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.

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