Lessons From a Fall

Ambitious plans, intense pain, new perspective.

by Joe Hermerding as told to Amy Hammond Hagberg

“Lord Jesus, save me!”

I screamed as I plunged forty feet off the cliff toward the rocky ground below. Friends and youth leaders looked on helplessly. At that moment I knew there was little chance of survival. Climbers just didn’t fall in a spot like this and live to tell the story.

Zealous youth

As a high school senior, I was one of the leaders of my youth group. It was my job to help plan our upcoming week at camp. Ken, a well-known Bible teacher, was scheduled to be the main speaker every morning. But I would be preaching on Wednesday night, and man, was I pumped! Nothing excited me more than sharing my faith with other kids.

Lone Tree Bible Ranch, located in Glendo, Wyoming, is literally in the middle of nowhere. On the second day of camp, we loaded up two coach buses and the church van and headed two hours down the road to an even more desolate spot for an afternoon of rock climbing.

High climb

Once at the site, most of my friends spent their time chasing each other around the rugged terrain, enjoying their sack lunches, and catching a few rays. But to my big brother, B. J., and me, rock climbing was serious business. I followed B. J. as we climbed higher and higher up the rocky cliffs in search of the top. Both of us were confident climbers, so we thought we didn’t need any equipment. When you free-climb, you don’t really think about falling, because you know people don’t fall off cliffs.

Near the top, I thought, This is really high. This is one of those places, Joe, where you don’t fall. I reached for a rock lodged in a crevice that would bring me to the next ledge. In an instant, the rock gave way and I knew I was in trouble.

Free fall

I wasn’t afraid; I was surprised. I could not believe that I was going to fall. As I plunged toward the hard, jagged rocks and certain death, I yelled so loud that the kids on the ground heard me. In a split second, everything I had didn’t matter — my relationships, my college plans, my job. No one could help me.

I landed on my left leg, but my rear end took the brunt of the fall. I hit the only patch of earth within sight, then rolled 25 feet into a small creek. Luckily, Ken and one of the other leaders, Brian, were paramedics. Their quick thinking kept me and the other campers from losing it. Everyone was crying, horrified at the sight, but I felt like an idiot. I shouldn’t have been climbing up there in the first place.

Rescue

While elevating my head out of the freezing water, the group built a makeshift stretcher from tree branches and t-shirts. After working 30 minutes, they got me out of the water and into the van.

The pain was excruciating. It seeped in and grabbed a hold of my entire body, but I never lost consciousness. Assuming that I had internal injuries, the two paramedics knew they had to get me to the hospital fast, but it was nearly three hours away. Getting me there would be a huge undertaking.

But then they remembered seeing helicopters on our trip to the camp. Fortunately, there was a launch pad only one mile away. The Department of Natural Resources was using the choppers to fight massive forest fires some distance away.

Medical treatment

A Black Hawk helicopter flew me to a Cheyenne hospital, only 45 minutes away. Once in the emergency room, I underwent a multitude of examinations, scans, and tests. The damage to my body was severe. I’d broken my left fibula and tibia. I’d also put a huge crack in my hip, and my pubis was knocked off center — a body part that isn’t supposed to move in men. Miraculously, I had no upper body damage — not even a concussion – and no internal injuries. The doctors were amazed.

The Cheyenne hospital didn’t have the personnel to handle pelvic injuries as bad as mine, so I was transferred to a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where they had some highly trained bone surgeons. By this time, my parents had heard the news back home in Minnesota but were unable to get to Fort Collins in time for my surgery. They knew people all over the U.S were praying for me. Prayer chains were being activated in places we had never even heard of!

Surgery

During the eight-hour procedure, surgeons put two metal plates in my hip, two metal plates on my pubis, and twenty permanent screws throughout my pelvis. A titanium rod and three screws were also inserted into my leg.

I was in constant, intense pain the first three days after my surgery. But the physical pain wasn’t all that bothered me. I remembered that I was supposed to preach at camp the night of my surgery. I had thought, How am I going to do it now? — maybe in my hospital bed in the front of the barn and preaching from there.

Different plan

Instead, Ken gave the message that night, and the response was incredible. My near-death experience had woken the campers up to their own mortality. They were graphically reminded that they’d better know Jesus personally now because there are no guarantees in life.

Tons of kids dedicated or rededicated their lives to God. In some weird way, it was what God wanted to do. I had pictured myself preaching with words, but God had a different plan in mind. If just one of those commitments was for real, this whole accident was worth it.

Full recovery

The doctors estimated that I would be in a wheelchair until at least Christmas. Making it to the first term of college was questionable, but after ten days in the hospital and a week at home, I headed off to Wheaton College in Illinois. By the end of September, I was out of that wheelchair and, a few short months later, had made a full recovery.

Before this happened, I would have never thanked God for being able to walk, but now sometimes I’ll walk and I’ll look down at my leg and thank God that it works. I could have easily been in a wheelchair or in a bed, paralyzed. I could have easily died at that camp.

Happy ending

I have seen God do miracles in and through my accident. Rather than landing on the rocks, which would have killed me, I landed on the only piece of soft ground in the whole area. My roll into the creek reduced the swelling and kept me from going into shock. God even provided helicopters where one would least expect them. And most important, this accident brought countless youth to a personal relationship with Jesus.

Now that’s a happy ending!