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by Bella Rossiter
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Frank and Janice awoke to pale blue skies and clouds lightly covering Mt McKinley. On this final day of their stay at the Princess Lodge, the O’Rourkes planned their schedule, oblivious of what was in store for them.

No one wakes up thinking “this is the day I’m going to die.” How absurd that would be. What would be wise is to be prepared mentally, emotionally and spiritually, precisely because we do not know when that day or hour will be. We are free then, having trusted God with our destiny.

Perhaps they leisurely finished packing their bags and set them outside the door for the Bell staff to pick up. They probably decided to ride the guest bus down the hill to the main Lodge. Carrying their Espressos and pastries outdoors, they may have settled on deck chairs to gaze in silence at the black silhouette of the Alaskan range that bows low before the “Great Denali.”

Breathing sighs of weariness followed by anticipation, maybe they rose from their chairs when Arryca, our Expediter, made a last sweep of the crowds announcing, “Call for the shuttle to the train for Anchorage; last call to board!”

Janice boarded first and chose the second window seat behind the coach driver, thankful they didn’t have to move further back. Frank sat on the aisle seat. KayC was to be their driver/guide for the hour long ride. Thankful for the chance to earn tuition during summer break, he looks forward to returning to BYU in Utah. He is a soft-spoken capable young man; trained, yet inexperienced in an emergency situation.

I rode another coach into town, where I work in the Guest Services office. Upon entering the door, I was immediately thrust into the center of an unfolding drama. Beth, our manager, was instructing me on the changes made on the Dispatch. While I was jotting notes, she received a call concerning an incident involving a passenger on coach #206, KayC’s coach.

I followed her outside, as she took stock of the situation, telling me, with the phone still to her ear, that I need to drive the van to Sunshine, fourteen miles south of Talkeetna. I reminded her that Frank drove the van to the depot. The depot crew had already been dispatched to set up the staging. They align the lettered coaches according to the numbered Princess cars in the lineup on the Alaska rail. Beth follows later in her own vehicle.

“I’ll drive you over there, but you need to get to Sunshine.” My heart picked up its pace as adrenalin pumped into my system. “What is happening?” I wondered.

We pulled into the depot beside the white work van, and although everyone was rushing around, I felt like I was moving in slow motion! Beth handed me a radio and a cell phone, and showed me how to use the van radio for communications. She gave me rapid-fire instructions of where to go and what to do. I sat there immobile, nodding my head without understanding.

As coach #206 was approaching Sunshine and the turn off from the George Parks Highway onto the Talkeetna Spur road, Janice loudly exclaimed, “My husband is having chest pains!” A passenger offered some aspirin; but it had no effect. Another one quickly handed over a spray bottle of nitroglycerin, instructing, “give two quick sprays under your tongue!” Without any relief, though, Frank gasped as he spun into cardiac arrest. KayC radioed for help and pulled into the Tesoro Corner lot.

Since several coaches had left at the same time to take guests to the Anchorage train, two responded quickly and pulled in beside the stricken coach, ready to lend immediate assistance.

Skip, whose coach was empty, scrambled aboard #206 to help remove the victim to the ground. One of the O’Rourke’s traveling companions, a fifteen year veteran EMT, began CPR, alternating the procedure with Skip, until the ambulance arrived and took over. A pulse was detected and the team continued to administer an IV drip. They lost the pulse again and applied the Defibrillator with another degree of success.

A Medivac helicopter had also been dispatched. David S. had passengers but was ready to transfer KayC’s passengers onto his coach for the rest of the journey. The party of three and another party of two, who had befriended the O’Rourkes on this trip, opted to stay with Janice, offering their support until they knew Frank was going to be okay.

Being hopeful that my part in this emergency would be cancelled, I said, as the ambulance siren wailed past, “Does that mean I don’t need to go?” Beth just looked at me and responded, “No, you still need to go!”

My hands were shaking as I drove out of the depot and up the Talkeetna Spur. I fumbled with the handheld radio, to see if I could use it and drive with one hand. I veered over the center line, scaring myself, and quickly corrected my steering. Okay. I need help. Prayer is my immediate instinct and I felt a calm come over me. I knew without a doubt that whatever was required of me, I would be able to do it, in spite of myself.

Fourteen miles never seemed this long before. A Princess coach was coming towards me. Thinking this was KayC, I radioed for confirmation. The crackly voice said, “No, this is Lisa, and KayC is at Tesoro.” A couple of miles later, another Princess coach is approaching. I hopefully radio to see if it’s KayC. “This is KayC heading for the depot. The ambulance is with the man who had the heart attack.” The third coach passing was David S. “I still have to continue,” I groaned out loud.

The wide-open spaces of the Tesoro Corner is a fuel stop and rest area for long-distance truckers and travelers. As I pulled into the potholed dirt lot I slowed down. There were two emergency vehicles with lights flashing. Two Princess coaches formed a shelter for the technicians working to revive Frank O’Rourke. I parked some distance away to keep down the rising dust plume. Before I climbed out, I called Beth telling her that I had arrived and would let her know as soon as I had more details. I flipped closed the cell phone and in rang in my hand. Jon needed further word, too.

Even though KayC had left this tense scene, five of his passengers wanted to stay with Janice until they knew Frank would be okay. Skip, with bowed head, is a figure in the frightening tableau before me. A man is stretched out laying flat on the ground. A medic is kneeling beside him while a second one stands holding an IV drip bag.

My pulse is pounding in my ears. I look at the piece of paper in my hand. I know I am supposed to get the patient’s name. I fumble in my pockets but my usually handy pen is missing. Skip hands me his. I scribble almost indecipherably, “Frank O’Rouke, wife, Janice Reese-O’Rourke. Cardiac Arrest. Helicopter coming to transport to Providence Hospital in Anchorage.”

Back in the van, I prepare to call Beth, when the phone rings again. Jon assumes that the people accompanying the patient are all in one party. I tell him a helicopter will take the man to Anchorage. He asks, “Bella, how do you feel about driving to Anchorage?” “Not good, Jon, I don’t know anything about Anchorage.” He hesitates, going to plan B. “I’ll send Serge down in another van. He can get them to Anchorage.” “I appreciate that, Jon.”

The helicopter was still ten minutes out. Help to control and seal off road access to the area was set into play. The fireman needed me to block off the Spur road entrance to the Corner. He tells Skip to block with his coach the entrance from the George Parks Highway. We both do as we are told.

The following sequence of events is not clear in my mind. Beth at the depot and Jon at the Lodge are both in touch with me in the middle. For an unrecalled reason, I left my post. The fireman orders me, “Return to the blockade; you’re the only one I have to do it. No traffic can be in here when the helicopter lands!”

Before I turn around, the side door slides open and five people surge in. “We need to get to the train!”

“Someone is coming to drive you to Anchorage!” I shouted. “We don’t want to go to Anchorage; we want to go to the train!”

My thoughts are in a whirl. Jon is sending Serge to drive these people in the back seat to Anchorage. They are telling me to drive them to the depot. The fireman is telling me to block the road. I slowly roll forward. From a distance, Skip is waving a fistful of packets at me. The fireman is watching me. Can I drive over to Skip to explain? Or should I ignore him and get to the road? Skip jogs over and tosses the rubber-banded batch of packets through the open window onto the passenger seat. “Give these to Y coach when you get there!”

I head for the Tesoro entrance, thinking I still need to block it. My passengers say, “We’ll do anything if you can get us to the train!”

Although the scheduled 4:40 arrival time has been pushed up to 5 p.m., it is now ten minutes to five. There is no way I can get there in time; and Y coach needs the individual passenger information packets.

I am hesitating when the intense face of the fireman appears at my open window. I say, “These people need to get to the train!” He yells back, “I need you to block this road!”

A pickup truck and a hatchback are squeezing their way behind me to gain access to the lot. I frantically wave my arms for them to back out. My seatbelt restricts me from jumping out. The people are gasping in frustration.

The fireman reappears, stoic. He says, “The patient deceased.”

My eyes well up and I grasp his arm leaning on the window ledge. “I am so sorry...”

“The helicopter has been turned back,” he adds. I realize my wards have also heard. I still think they are family members. I soon learn I am wrong.

I call Jon to tell him the news. Serge doesn’t need to come after all. The people are not relatives, and they want me to drive them to the train. He says, “I’m sorry, Bella. Okay.”

I call Beth to tell her I am bringing five passengers for the train and have Y’s packets on board. I hope I’ll make it in time.

Seventy-five miles an hour may sound fast. It isn’t when you are trying to beat the clock. Twice, as I pull out to pass slower traffic, the gentleman in back says aloud, “75 miles an hour!” I retort, “Don’t look at that, it doesn’t work!” When I am tempted to do it a third time, I renege, muttering, “I’ll refrain, so I don’t hear that rebuke again...”

The beautiful scenery along the Spur is an unending continuation of the lush foliage bordering the Parks Highway. But endless is the prevailing emotion I am feeling. My shoulders begin to unknot, seeing the upcoming railroad tracks. I grapple with the van speaker and say, “Beth, this is Bella entering the depot with the five guests from Sunshine.”

“Okay, Bella, come to the extreme north end and turn in when you spot me.”
The 15 mph approach and in-terminal speed begins. About midway to the goal, we hear the train’s Hooo-hooot and its deafening roar as it comes to a full stop in the station.

“Is that our train?” my charges exclaim! “Yes; isn’t that fantastic? We got here at the same time! YES! Thank You, Lord!”

On trembling legs, I move around the van to give hugs to each of these weary travelers. They thank me for a job well done. I grab the packets and rush to Y coach, and he gives me a smile and breathes a sigh of relief.

“Bella, we need you over here for crowd control!”

Life at the depot must continue on ... regardless of my recent and excruciating encounter with a dire emergency!

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