish dress. She noticed the little kid and his mom sitting alone in the lobby, the strange medical equipment on the child’s back. They didn’t fit the profile, didn’t seem like the kind of people who pass through this building. She walked over to see if they were ok and heard about Kolten’s hospital visit and the cancelled flight. After a while, she got them some lunch, then found someone to cover for her while she played with Kolten and talked to Shayla. As the afternoon wore on, another plan occurred to her. She would borrow the company car and take them herself, drive them home to Michigan.

Terry Boer has been the president of Wings of Mercy since Peter VandenBosch, its founder, passed away. He’s a busy guy, wrestling with the pressures of his growing aviation business, but he took the call from Grace around three in the afternoon, heard about Kolten’s need, heard there was no one else who could help. Two hours later, an airplane climbed away from Muskegon and turned toward Boston – Terry’s airplane, flown by one of Terry’s pilots.

We made it into Boston by 9 pm and hustled across the cold and windy ramp, through the sparkling glass door and into the Rectrix lobby to find Hannah kneeling on the floor, playing with Kolten while Shayla got their things ready. The line guys serviced the airplane while we set up for the return leg, then packed the bags and strapped in the car seat. By ten pm, we were clawing our way out of Boston’s airspace for the five-hour trip back to Michigan, a long, slow droning interrupted only by a fuel stop in western New York.

It’s just one of the 8,000 missions Wings of Mercy has flown, but it reminded me what makes this work. People like Grace and Hannah and Terry and Ray who set their lives aside for a while to help someone in trouble, remembering that “whatever you do for the least of these, you’ve done for me.” People like Shayla and her husband who set their lives aside – forever, if necessary – to serve and protect those they love.

In the cockpit, Ray scans the instruments, stifles a yawn. In the back, Shayla watches Kolten sleep. It’s been a hard Christmas, but they are going home.