Recently, I set off on a 12-day Northern European cruise with my parents. I had anticipated ancient castles, Viking artifacts, Roman ruins, and Shetland ponies. On day five, in Lerwick, Shetland Islands, the trip took an unexpected turn. Looking at Hadrian’s Wall and riding on the Falkirk Wheel were not going to be part of the plan after all. Instead of historical locations and ancient artifacts, I was about to experience the living, compassionate hand of God through the beauty of his people.
My parents and I had just finished a tour of Lerwick and the surrounding countryside. Exiting the bus, my dad just started to crumble. I yelled for help, and two Holland America dock workers quickly grabbed each of his arms as he became dead weight, saving his head from the concrete. They dragged him to the tender for transport back to the ship. As he lay on the floor of the small boat, he seemed to be in a semi-conscious state. The boat moved across the choppy waters, and the biting wind and blowing rain rushed across us. I breathed a small sigh of relief when he mumbled in slurred speech that his head was cold, a hint that he was still with us.
From there, the ship’s doctor confirmed that he had had a heart attack and that he would have to be transported from the ship back to Lerwick. Furthermore, my mom and I had about 20 minutes to pack up our cabin if we were going to disembark as well. Back on shore, an ambulance met us along with the first of many caring souls we are forever indebted to: Monica, the Holland America shore representative. She kept tabs on us all day, loaded all five of our bags into her tiny car, and eventually got them to the ferry terminal later that afternoon. At Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick, we met Thelma, a nurse in their ER, and another precious person who demonstrated to us extreme kindness. “I’m going to take care of you,” she reassured me, and from getting us lunch before the cafeteria closed to booking our seats on the ferry to Aberdeen, she did not disappoint. During this time, I received a call from Linda, another Holland America family assistance representative, whose compassionate, English-accented voice became an important part of the next 10 days of our lives.
The hospital in Lerwick did not have a cardiologist, so dad was medivacked to Aberdeen, Scotland. Mom and I were to meet up with him the following morning at Royal Aberdeen Infirmary because the two of us and all our bags would not fit on the small plane. So we boarded a Northlink Ferry (Thelma and Monica arranged it all!) and began a 12-hour overnight trip. We met two more amazing people on board, whose names I never did know, but they upgraded my mom and me, without charge, to a private cabin and gave me a converter to power up our phones. They also checked on us several times to see if they could do anything else for us. Even though we were worried sick about my father, didn’t know where Aberdeen even was on the map, and had no idea what we would do when we arrived, I already recognized how the pieces had fit together in the past 6 hours. I lay down on the unexpected bed and thanked God for taking care of us, and a rare peace came over me. In the middle of the night, my phone dinged—we had cell service and a message. Linda had called and reassured me that my dad had made it to Aberdeen and was a patient in Ward 106.
When we arrived in Aberdeen at 7:00am on a quiet Sunday morning, we collected our luggage and spoke with the only two people at the dock, a Northlink Ferry desk worker and one of the baggage handlers. They heard our situation, and the young man immediately showed us a map and pointed to number 2—The Atholl Hotel. “They will take good care of you,” he told us. We called a cab and headed to the hotel to drop off our bags. Our cab driver was a sweet man who drove us quickly around the historic part of the city and pointed out some famous landmarks, ran us by the Atholl and then on to the hospital. We walked in the lobby and became overwhelmed with the directory sign. This multi-building facility was the largest hospital we had ever seen, with a green zone, a pink zone, a purple zone, and a yellow zone among others. A cheery, middle-aged woman walked right up to us with the biggest smile on her face and asked if she could help us find something. We told her Ward 106, and she said, “Oh, you want the green zone. I’ll just walk you over there.” Several turns, stairs, and hallways later, she led us to the place, told us she was a part of the cleaning crew in the pink zone, and headed off to work.
I will never be able to praise Royal Aberdeen Infirmary enough, and although I realize no place is perfect, we could not have received greater care than we did there. From the cleaning crew, to the tea cart attendant, to every medical technician, nurse, and doctor, we received nothing but kindness and quality. The cardiologist who performed dad’s angiogram and balloon stent procedure as well as the junior doctors who monitored him were outstanding, and we are especially grateful to our first couple of nurses Caroline and Maurine. They checked on us every hour those first key days and shared with us about their own families and experiences. Then there was Mark, a hospital chaplain, originally from Ireland. He visited us every weekday, which wasn’t always easy because dad was moved twice during his 8-days at ARI. He prayed with us, joked with us, and became our temporary minister. Since our own friends, pastor, and family couldn’t be there, God provided so many others to fill the gap, so that we never felt alone.
I could write an entire blog on the Atholl Hotel staff because they went above and beyond to accommodate us. The one night they were booked, Gaynor, one of the managers, I believe, found us a room just down the street, offered to keep all of our bags since we would be returning the next day, and drove us in her car to the hotel! All of the staff asked about dad every day. There was Alice and Julie, Frasier and Shirley, and so many more who met every one of our needs with, “It’s no problem,” and “That will be perfect.” And when dad joined us for the last two nights in the hotel, they all wanted to meet him, and they surrounded him like he was a celebrity. Their warmth and love was overwhelming. It was truly our home away from home.
I have to mention Norman, a chauffeur, who drove us around the area once my dad was released from the hospital. He and my dad were the same age and exchanged entertaining stories as we toured the surrounding countryside and visited Crathes Castle and the Falls of Feugh. He was a genuine soul that I will not forget. Finally, I want to mention Zoe, the owner of a cute Scottish shop, Teasel and Tweed. She visited with me for over an hour and when I asked her to use the phone so I could call a cab, she told me she would just drop me off at the hospital as soon as she closed her shop. Amazing! And the list could go on…
When I think about all the time dedicated to violence in our culture, I will continue to turn to these encounters and the beautiful, happy people of Scotland. I don’t know what their secret is, but I know that God used each one of them to take care of us during what could have been one of the worst times in our lives, but ended up being a one-of-a-kind journey of love. On the last night before we left, Linda called me to check on us one more time. I hadn’t heard her voice for three days because she had been off work (although another agent had been in contact), and I cannot tell you how comforting that last call was. I told her if I make it to Seattle, I’m going to look her up and give her the biggest hug. In a way, it’s too bad that it sometimes takes a tragic moment to connect people, but, on the other hand, I am a more encouraged person and my life is so much richer because of the experience. Ken Gire, one of my favorite Christian writers, states, “Much of what is sacred is hidden in the ordinary, everyday moments of our lives. To see something of the sacred in those moments takes slowing down so we can live our lives more reflectively.” God certainly slowed down the pace of our trip, and because of it, I saw time and time again the sacred “everyday moments” of humanity reaching out to humanity in love.