Tuesday, June 20, 8:45am
"Everyone go get dressed! We're leaving in 15 minutes! You need two full water bottles and hiking boots."
Middle school students scurry around us, taking turns filling up their bottles and running back to their tents for things forgotten. Caleb and I smile at each other. This is what we love to do. We met working as camp counselors, after all. Taking teenagers on trips, stretching them, teaching them, and pouring into them is what we are made for. This week wouldn't be any different.
So we thought.
"Can I have your phone, Caleb? I'm going to run over to the repelling wall to make sure we have pictures of the students over there."
Caleb, standing at the base of one of the routes up the mountainside, glances my way. "It's in my backpack."
I walk back to our packs, find it, and hurry off to the repelling wall, not wanting to miss the final student coming down. After a day of feeling nervous and uncertain, he had decided to face his fear and come down the repelling wall, one step at a time. I arrive just in time to see him shaking in his boots (literally) but doing it anyway. He finally reaches the ground, and relief overwhelms his frame.
"I'm so proud of you!" I holler.
The repelling guides hug our student and pour encouragement over him. "This activity is a great physical representation of what it's like to follow Christ," the guide says to him. He goes on to explain how trusting Jesus can often feel scarier than trusting ourselves, but in the end He is far more reliable than us.
"Steve! Can you come over here? We've got a possible broken ankle!" Another guide from the climbing routes shouts across the way.
Steve, a medic, runs over to the climbing area. I walk back slowly with the student who had just finished repelling, trying to remember who had been climbing when I left. This certainly isn't how we want the day to end. Plus, we had spent all day telling the students they had nothing to fear. Climbing while on belay is a relatively safe activity.
I cross the path and make my way back up towards the climbing routes. One of the female students makes eye contact with me as I approach. That's when I knew.
"Good job Caleb," a student calls as I reach the top. I've done this climb before, but as I look to my left, the view stuns me once again.
I take a few deep breaths before calling to my belayer that I'm ready to start my descent. I lean back and walk my way down the wall until I reach the ledge I had climbed over moments before. I call to my belayer that I'm ready to hop over the ledge and will need a little extra slack to get down the five feet without smashing into it. Sure that I hear her respond, I bend my knees and hop over the ledge, expecting to fall a few feet before the line catches me.
But it never catches.
I fall fast and far before landing on my feet on the sloped rock face.
The shock is instant.
There's no doubt in my mind what just happened, but I look down just to check. Sure enough, my right foot flops, no support where my ankle used to be. I yell in pain and call down, "My ankle is broken!" before hobbling down the rest of the wall on my left foot.
Never have I felt a pain so terrible. I get my harness off and lay on the ground. The guides with us grab a bag to prop my right foot up. In a moment, the medic is there examining my ankle. He's hopeful I can hop my way down the boulders and trail we hiked to get out here. I know there's no way.
I lift my head slightly and see Rylee running over to me, panic etched on her face.
"Rylee, don't look!" I yell. She's not tough when it comes to blood or broken bones. I need to mask this pain so she doesn't freak out. I love her, and I need her to be okay.
If Caleb is telling me not to look, it must be really bad. I turn my head to the side as I make my way to him. I turn toward the forest as I talk to him. "Are you okay?"
"No, I'm not okay! My ankle is broken!"
A wave of nausea hits me. I'm sure I'm gonna faint. I put my hands on my head, close my eyes, and take deep, slow breaths. I've been on the brink of passing out numerous times. I know I can fight back.
It takes everything in me not to break down then and there. I need to pull it together. If I'm freaked out, the kids are going to freak out, and the last thing I need is a dozen freaked-out twelve year-olds.
"I have Tylenol in my bag. Do you want some?" I ask Caleb.
"I'll take literally anything," he responds.
I run to my backpack, careful not to make any eye contact with my students. I need one more minute to be wife before I can be their leader again.
I run it over to Caleb and look him in the eyes, still avoiding looking at his ankle. He stares back at me: "I am going to be okay."
I nod. "I love you. I'm gonna go take our kids back to camp, okay? You have good people here who are going to wait with you."
I'll probably be better off getting away from the situation anyway. I am here to lead these students, and by golly I am gonna do it.
I squeeze his hand. "I'll see you at the hospital, okay? I love you."
My wife heart shreds as I turn away from him. Am I really about to leave my broken husband laying on the forest floor? There's no one in the world I love as much as him. But there is absolutely nothing I can do for him right now.
Burying the feelings of helplessness, I switch from wife mode into leader mode and march back over to the students, determined not to let the day end in tragedy for all of us. "Grab your bags, shoes, and helmets everyone! We're gonna go back to camp."
These 6th-8th graders amaze me in the moments that follow.
"Caleb had the keys to the blue van. Did we get those?"
"Can I carry Caleb's shoes?"
"I have a full water bottle. Do I need to leave it with Caleb so he has something to drink?"
"Do you need a hug?"
There I was, ready to pretend to be the hero, and these students stepped up to be mine instead.
I turn my head up to the medic. "This is getting pretty bad. I know it won't accomplish anything, but I think I'm gonna yell."
"Do it," he says back.
Right after that, EMS is the first group on the scene. I think surely they will have some pain medicine with them. Adrenaline has carried me through the first hour of waiting for rescue, but I don't expect it to last much longer.
EMS has no pain meds. Unfortunate, but search and rescue should be here before too long, and I imagine they will have something.
After two hours of waiting after the accident, I begin to feel impatient. Finally the medic who had examined me and called SAR walked to an area with cell reception to get a time estimate. He comes back, relaying that the SAR team hadn't been called after all. I can feel the frustration mounting. He had called immediately following my fall and described exactly where we were and what we needed. What had happened?
Volunteer fire fighters are the next to arrive. While I am grateful they all came to my aid, no one had the equipment search and rescue would have. In addition, none of them have pain killer in their rescue bags.
After another hour, the EMS guys, fire fighters, and other staff members from the company we had been climbing with decide to use a scoop stretcher to start carrying me out. I'm a big guy, and the terrain is rough. We knew the journey out will take several hours, so I am glad to begin making our way down even though the stretcher is uncomfortable and pinching me.
Eight guys have made their way to me, and they take turns with six of them carrying me at a time. I try to crack jokes along the way to lighten the mood, but I can't help the thoughts like, What if I slip out of their hands?
The first portion of the hike out has the toughest terrain, and it takes an hour to make it through. When the trail finally smooths out a bit, they set me down to take a break.
That's when the worst of the pain hits. For the first time today, I am brought to tears. Shock and adrenaline have worn off.
As we sit for a break, about halfway down the trail, someone realizes SAR is just ahead on the trail, making their way to us.
Another staff member reaches us, letting us know that the rest of the SAR team is loading up equipment in the parking lot and will be here soon. She makes her way to me and squats down.
"Hey Caleb," she says to me. We chat for a minute before I get to what's really on my mind.
"Could you go get my wife? She probably needs someone to talk to. Could you bring her to the hospital?" I know Rylee needs somebody. I told her it was bad. I'm worried about how she is handling it.
Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry.
I continue talking with our adventure guides and students, my tone a bit too bright and my comments too enthusiastic.
I need a minute to not be okay.
"I'm going to make a phone call and let our boss know what's going on, then I'll come help with dinner."
I call one of the pastors at the church and spill everything I know in a matter-of-fact tone, including questions I have and problems we will need solutions for in the coming days.
"Okay," he says. "I'll take care of that stuff. You just get the kids settled and let me know when you get an update on Caleb. If they can put him in a boot and send him back to camp, I can come get him tomorrow. Just let us know how bad it is."
I concede, hang up, and dial my Dad.
"Hey Rylee!" he greets me.
"Hey. I just need a minute," I whisper. I don't know why I'm whispering, but he doesn't question it.
"Okay, take a minute," he whispers back.
I control my breathing before I lose it. "Caleb is hurt. I had to leave him in the woods. Search and Rescue is going to evacuate him."
As we talk, my dad's response reassures me the weight and sadness I feel is real. It's valid. It's okay. He calms me until I feel ready to go play leader again.
After an outdoor shower that left me shivering, a delicious camp meal of fried rice, and a series of text messages relaying the situation to a group of people I knew would start praying, I gather around the fire with the students.
By now it's 8pm. I haven't heard a word from anyone even though I left my phone number with several people--not to mention Caleb has his phone on him. I take each breath slowly and deeply, trying to maintain composure and positivity. But the thoughts come quickly and consistently: Is he still out there? What hospital will he be taken to? How much pain is he experiencing? Will I get to see him tonight? What does this mean for the rest of the trip?
Finally, a car pulls up to our campground. Would this person have news?
I look back and see a woman approaching. She smiles gently at me. "Are you Rylee?"
My heart leaps. "Yes!"
"Great. I'm here to take you to the hospital. I was just with Caleb. They should have him to the ambulance soon."
My joy rockets, leaving all thoroughness of thought and logic in its wake. I jump up to follow her, not saying bye to the students, not grabbing Caleb's wallet, leaving my backpack with my computer in it next to the fire, not wearing socks or grabbing a phone charger, clothes, or anything at all that would be good to have at an overnight hospital visit.
I don't know how long I'll be at the hospital. I don't know if I'm coming back tonight. Heck, I don't know if I am coming back at all. My only thought, only desire, is to see Caleb's face, hold his hand, and tell him how much I love him. Nothing else matters.
The ambulance. Finally.
I and my army of rescuers make it back to the trailhead. I'm doing my best to ignore the pain, but my legitimate need for a pain killer is increasing. This should finally be the time.
The EMTs walk me past the police who are waiting at the trailhead and load me up.
My blood pressure spikes. The pain is increasing, and the road out to this trailhead is no joke. I know it will be a bumpy ride, not to mention the closest hospital has to be at least an hour from here.
They try to keep me calm as we ride along. The bumps in the road are more noticeable than ever in my life. This will no doubt feel like the longest ride of my life.
Then a thought hits me.
What if this is even worse than I thought?
I mean, a broken ankle is no joke, but lots of people break their ankles. Yet the pain I experience foreshadows the news that would come not just at the first hospital, but at every doctor's visit from here on out.
My injury is more than bad. More than terrible.
As each surgeon would come to say, it is