Why do bad things happen to good people?
On Friday night I returned home to Taranaki in New Zealand to visit my family for the weekend. It was a whirlwind visit to say goodbye before leaving for Everest in 30 days time.
My mother picked me up from the airport and drove me home. As we reached home and I walked in the door to greet my father, he in turn greeted us with the news that my older sister Debra had just been in a car accident. What? Where? When? How? Is she ok? A thousand questions, no answers…
We immediately drove to the police station in Stratford to try and learn exactly what had happened to her. The policeman who had attended the accident scene by chance had just returned to the station. He updated us what he knew. Debra had just been involved in a serious head on collision. She was trapped in her car. She had to be cut from the car by the fire dept. She was badly injured. She was being flown to New Plymouth hospital by the emergency rescue helicopter. She was lucky to be alive.
She was lucky. I kept repeating these words over and over as Mum and I drove to the hospital. Each time I repeated them, a wave of relief rolled over me. As we walked into the emergency department and were shown into Debra’s bed, any feelings that she was lucky immediately dissolved. Lying on the bed was a broken and shattered human being. Not any human being but my sister. Who had nursed me as a child. Who had come to visit and console me when I first went to boarding school and was crying with home sickness. Who let me drive her car before I ever had a driver’s license. Who had us to her place for every Christmas. Who made me godfather of her daughter.
The extent of Debra’s horrific injuries became apparent as the anesthetist prepared to sedate her for emergency surgery. Two broken femur’s, a compound fracture of her tibia, punctured lungs, multiple broken ribs, concussion, dried blood caked her face, eye swollen shut, a knee joint completely smashed into a raw open bloody pulp, massive internal bleeding, and whatever else had happened to her internally which we could not yet tell. How could I say she was lucky to be lying there in this state? Sure she did not die in the crash, however to say she was lucky seemed abhorrent.
Debra is the second oldest in our family of four children. Trained as a nurse, married with three beautiful children, Debra has devoted her life to caring for her family and to caring for others. At the time of her accident she was delivering cakes she had baked to her daughter’s school so they could sell them to raise funds. She was less than 2km from her home. On a stretch of road she had driven daily for many years. As a farmer’s wife, working all day on the farm or in the woolshed, cooking and preparing meals for multitudes of family members and farm workers, caring for children and taking them to and from school/ activities, equally adept in a school committee meeting, handling a chainsaw, on the tennis court, in a nurses uniform, or preparing the most beautiful food you could imagine, she is one of the good people in the world. She definitely did not deserve this.
As she was wheeled away into the operating room, she briefly focused and recognized her family. “oh – there is a an email on my computer with a scholarship form I need to fill in for you” she whispered through her swollen lips. Even in this state, her body broken and bleeding, Debra was still thinking of others.
I sat with Mum, her husband Paul and children, Johanna and David while she was operated on. I watched their shocked and pale faces. They acted incredibly bravely, Debra would have been proud of them. I could not help but think that the one person most cutout to handle this situation, the one person who would take control of everyone and know exactly what to do, was Debra herself.
I feel so extremely sorry for Debra. A sorry so deep it is physically painful. Like someone is reaching into my chest and trying to tear out my heart. All our family and Debra’s friends who are old enough to comprehend the situation feel the same.
The next day I visited the accident scene with my mother. I needed to see the site. I needed to understand what had happened. I needed to see her car. I wanted to talk to the emergency personnel involved who had performed such a wonderful job to save her. I drove along the road just as she would have driven. I took photo’s and video’s and replayed them over and over. I needed to try and work out how and why this had happened. It left me angry. Not with anyone in particular. But with life and its outcomes.
We returned to hospital to visit Debra in the intensive care ward. She was on life support. Her two femurs had been set with steel rods. Her knee cap had to be removed completely as it was smashed into so many tiny pieces. She had needed three blood transfusions. But she was alive. All afternoon and into the evening we sat with her as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Her friends started calling and phones were ringing non-stop. I was eventually left alone with her for a brief period. As she lay there, the ward suddenly went quiet, and the last rays of the sun briefly shone on her face. She looked beautiful and peaceful lying there in her drug induced sleep. I have never felt so proud of her in all my life. For the person she is, for the life she has lead, for her strength. My challenge of climbing Everest, something which had previously loomed so large in my life suddenly seemed so pathetic compared to the challenge she is battling and the courage she is displaying.
I said goodbye to Debra tonight as I left fly back to Singapore. I kissed her forehead as she lay asleep then turned and walked quickly out of the intensive care ward without looking back. It was awful leaving, like I was running away. I felt guilty and terribly sad. I don’t think Debra would have left me in the same circumstance.
I still struggle to understand why this happened. Many people are. The famous mountaineer Edward Whymper once said: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end”. I think this also applies to life in general. Because life is definitely not fair. And we must savor and appreciate the time we have with our friends, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, children, husbands and wives. For at anytime, an act so simple as driving down the road to deliver a cake, can be the end.
I wish to acknowledge the wonderful work of the Toko and Stratford volunteer fire brigade services, the ambulance staff, the emergency helicopter crew, the police, and the numerous bystanders who all helped out at the accident scene to save Debra’s life.