Dream! Believe! Survive!

Author and Pastor John Maxwell tells of a young seminarian discouraged by his overwhelming workload – volumes upon volumes of reading, writing and research, on top of which he has to learn Latin and Greek! A senior put his arm around him and said, “Friend, it doesn’t matter how big the rock is. If you just keep pounding, it’s gonna bust!”

Survivors conquering insurmountable odds awake our noblest ideals and remind us of who we really are – and what we’re still capable of becoming. Here are some true to life stories celebrating the triumph of the human spirit.

A Year In The Shadow

“Don’t worry. I’m going to make it. I’m making you that promise.” Those were the words of Alfred Bold to his wife Joan, even as 80 percent of his body lay destroyed by third-degree burns.

Alfred was a young fireman in New York. On May 1974, as he was checking a faulty vent line, he was engulfed by gas fumes. “Douse your cigarettes!” he roared. “There’s gas in the cellar!”

His commanding officer, Lt. Walter Mischke, sprang into action. “The boiler’s down there! We’ve got to shut it off!”

As they rushed down, the boiler’s automatic switch made a sharp ‘click’. “Run!” Walter yelled. “It’s gonna blow!”

The explosion destroyed half the firehouse, propelling Alfred on the sidewalk like a flaming rag. His uniform was melting and sticking to his skin.

At the Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, Alfred’s burns were already swollen, threatening to stop circulation. Dr. John Stein, head of the burn unit, ordered non-stop transfusions of plasma and fluids, and placed Alfred in isolation. Dead tissue was scraped using anesthetics, for the pain was unimaginable.

Bacteria had invaded his body. Surgical resident Dr. Nathan Yaker and attending surgeon Dr. Stanley Levenson gambled on an experimental drug to save Alfred’s life and his condition stabilized temporarily. From 194 lbs. he went down to 128. Pulmonary expert Dr. Elizabeth Stein recalled, “We were pouring thousand of gallons of fluids into Al, and he was losing weight before our eyes. This man had 75 to 80 percent of his skin gone. There was nothing to keep him warm, nothing to hold in fluids, nothing to keep infection out.”

One of Alfred’s closest friends was Harold Hoey. On June12 1974, Hoey died saving an elderly couple from the rooftop of a burning building. In an unprecedented act of selflessness, his widow Doris asked Dr. Stein to take Hoey’s skin grafts for Alfred.

A year after his accident, Alfred sat in a wheelchair at the old firehouse. He held Joan’s hand as he gazed tearfully at the large sign proclaiming ‘Welcome Back Al!’, surrounded by the entire Ladder Company 143 with their wives. Then Alfred saw Walter Mischke, leaning on a cane, walking slowly towards him – and Alfred completely broke down. “I just couldn’t hold it in,” he would recall later. “Just seeing him alive and walking was too much! It was wonderful!”

Gerald Moore’s gripping account of Alfred’s miracle, “A Year in the Shadow of Death,” appeared in Reader’s Digest.

Do Not Go Gentle

Herbert Howe was a young teacher working on his doctoral dissertation at Harvard. Having served with the Peace Corps, he was also into sports – boxing, swimming, running, soccer, tennis – name it! So in July 1976 he was stunned when doctors told him that the small lump in his wrist was fibrosarcoma – a rare form of malignant cancer. His odds: an 80 percent probability of death within 5 years.

After surviving his first chemotherapy, he thought things were under control. But he was wrong. The second time was more evil, and he made half a dozen trips to the bathroom in the first hour alone. The next day, he went defiantly to the gym, played eight games of squash and ran all the way home – collapsing on the floor with terrifying retching seizures. He writes: “After the first day of my second treatment, the vomiting attacks were more insistent and prolonged…when they ended…I propped myself against the bathtub and slowly started sobbing.”

His sister Lyn told him where he stood: “I know you want to feel active and that you’re progressing. But Herbie, you do belong to something called a family.”

Herb remembers vividly the next chemotherapy. “A rapid chill spread through ,my body…my body started shaking from the cold, and tears rolled down my cheeks…my teeth started chattering and I suddenly felt dizzy. My stomach convulsed and a stream of vomit shot from my mouth into the sheets. I looked for the bedpan. I couldn’t see it. I threw myself off the bed and groped towards the bathroom. Almost there, then an uncontrollable burst of diarrhea.”

Days later: “I was angry and self occupied as I paced my room. I couldn’t stop walking…I muttered out loud, ‘Why me?’ For the first time I decided that life was unfair. I slammed my fist against the door. The pain crashed up my arm, and I gave a muffled scream. I rested my head against the door and started sobbing. Everything the doctors and I had done seemed unable to stop the cancer…Death appeared truly frightening…nobody was going with me and there was no return.”

Herb still plunged into sports relentlessly. He and his brother-in-law Charlie joined for the first time the 70 mile Memorial Day canoe race at Cooperstown in Boston – and finished seventh. Lin was laughing and crying. “Look at us will you? We did something we thought was impossible!”

Herb wrote his memoir Do Not Go Gentle (Norton and Co. NY), taken from the Dylan Thomas poem: “Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

“More than three years have passed since I finished my chemotherapy treatments…after graduating from Harvard, I traveled to Africa, covering Nigeria and the Rhodesian civil war for the Philadelphia Inquirer, then took my present job as a Southern Africa specialist. I have also continued my sports. Every six moths I have x-rays and blood tests. While six more years must pass before I am positively cured of cancer, doctors assure me that I am probably cured…Since conquering my cancer I’ve placed a new value in life. Life now appears as something given to us in trust. We should not waste it.”

Never Quit

7-year old Glenn Cunningham and his siblings arrived at their Rolla Kansa school house on Feb. 1916 ahead of everybody. It was unmercifully cold so his brother Floyd lit up the stove. Then suddenly a huge blast slammed him into the wall, and with growing terror realized his legs were enveloped in flames. They ran blindly home then everything went black.

Upon regaining consciousness, Glenn overheard the doctor’s grim conference with his father. “With Glenn the big danger is infection. If it comes, both legs would have to be amputated. Regardless, I doubt if he’ll be able to walk again. With Floyd there’s not much we can do.”

Nine days later, Glenn saw his mother cry for the first time. Floyd was dead.

Glenn’s legs were getting worse as time went by. A large boil had appeared on his left hip – infection had set in. A friend of his mother offered advice: “You may as well face it my dear. Glenn’s going to be an invalid for the rest of his life.”

“I’m not going to be an invalid!” Glenn cried. “I will walk! I will! I will!”

His mother hugged him and whispered fiercely, “Yes Glenn, you’ll walk again.”

Everyday his mother would massage his leg muscles. And when August came, the doctor squinted at him and said, “Glenn, for six months you’ve been telling us you’re going to walk again. Do you still believe that?”

Glenn broke into sweat as he pushed himself up and slowly moved his right leg, then the left. He tried to walk – and fell down. He was crying bitterly as they helped him back to bed.

A heavy chair his father brought upstairs became his constant companion. “By grasping it’s arms I could myself slowly from the bed to land in the chair seat. Then, using one arm of the chair as a crutch to pull myself erect, I would lean against the back and inch my way painfully around to the front.”

He told his mother the day before Christmas about a surprise present. But first, she has to stand by the door and close her eyes. “ ‘Now open them Mother – quick!’ I took a faltering step towards her. Then another. My head was spinning. Mother rushed to catch me, and we sank to the floor together. It was then I saw my mother cry for the second time.”

Over a year had passed before he was able to get out of the house “with a little more than a hippity-hop gait”. His father told him to hold on to the horse’s tail. “I gritted my teeth as the horse surged forward. I had taken but a dozen floundering steps when suddenly Father stopped the horse. I turned to him fearfully, but his strong face wore a pleased expression. “ ‘You run boy!’ he said. ‘Don’t complain. Just keep trying.’”

When Glenn was twelve, he joined the school’s track race. The principal told him he was too small, so he should run in the Class B category. So Glenn went straight to the Class A line. The guy at the scale told he had to be at least 70 lbs. “The man must have seen the concern in my face as I stepped into the scale, for he hardly glanced at the reading. “ ‘Exactly 70 pounds!’ he announced”

Running was Glenn’s greatest passion. His father had taught him how to pace himself so he was unperturbed when the other boys zoomed past him like rocket ships. And they began to tire, “I put on a little speed. By the time we finished the first half mile lap I had already caught with the two front runners”

Glenn swooshed between as cool as you please but saw something that startled him: some idiot had put a rope across the track! He ducked pass it and the crowd went berserk! Somebody yelled: “You have to break the string to win!”

“Frantically I ran back and snapped the string – I had won!”

Glenn Cunningham wrote Never Quit (Chosen Books Va.) with George X. Sand, in honor of his father’s immortal words: “Run on – never quit!”

Sand concludes: “Glenn Cunningham went on to become the outstanding miler of his age and an Olympic medal winner. Between 1933 and 1940, he won 21 of 31 races in Madison Square Garden and set world records for the 800-meter and the mile. At the end of his track career he established the Cunningham Youth Ranch in Cedar Point Kansas where, for thirty years, he and his wife Ruth helped more than 9000 troubled young people.”

Watch video of Vangelis performing the Chariots of Fire theme live at the Mythodea Concert. Video courtesy of BabylonianMan. Photo courtesy of PresentationZen.com. This story originally appeared in Philippine Panorama