“Do you believe in God, Nancy?” My mind floated to a
recent email I had sent to a new friend in California. “How could
anyone see something like this and not believe in God?” I thought.
At 5:00am on September 11th 2003 I stood
side by side with my husband at the trail head we were to take on
our rim to rim hike across the Grand Canyon. A full moon cast
enough light on the rugged canyon that we didn’t need our headlamps.
At 22 miles it wasn’t the longest one day hike I’d
ever done but it certainly was the most challenging. With a 7 mile
decent to the bottom, another 7 miles of gentle incline and a final
steep 8 mile accent to the top of the other side, rim to rim hikes
are so rigorous they are considered dangerous and are openly
discouraged, though not forbidden, by the National Park Service.
But we were experienced hikers, athletic and well prepared.
Months before our trip we studied the canyon in
detail and spoke at length with several other rim to rim hikers. We
developed a special training program using ultra light hiking gear,
an important factor in long distance desert hikes. Our planning and
preparation included a thorough understanding of the dangers of
hiking in a desert environment and the complexities of extreme arid
As I stood there that morning I recalled a passage
from a book I had been reading called The Lies Women Believe.
“I have enough time to do today what God has planned for me to do.”
I rested in that truth. Proverbs 16:9 was a tool in my counseling
toolbox and a brick in my spiritual foundation, “A wise man plans
his way but the Lord directs his steps.” My trust was in God, my
Jehovah Shemaah, the God who Sees, the God who is There. I had
nothing to fear and my moments are all His…That thought would
resonate with me just 16 hours later as I lay dying at the bottom of
The truth is, God ordains our days. We plan. We
prepare. We wisely consider all our options and prioritize our
efforts. But it is God who directs our steps. At that moment on
the rim of the Grand Canyon I rested on this truth and trusted God
for the outcome that we had planned. In the weeks before our hike I
acknowledged each day before the Lord that it was His day and that I
would have time to do whatever He had ordained for me to do. I had
wrestled with priorities and was learning to graciously accept God’s
to-do list as best for my life. It was this truth that brought me
amazing peace when, those many hours later as I prepared to see
Jesus face to face, I realized I had accomplished His plan that day
and not mine.
The first 7 miles of our journey were like hiking
through a Galenesque picture book of the Grand Canyon. We walked
down the steep trail to the Colorado River making good time stopping
only for photos and rest. The experience was intoxicating. The
colors of a yawning canyon at dawn are unmistakably divine – blue,
purple, gold and crimson. The full moon slowly dropped behind the
canyon rim as the sun rose casting a whole new color palette on our
view. There were rock walls of translucent green and amber and
vivid blooming vegetation. When we arrived at the river we were
energized and eager for the second leg of our trip.
After we crossed the Colorado River we stopped at
Phantom Ranch, a hundred-plus year old mule train respite with
running water, a pay phone and a much acclaimed bunk house for
hikers. It is staffed by the National Park Service year round and
serves as an overnight stop for mule train riders and hikers, though
reservations for an overnight stay must be made as much as two years
We took our shoes off and rested in the shade by a
creek. Mike was not feeling well, having just finished a round of
antibiotics that morning from a recent sinus infection. His heart
was beating faster than normal and he felt lightheaded. We
discussed stopping the hike, briefly considering the implications of
this decision. We were 7 miles down in the canyon and we knew the
only way out was up. If we had to hike back up we might as well
continue the way we had planned so we quickly dismissed the idea.
We had worked so hard to get to this point – trained
for months, spent money on special gear, took precious time off of
work and traveled 2/3rds of the way across the country. After
eating and drinking Mike took several salt pills and felt better so
we started out towards Cottonwood seven miles away.
Five miles into this section of the hike Mike again
began to feel very weak. It was about 95 degrees and extremely
dry. We rounded a corner on the trail and came upon a sliver of
shade. There Mike collapsed and was limp and unable to focus. I
dropped my backpack and began to pray. “Lord, send someone to help
us. I don’t know how to help my husband.” His heart was beating out
of his chest, he was dizzy and pale. I feared he was having a heart
I panicked when I realized we were in the middle of
the Grand Canyon miles from a phone or help of any kind. I stupidly
checked my cell phone. “No service down here,” I thought,
bitterly. I refocused on God’s priorities. I prayed out loud,
again and again, “Lord send someone.” In the middle of the desert
with audible words I cried out to my Jehovah Shemaah and He heard
In less than 5 minutes 6 people came around a corner
in the direction we were headed. “Praise God!” I had no idea who
they were but I knew they were God’s answer to my prayer. I rushed
toward them calling out for help. In that group of 6 people were 2
EMT's, an Ironman 5-time competitor, a Dental Hygienist and a New
Age healer. My! God does have a sense of humor! We could not have
asked for more prepared and generous people!
They knew exactly what to do to revive Mike from what
we now know was heat exhaustion. They soaked our shirts in the cold
river and force fed him high energy gels and bars. They gave us food
and water and toilet paper as by that time I had developed diarrhea.
We had thought this was from the emotional stress but later learned
it was the first sign of my own serious trouble. We knew that
diarrhea could be deadly in an arid and remote environment so I
immediately took some Imodium and ate a power bar.
Sara, the dental hygienist, held me while I sobbed.
I told her how she was an answer to our prayers. I thanked her over
and over again for comforting me and caring for my husband. I asked
her to call my daughter when she got to Phantom Ranch, which she
did, but by the time Sara made that call of encouragement things had
changed for the worse for me and Mike.
Though he felt better almost immediately, Mike and I
remained in that spot for a while to rest. We knew we had lost
precious time and began to readjust our priorities. I was again
reminded of that verse in Proverbs, “A wise man plans his way…” We
felt we could still get out of the Canyon that night but were
prepared to sleep on the ground if that became necessary.
Our new friends left us heading for Phantom Ranch
feeling comfortable that we were in good shape. When Mike felt fine
we hiked another mile.
After we started hiking I began feeling sick and so I
started praying for another sliver of shade. I knew from our
training that shade was critical with the extreme effects of the sun
and the climate. I plodded on ahead of Mike afraid to tell him how
bad I felt. How could this be? After Mike’s rescue from heat
exhaustion or worse was I now to become sick in this desolate place?
I prayed again for shade. Something was very wrong with my body.
I was not thinking straight. My legs felt heavy. Again, I prayed
for shade. But God didn’t provide shade until just after we passed
the turnoff for the trail that leads to Ribbon Falls.
Much later we discovered that this sweet answer to
prayer probably saved my life. Because the Grand Canyon
environment is so foreboding virtually no one makes the trek between
Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood in the heat of the day. The foot
traffic for the rest of that day would only be between Ribbon Falls and Cottonwood.
Had we stopped below the falls no one would have come past us until
morning and I probably would have died.
In our new shady spot I collapsed. I developed a
full blown case of Hyponatremia which is water intoxication. In
just a few short hours from the time we left Phantom Ranch I had
drunk a gallon of clear water and had not replaced the electrolytes
lost while hiking with enough salty food. I had further overwhelmed
my system with too much water, bringing about this dangerous
chemical imbalance. I knew it was important to take in salt and
thought my plan was adequate. But I didn’t know that a
non-prescription drug I had been taking at the advice of my doctor
had predisposed me to this condition.
My health deteriorated rapidly. I could not walk
unassisted and I was not able to think straight. The diarrhea
became so severe that I couldn’t control myself – I went in my
shorts which I ended up having to wear for 24 more hours.
Mike began taking my vital signs which he knew how to
do as a result of his First Responder training. It was his
turn to pray this time! He specifically asked that God would send
someone to help us. Not long after he prayed a young couple came by
on their way to Ribbon Falls. They wet our shirts down with cold
creek water and, not knowing what else to to for us, they went on
their way. They said they would be back by
in a couple of hours if we still needed help. That brought us some
comfort. A while later two young men came by. By this time it was
clear that I was very sick and would need medical attention. Mike
was steady and calm but inwardly he was a wreck considering all the
We were amazed to discover that one of these two men
was an emergency room doctor from Detroit, Michigan! This detail is
singularly significant because this man had made his reservations 6
months in advance for this one night at Cottonwood campground. Now
why were we so surprised? God was actively ordering our day. His
priorities were clearly being met through every step of our
journey. His goals were being accomplished in His time. And so, in
some other way, God was also ordering this doctor’s day and his
steps and his priorities as well.
The ER doctor generally assessed my situation and
decided I needed the immediate help of the park service. He and his
brother went back to Cottonwood and got on the Rescue phone to call
for help. The Park service dispatched a Ranger from Phantom Ranch 7
miles away, on foot.
Things move slowly in the Grand Canyon. There are
many areas that are still so remote that if an incapacitating injury
were to occur you would die before another person came along. We
praise our faithful God that this little 1 mile stretch of the trail
was the most heavily traveled section at that time of day for many miles
in both directions.
About another hour had elapsed and I had taken all
the Imodium I could take, which we had in our First Aid kit. The
young couple came back by just before the doctor returned and Mike
implored them to go up to Cottonwood and call the Park Service. The
young man went running up the trail and the girl stayed with me and
Mike. She got me to eat a power gel a quarter of a teaspoon at a
time– just some nutrients to give me strength...but I was
nauseated. She held me while I whimpered -- I don't even know her
Pretty soon the doctor returned with the young man.
Another couple came by and stayed with us offering to do whatever
was necessary to help. They were from France so they didn’t speak
much English but they were able to help carry things when we set out
for Cottonwood. The Park Service had asked the doctor to do
everything possible to get me to the Cottonwood Camp. So they all
made a plan and, with Mike on one side and the Doctor’s brother on
the other side, they helped me walk the final mile to Cottonwood.
It took all of us 1 1/2 hours to go that one mile! I
was completely out of it. I had my eyes closed for most of the walk
and kept sitting down on the trail. Dark came and they all put on
headlamps to see. As we ascended above the creek some 40 or 50 feet, Mike, who was on the side of the 3 foot wide trail that had the
sheer drop off, prayed that God would keep his footing sure.
When we arrived at the Camp they laid me out on a
picnic table. There were 3 doctors there in total, a
hematologist and two ER doctors. They were all friends from
Detroit and were hiking together; God
certainly knew what we
They made food for us and tried to make me
comfortable while we waited for the park ranger to arrive from
Phantom Ranch. I could hear the three doctors discussing my
condition. I drifted in and out of reality and thought at times I
was somewhere else. They believed my condition was heat related
and never considered hyponatremia. This erroneous diagnosis became
critical later in the evening.
The ranger had a key to the cabin at the camp which
had emergency provisions, a bed and a two way radio. When he
finally came they helped me over to the cabin and laid me out on the
The ranger reported my vital signs to the ER at
Flagstaff Regional Medical Center. After much discussion they
issued a diagnosis of hyponatremia, not dehydration.
They gave approval for the Detroit doctor in
Cottonwood to administer an IV to me. There were medical supplies
in the Ranger Hut but only doctors, nurses and EMT's are authorized
to administer IV's. Our new EMT friends were many miles away and
had no idea of this new medical problem. The Ranger was not
medically qualified to administer IV’s. He only had First Responder
training, just like Mike. “A wise man plans his way, but the Lord
directs his steps.” Without the IV that night I would have died.
The doctor was still convinced I was dehydrated so
he allowed the 2 bags of IV fluids to flow into my veins at a rapid
pace that actually made my condition much worse instead of better.
I could not feel my hands and I was barely conscious. It was like
being drunk -- I could not focus, walk or talk clearly. Because my
system had been further overwhelmed with fluids from the rapid IV’s,
my hands, feet and face swelled up like balloons. After
some time I began having trouble breathing from the fluid build-up
in my body. Though I continued to urinate frequently – my
wonderful husband hauled me into the little bathroom some 15 times
that night -- I had taken in so much fluid that my body was storing
it everywhere it could to keep it away from my heart. PRAISE
GOD for His miraculous design!
Through the night as I lay there I knew that I was
dying. I felt like I was suffocating, couldn’t focus my eyes,
couldn’t walk. I drifted in and out of consciousness and told the
Lord that I was ready to die. I had complete peace knowing that I
was going into His presence. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have
everything I need.” I thought of this modern version of the 23rd
Psalm that a wonderful friend had recently read to me. I
recited this Psalm over and over again and God used every
bit of it to give me peace.
As I prayed I also told the Lord I didn't want to
leave my husband and daughter. I thought of how hard it would be
for Mike to fly out of there with my body. I imagined this in detail
but didn’t have the strength to cry. I thought of my precious
daughter, Claire, back in South Carolina. I ached for her voice and
so desperately wanted to tell her one more time how much I loved
her. I prayed for both of them that God would give them grace to
endure my death if that was His will.
In those moments I felt called to submit to God’s
plan…to God’s priorities. I knew that if I died God would be enough
for them because it would be His plan and His perfect will for all
of us. I told Mike to tell Claire how much I loved her. I
continually called out to him through the night. After he answered,
"Yes, honey. What is it?" I would say, "I love you, Mike" because
that is the last thing I wanted him to hear from me. I wanted him
to always remember how much I loved him. He never lost hope. He
prayed for me all night long. He prayed for a helicopter....and he
prayed that I would make it through the night.
Mike talked to the Ranger off and on all night long
. They took my vital signs and periodically reported my condition
to the ER. At some point early in the morning they put me on
oxygen, another life saving piece of equipment that was available in
this little cabin at the bottom of the Canyon. And though it was
improperly administered, the saline IV probably saved my life.
After many hours at the peak of fluid overload those life saving
minerals began to have an impact and my condition stabilized.
Hyponatremia has three stages and though I was in the final stage my
condition was arrested at a point short of death. There have been
numerous cases of death from hyponatremia in US Marines in training
at Paris Island. And a recent article about the New York Marathon
details hyponatremia as the cause of death for a female runner just
months after our ordeal.
By about 5 am they had gotten the approval to rescue
us by helicopter. The helicopters can’t fly at night in the canyon
because of the hazards of lack of visibility. We were second
priority behind a huge rafting accident that had stranded 17 people
on a rock in the middle of the Colorado River.
After the river rescue was complete the helicopter
came to us at about 10am. We were zipped into a flight suits and I
was loaded into the center laying down. With Mike sitting next to
me I prayed for God’s mercy and off we went. I am typically afraid
of flying but realized I could die at the bottom of the Canyon or I
could die trying to get out. It was an easy choice!
The helicopter took us to a landing pad on the South
Rim -- a ride of only 15 minutes, -- and transferred me to an
ambulance that took me to an emergency clinic. They know how to
treat this condition better than anyone in the US as they see 20 or
30 cases per year there due to the arid nature of the canyon's
was in very good hands, indeed!
The doctors tested my blood salts and indicated to
Mike that I was in very serious condition. They administered 4.5
bags of saline to me over about 5 hours. After 3.5 hours I became
lucid and it seemed like the whole thing was a dream. I remember
feeling as if I was at the very fingertips of God – He was right
there ordering my day and providing for my every need. I profoundly
knew that it was God who had brought us through. His provision at
every turn saved both of our lives. After just 5- 6 hours I was
able to walk out on Mike's arm.
On September 11th, 2003, we accomplished
what God had planned for us to do. We wisely planned our way,
trained for the most rigorous of hikes and executed our plan to the
best of our ability. But God ordered our steps and His purposes