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By Terry L. Whipple, M.D.

I’ve always enjoyed sports. The faster it moved and the rougher it was, the more I liked it. On my 40th birthday, I realized that at some point there would be a lot of athletic activities that I would never have tried. So I pledged to take up a new sport every year for the rest of my life.

One that became a passion was skydiving. It put more adrenaline into my circulation than any sport I had ever done. I really fell in love with it and got reasonably good at it. In fact, I became competitive at building complex formations in free fall. We would build a formation, break, build another formation, break and do that as many times as possible during the fall.

In 1998, I went to the World Free Fall Convention, a recreational, competitive event held in Illinois. That was a wonderful experience … until one afternoon. During a very successful skydive, I was approaching the landing zone when a severe crosswind blew my parachute out of control and into a horizontal position. I fell 75 or 80 feet and landed on my left side. I remember going out of control, and I remember the struggle to get my feet under me, but fortunately I don’t remember the impact as I lost consciousness.

I had a number of injuries, including several broken bones, ruptured abdominal organs and blood loss. I spent six weeks in Illinois hospitals, in a coma. There were surgeries and complications. On three occasions I developed multiple system failure – each time, my physicians would call my family to let them know that they didn’t expect me to survive the night. But I did, and was finally air evacuated back to MCV (now VCU) … still unconscious. Quite unexpectedly and for no explainable reason, while being transferred from one MCV building to another, I woke up in an ambulance.

I remember saying something, and the ambulance attendant was startled and called out to the driver, “He’s awake, he’s awake!” And then I was gone again.

The next weeks were periods of being awake for two minutes and then gone for hours. Slowly and progressively, I’d be lucid and awake for longer and longer periods.

The hospital is a particularly scary place at night for patients. It’s lonely and dark. The chairs are empty. There were occasions, when I would wake up, uncomfortable, aware of where I was, aware of the noises down the hall, very aware that I was completely helpless. I couldn’t turn over; my lower extremities were paralyzed. But sitting in one of the chairs in my room, there was a presence – someone was there. Obviously, there was no one … but I sensed someone in that chair. It was a completely reassuring and consoling presence. And if it wasn’t God Himself sitting there, surely it was one of His angels to keep me company … to let me know that I wasn’t going through this by myself.

Dr. Terry Whipple and his wife, Dr. Ruth Hillelson. Drs. Whipple & Hillelson practice medicine together in Richmond's West End.

It says in the Scriptures, “I am with you always.” I think that means always – not just eternally but constantly, from moment to moment. God is with me. He’s with everyone. We only have to be aware of it. “Seek and you shall find, ask and you shall receive,” open your eyes, and you realize that He’s there. That constant presence means a lot to me, and I know that in my time of real need, I can count on that companionship and that reassurance. It’s sustaining, in every moment of life – even those lonely moments of despair and discomfort and discouragement. Look for Him.

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