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 “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”

“This is going to be kind of a milestone New Year for me. Five years ago on January 9, I had a ruptured brain aneurysm and a 1% chance of living---and that included some kind of disability!! Needless to say, with the grace of God, deep faith, and a lot of prayers, I survived with only minor issues! Knee surgery followed in the summer. This year on January 9, I should be rounding the bend in St. Michael, Alaska, bringing home my team of sled dogs from a six day trip across the Bering Sea and the wilderness in Northern Alaska. “Thank you, Lord,” will be my cry!! I will also have the opportunity to see the “Northern Lights,” which I know is a magnificent sight—a peak into heaven! I leave December 30.”

 ……and Jesus said to me:
“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed.”
MK 5:34

I am always asked, “Why did you ever decide to do this??” Well, it was always something that I thought about from childhood on. Cuba Gooding, Jr., in “Snow Dogs” sealed the decision! I saw that movie in January of 2003, and remembered my childhood dream and thought-----oops----how time flies. If I am going to do this, the time is NOW! Now, the fact that at that moment, I was getting around on crutches didn’t seem to enter my head! My orthopedic doctor had just told me I needed both knees replaced. I thought that called for a second opinion and the new orthopedist said that I also had arthritis in my knees, but said, “let’s try a little exercise and therapy before going to surgery.” Obviously, I switched doctors and went for the exercise.

I put a whole new regimen in my life that called specifically for strengthening my quads to aid my knees, controlling the arthritis with warm pool therapy and building upper body strength. I had one year to get it together!

I checked in with my Internist, my Cardiologist, my Neuro Surgeon, my Orthopedist---my blood pressure, cholesterol, heart, etc., etc. were in good condition; needed to work on fitness. My Orthopedist was very excited about the trip as it was something he always wanted to do too. “Do you think my knees will hold up?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “if they don’t, I’ll fix them when you get back!”” What a guy! Hmmm, thought about that for a long time. Was this a good thing or a bad thing? Movin’ on…………

I found a place in Alaska that was run by Jerry Austin, Iditarod Hall of Fame inductee and 18 time finisher of the Iditarod. I signed up, sent in my deposit---I was committed (to the trip, that is!)!

At first, my plans were “tolerated”; next “options” were presented (Father Rick, our Pastor, came back from his summer vacation all excited to show me a brochure about getting a “ride” on a dog sled in Montana and then having the rest of the day to relax in a hot tub!!!) No, no, Father Rick---I want to be the “musher”, I want to drive the sled and the dogs---IN Alaska.

As the time came closer: “Are you REALLY going to do this?” was the daily question.

The gear list I received suggested getting a “Mad Bomber” hat from L.L. Bean. Well, the only color they had was black!!! As you can imagine, that would never do! I needed a RED one!! So, I called the manufacturer and lo and behold, I received a RED Mad Bomber hat! Not exactly stylish, but it worked extremely well.

Now Father Rick thought the RED HAT was a splendid idea. “This way we will be able to find your body easier when you don’t come back!!!” Just like a priest----always thinking of my heavenly reward---and, planning for it! I had no doubt that I would have the best funeral the Rock ever had! As a Frankin/Covey Time/Life Planning instructor, I had all events covered!!


DECEMBER 30, 2003 ---------- TIME TO GO!

Left St. Louis and flew to Los Angeles, next to Anchorage. Spent two wonderful days in Anchorage, celebrated New Years, shopped (of course) and enjoyed being a tourist. From Anchorage, I flew (in a cargo plane) to Nome, a quaint little gold mining town, full of nostalgia, just a great little place. Stayed at the Old Nugget Inn where I met my “mushing” partner, Vanessa, from England. We had a great time together in Nome!

Soon it was time to board the next plane to go to St. Michael, an Eskimo village on an island. No turning back now! I knew this was serious business when we were asked how much we “weighed” before we could board the plane. Not a good idea to lie about your weight! In fact, maybe adding 50 lbs., just to make sure, might be a good idea! Thank you, “Primer Timers” (exercise group I started at the Rock Church!) We got the weight issue under control and the 7 of us took off! Vanessa and I were sporting new “Bering Airlines” hats---a flight to remember!!?

And then, we were there!!!! Upon arriving in the Austin’s living room, we were greeted by a very large white (s t u f f e d) polar bear. Other stuffed creatures were present as well!

Our bags went to our cottage and we went to the dog lot to see the dogs. What a great sight! There were approximately 50 Alaskan Huskies staked out in the lot. Each had a small house. The dogs were beautiful. They weighed about 50 – 55 lbs. They are native dogs that for thousands of years have pulled their owners and families across the state. These are the dogs of the Iditarod, the famous 11,000 mile annual dog race from Anchorage to Nome. They have thick short hair with a “downy” underneath layer that keeps them warm in all temperatures. At temperatures of 30 degrees, many of them become overheated. They are most comfortable in temperatures of about 0 degrees.

Vanessa and I were given 5 dogs each. They run in these positions:

    Lead dogs: Run in front position. They keep the other dogs in line and on the trail. They follow commands from the musher.

    Swing dogs: Work right behind the lead dogs and help swing the team in the correct direction on turns.

   Team dogs: Work behind Swing Dogs. They have no special responsibilities except a willingness to pull. Vanessa and I did not have any Team dogs. Good thing!

    Wheel dogs: Work directly in front of the sled and help swing the sled on turns.

Each of the 50 dogs in the dog lot had a name. Jerry started to name some of them and in the list of names, up came the name “Tiger.” Tiger??? I had to have Tiger on my Team! The negotiations began----------I got Tiger! Amen! Amen!

Now, there’s a special story behind that name---Brother Terry at our church had a beautiful male Golden Retriever dog and his name was Tiger! Tiger was a wonderful dog and a constant companion to Brother Terry. Everyone loved Tiger and he had a great spirit. Tiger, unfortunately, crossed the Rainbow Bridge, and apparently is up to a lot of things in his eternal life, according to various anonymous postcards that Brother Terry has received over time!! I wasn’t sure how Brother Terry would take the knowledge that it appeared that Tiger was now reincarnated into a “female sleddog”! I think that is the makings of a good book! For whatever it’s worth, I just had to have Tiger on my Team---or, the spirit of Tiger at least! It was a good move. I later elevated Tiger to St. Tiger!! You’ll hear why later.

Tiger and I get acquainted!!

My team consisted of:

    Lead Dogs: Pere (pronounced Pear) and Sharon
    Swing Dogs: Poppy and Gray
    Wheel Dog: TIGER -- right in front of my sled!!


Tiger, Gray, Poppy, Pere, Sharon -- my team and sled

Our first day there, we were taught how to ride snowmobiles and we went out for a little trip. Didn’t know why we needed to do this, but I later found out that everyday, we had to take snowmobiles and go out and FIND water!! There was no running water and the water would freeze daily!! Soooo, that meant on a daily basis we hopped on the snowmobiles and went out on the frozen waters to find water! One of the Eskimos, Glen, went with us--------we would go just so far, turn off the motors and LISTEN----listen for the sound of water under the ice! Now, we never heard any, but Glen could and when he said he “heard” water, we got out ice picks, made a hole and scooped water in to large barrels!! EVERYDAY!


Each day we got enough water, to mix dog food, to cook and clean with as well as for personal hygiene—not much of that! It was very important to have the water for the dog food. The dogs never got a bowl of water to drink because it would freeze, so the only water they got was what we mixed in their food. If they were thirsty on the trail, they would grab a mouthful of snow on the run-----oh, and they also managed their “elimination” issues on the run too----their front feet would keep running and their back legs just assumed the “squatting” position!!! Very tricky maneuver!

Next, we were taught how to harness a dog. The issue here is that as soon as you walk into the dog lot, ALL the dogs want to get harnessed to go! The barking is unbelievable. You cannot hear a word! You have to straddle the dog to get the harness and then you have to attach him to the mainline! Let me tell you, this is no easy task! All of a sudden you have a struggling 50 lb. dog that you need to get hooked up and 4 more to do!

There were three of us on this trip, Kate, the guide; Vanessa, my new friend from England; and myself. Soon we were ready to go. In a short distance, we would be on the Bering Sea. Honestly, at that point, if I could have gotten off that sled, it would have been all over! However, I just couldn’t manage that and soon I was on the Bering Sea being pulled by Pere, Sharon, Poppy, Gray and the mighty Tiger! It really was absolutely beautiful and so peaceful on the Sea! We went for 4 miles on the Sea. The peace was about to end!

Soon we were on land again—not smooth land, but land full of bumps. As I looked ahead, soon, Kate disappeared, then Vanessa---I soon arrived at the top of what I later learned was “Suicide Hill”--- a 40’ hill---didn’t seem to bother my team at all! Over we went to cries of “Brake, Jacquie, brake as hard as you can!” Oh yes, that is exactly what I did!

And then we were off for six days of adventure that I will never forget. We traveled about 25 miles per day which lasted between 4 ½ to 5 hours depending on the difficulty of the trail. The trail provided many challenges---some smooth, packed snow; some ice; lots of moguls; holes and other surprises through portages; trails through bushes; some easy terrain, some very difficult. We all experienced some crashes and when you do crash, the number one thing to remember is NEVER LET GO OF YOUR SLED --- or you will find yourself in the wilderness with no sled and no dogs! The dogs will just keep going if you do. That was a bit tricky at first, but I managed to hang on – no matter what.

After two good crashes, I stood next to my sled, looked to the heavens and said: “Lord, I really need some help down here!” From the side of my eye, I caught Tiger just sitting there staring at me. “What are YOU looking at!!” I shouted. She just kept staring. Oh no! “Not you!” A good lesson here --- when you ask God for something, look around, you never know where His help will come from!!! I knew I picked Tiger for a reason; Tiger became, my “sledding savior,” my pal, my friend.

This is how she worked: The dog team is supposed to be looking straight ahead and when they don’t you give them a command to make this happen. But often Tiger didn’t seem to be listening. She kept looking back at me. I was quite frustrated with her, but I soon figured out that every time she turned around we were approaching a difficult terrain! She would keep turning around and watching until I was through it!!! Tiger had been on this trail many times and she knew what was coming up. For six days, she provided this “warning service” allowing me to prepare for what was to come----and, of course, start my prayers!!! By the end of this trip, I elevated Tiger to “St. Tiger” – a well-earned title!!

Our accommodations were heated tents, a log cabin lodge, and v e r y cold outhouses!! Close attention was paid to the weather by radio, telephone and personal observation by our guide, Kate. She also carried a gun in the event we were visited by creatures who saw our dogs, and perhaps us, as their next meal! Fortunately, this was not a problem for us on this trip. Meals were wonderful---Alaska King crab, Alaskan salmon, moose, caribou, some of the specialty items. We had two meals a day: a large, hearty breakfast in the morning and delicious main dishes at night.

Our log cabin----the arch is made of caribou antlers

Our heated tents -- this was my sled!

The sun usually was up by 11 AM and set around 5 PM. The sunrises and sunsets were awesome. Some of the most beautiful colors I have ever seen. The Northern lights were mystifying. All I could say was “God’s in His heavens, all’s right with the world!”

As we traveled over hills, valleys, and mountains, I saw some of the most beautiful scenery that I have ever seen. There was only the three of us traveling across the countryside; the only sound was the sound of the dog’s feet, and the noise of the sled---mostly silence providing a perfect atmosphere for prayer, praise, thanksgiving and meditation. What a privilege it was to be exploring another part of God’s beautiful earth. It will forever be in my heart and mind. It was everything I expected, and then some. It was over much too soon.

The temperature ranged from 3 above to minus 60 below wind chill. We stood on the dog sleds for 4 to 5 hours a day. The last day of our trip was by far the coldest. I didn’t think we would even be able to travel, but because the weather forecast indicated the weather was getting worse, we had to pack up camp and get on our way. I have never heard such wind! It played havoc with the dogs and the sleds, but we were on our way! Soon it was back “up” Suicide Hill and then back on to the Bering Sea. It is amazing to see how the bond of trust and love between me and my dogs developed over those wonderful six days. When we started out, we were one unruly group. By the time we were returning, crossing the 4 miles of the Bering Sea for the last time, my team and I were all working well together. We hit minus 60 below wind chill coming from the right. As I looked out on my wonderful dogs, they were all leaning into the wind. to the right, with their bushy tails all blown to the left, but they kept going!! I followed their lead and leaned into the wind as well. The Eskimo village of St. Michael was in sight! Over six days, we had learned how to work together; we depended on each other; we had become a TEAM and we were coming home—at last!

JANUARY 10, 2004 ------------

I arrived back in St. Louis with pneumonia and frostbite, but it didn’t matter! Words cannot express how much I enjoyed this adventure. It was a stretch for my body, my mind, my spirit, and my soul. How grateful I am for this experience.

I thank you all for your thoughts and prayers; I thank my Lord, Jesus Christ, for riding with me and for sending me “St. Tiger” to show me the way!

…….and I said to Jesus:
“I can do all things through You, who strengthens me.”
Phil 4:13

-- Jacquie


 The Liguorian - January 2009


- God sent his Archangel Michael to my deathbed to tell me I was not going to die. -

The last day of our trip was by far the coldest.  I didn’t think we would even be able to travel, but because the forecast indicated the weather was getting worse, we had to pack up camp, harness the dogs, and get on our way.  We were a group of three women who had just had the adventure of a lifetime!  It was January 9, 2004, and we were dogsledding!

We had been sledding for six days in the northern tundra of Alaska and were now crossing the Bering Sea for the last time.  We were headed for the island of St. Michael, where we’d started.  I could not help but marvel at my team of great dogs---Pere, Sharon, Grey, Poppy, and Tiger.  In the beginning, my dogs and I were one unruly group!  I didn’t know what I was doing---and they knew it!  But as each moment passed, my skill improved, and the bonds of trust and love between me and my dog team developed and grew.   During the six days of our journey, we had learned how to work together.  We depended on one another, we trusted one another; we had become a team.

The wind chill that day was 60 degrees below zero.  I have never heard such a wind!  It was coming from the right and was playing havoc with my sled and my dogs.  As I looked out on these intelligent animals, however, they just seemed to be taking the situation in stride!  They all leaned to the right into the wind, with their bushy tails blown to the left; but strong and determined, they kept right on going!  I had every confidence in them.  I followed their lead and leaned into the wind as well.  The Eskimo/Alaskan Island of St. Michael was finally in sight; we were coming home—at last.

God’s in His Heaven, All’s Right with the World

(Robert Browning)

As I crossed the Bering Sea that day, the pure majesty of the world around me brought tears to my eyes.  It was indescribable.  The vastness and beauty of the frozen sea and the land clearly showed the creative hand of God---the power, the glory, the love.  I trembled at the awe of it all!  How blessed I was to be in this place, the island of St. Michael, at this time.   You see, this trip was a commemoration of a healing, my healing---a miracle, to be exact.  Five years ago on January 9, 1999, God sent His archangel Michael to my deathbed to tell me I was not going to die.  “Choose life,” was the message he delivered.  And I did chose life and now here I stood on the back of my dogsled five years later on the exact anniversary of my brain surgery!

Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed.

(Mk 5:35)

They moved quickly in the emergency room discussing the MRI and CT scan that had just been done.  “How did she get here?” one of the interns asked.    “She called 911 from her car where it happened,” another responded. “No way!  “Are you sure?”   The conversation continued.  “That’s what it says here on the paper.”  “This lady should have died in that car!”  I’d just had a ruptured brain aneurysm!

Everything was a haze.  “What’s going on?  How did I get here?  What’s a brain aneurysm?”  Then everything went away.  It must be a dream, I thought.  What happened today?  Sometimes I could hear people talking, sometimes I couldn’t.  In my mind, I was trying to piece together what had happened.

It had started out to be a great day.  I’d gone to the beauty shop to have my hair done, a manicure, and a pedicure!  Then I went to my youngest daughter’s house to celebrate her birthday with her family.  After a pleasant evening, I readied myself to go home.  I kissed them all goodbye, and I said,  “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” --- assuming, of course, that there would be a tomorrow!

As I was driving home, a sharp pain hit the top of my head and began to swirl through the rest of my head.   It was the worst pain I had ever felt in my life!   The pain persisted and got increasingly worse,  traveling down through my neck and shoulders.  I could no longer move my head.  I knew I could not drive any further.

At that moment I recalled a statement I had seen on a church sign that really fit the situation.  It said:  “You can reach God faster than you can reach 911!”   With that in mind, I said a sincere Act of Contrition and then called 911 from my cell phone!

I don’t remember much about the ambulance ride to the hospital or what happened in the emergency room when I first arrived.  But soon, conversations with the brain surgeon commenced. “Yes, we could operate,” the doctor said, “but her chances of survival are less than 1 percent.  It is very possible that she would have a heart attack and die on the operating table.  And if she does survive, chances are that she could be paralyzed from her neck down.”  The other option was to “keep me comfortable;” in this case, I probably would have about three weeks to live.  Is this how my life would end?   I knew I was about to die.

The decision was made to try surgery.   I’d said my Act of Contrition and my friend, the assistant pastor of St. Alphonsus “Rock” Church, was on his way.  At a time when I could speak, I talked with my five children, who lived in five different states, and I talked with my parents in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  I told them all how much I loved them and how thankful I was to have them in my life.  “I will be waiting for all of you in Heaven,” I told them.  I was comfortable and completely at peace.

I was so happy when Father Rick Potts arrived.  I can still see him walking in that door wearing his plaid hat and brown jacket!  We prayed, he anointed me, and said he was going back to the church to have the parishioners at our two Sunday morning masses “claim a healing” for me.   I knew the power of prayer at “The Rock” Church!  I was in good hands!

That afternoon, parishioners started coming to the hospital.  My speaking ability seemed to come and go and at that time I was unable to speak to them.  They stood over my bed while some prayed for me, some tried to talk to me, and some just stood there with tears in their eyes.   I remember them being very polite, caring, loving, and concerned.  I wished, however, that someone would “touch” me.  And probably out of not knowing what to do, nobody did.   The connection of the human touch should never be underestimated at a time like this.

And then it happened.  The last person I remember coming that day was a friend of mine, the current president of our parish council.  His name was Michael.  As he approached me, I felt indescribable peace and hope.   He seemed to be the only one in the room.  The life-giving machines of the ICU grew silent; no voices could be heard.  The room became white and still. “It’s an angel”, I thought, “coming to take me to God.”  But that was not the message he brought.

Michael looked down on me with his piercing brown eyes and said:  “Jacquie, can you hear me?  If you can hear me, blink your eyes.  I have come to tell you that you are not going to die.  Can you hear me?

What did he say?   I really did not understand.

“I have come to tell you that you are not going to die.  Do you hear me?”  I still just looked at him.  He touched my hand.  Then, very slowly, he repeated his message a third time.  “I have come to tell you, you are not going to die.  Do you hear me?”  Yes, I had heard him and I blinked my eyes!!   Then he was gone.

I’m not quite sure how to describe the next moment------all I can say is that I reached down to the tips of my toes and pulled up every bit of faith that I ever had, and I knew, without a doubt at that moment in time, that the doctors were wrong.   I knew I would not die.  Based on the grim bits and pieces of conversations I’d overheard, I’d been preparing myself for death.   But now the message had changed:  I was not going to die; I began preparing for life!  This healing message went from my mind to my body; my body responded and my spirit rejoiced in the love and the grace of God! Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”  (Gen 26:24)

I smiled!  My ICU room returned to its familiar noises and conversation.  I had a secret I could not shout out!

I have set before you life and death….

Choose LIFE

(Deut 30:19)

 I did choose life!  I knew my faith would see me through whatever came my way.  God spoke to me through Michael, and I listened.

I remember my second grade teacher, Sister Camillus, telling us before we made our First Communion, that after we received Communion we should say,  “Lord, increase my faith.”  She suggested that we do this for the rest of our lives.  I had banked that faith after every Communion since I was seven years old.  It was time to make a withdrawal!

Fear knocked at the door.  Faith answered. And lo, no one was there. Author Unknown

Miraculously, I survived the surgery, but I still had a long way to go.  After a few days, the doctors tested me by asking me to squeeze their fingers, move my toes, raise my arms with my eyes closed, and so on.  More than once I overheard, “I never thought she’d make it.”

The pain after surgery was still great, and medication did not seem to be helping.  One of my daughters led me through deep breathing techniques, “Breathe Jesus in, exhale pain out.”  What a marvelous experience!

A week later, I had a pulmonary embolism.  A week after that, still in the hospital, I developed a staph infection.  It was a miracle that I survived at all.   I was asked if my faith was shaken after all these crises and a difficult rehab.  I’d once heard that “having faith does not mean that you never get down; having faith means that you get up again, and again, and again---whatever it takes.”  I believe this whole-heartedly!

 On my final visit to the brain surgeon, he looked at me and said:  “You know, I’m a darn good surgeon, but I don’t know why you are sitting here, having gone through what you did and then recovering as well and as quickly as you did!”  He may not have known why, but I certainly did!

I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

(Ps  39:14)

The wind blew harder, and it got colder and colder as we continued across the Bering Sea.  It felt like the fluids in my eyes were going to freeze!  I tried closing my eyes, but then my eyelashes started to freeze together!  We were almost there, just a little further.  Finally, on January 9, 2004, the Island of St. Michael came clearly into view. How grateful I was for this experience.

 I arrived back in St. Louis with pneumonia and frostbite, but it didn’t matter!  This had been the trip of a lifetime---a celebration of a miracle that had happened on January 9,1999, through a message sent to me by God and delivered by a man named Michael---the archangel?  Maybe.

I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.
Phil 4:13