Jason Wright: Life’s hike temporarily rerouted

Jason Wright

On Sept. 26, 2014, Brigham Young University student Heather Burton joined her outdoor skills leadership class on a hike in Ding Canyon in central Utah. She was just three weeks into her dream of attending the Provo, Utah, university.

Burton and the other students enjoyed gorgeous weather and even more stunning views. And, despite the obvious recreational angle of the activity, they were also learning a lot.

The freshman from Richmond, Virginia, was climbing her way to a valuable life lesson. The most important things we learn don’t always come in a classroom. In fact, they rarely do. They hit us when we least expect them — like on sunny Friday afternoons — and sometimes they’re painful.

Burton, a healthy, athletic young woman, was winding her way through the canyon when she lost her footing. In a flash and a splash, her climb, her day, her semester and her faith changed — for good.

She fell 10 feet, cracking her leg against the rocks and landing in a pool of water in a cavern cavity. A pre-med and pre-nursing couple were following right behind, and Burton counts this as just the first of many of God’s tender mercies. One immediately jumped in and the other helped pull her to safety.

While the man and woman had medical training, it likely didn’t take a degree to recognize a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula.

Thankfully, what belongs under the skin slipped back in and Burton would not have to stare at the injury for the rest of one of the longest days of her life. Another tender mercy, to be certain.

Back on dry ground, her classmates elevated the leg and bandaged up the wound. Then, as soon as possible, she received a priesthood blessing by the laying on of hands in this most unusual setting.

After counseling on how to transport Burton from the canyon, they decided it was best to send several runners out to find the park sheriff and a search and rescue team. She waited four hours, at one point going into shock and shaking uncontrollably. The class kept her warm by placing sun-drenched rocks on her body.

The journey to medical care was adventurous. Burton was carried on a stretcher over and around one of nature’s best obstacle courses to a clearing. From there, it was two endless hours on the backs of two different ATVs until she could travel by ambulance.

Burton, one of my daughter Oakli’s best friends and roommates, described the ordeal. “This was the most painful part. The trail was very rocky and my leg kept flopping around. But even though I was in the canyon so long without medical attention, it never got much worse or swelled too much and they said my vitals remained in healthy ranges.”

After X-rays at the Castleview Hospital in Price, she was taken to Provo. By the time she was admitted and received any significant painkillers, her leg had been broken for 12 hours.

The next morning, doctors put a rod in her leg from her ankle to her knee. Worried about possible infection from the dirty water, she was put on three antibiotics.

When Burton describes the pain and recovery, she often points to her new understanding of tender mercies. The phrase isn’t just an Internet meme; it’s an active principle and an anchor in her continuous conversion.

“Many things went wrong when I fell,” Burton said. “But despite the problems, so much went right.”

A compound fracture? Yes. Serious bleeding? No.

The most significant injury of her life? Yes. Unbearable pain? No.

Miles from medical care? Yes. Surrounded by scared, panicky and unprepared strangers? No.

Would she be forced to drop half her classes and adapt to life in a wheelchair during the most exciting year of her life? Absolutely. Does she feel any bitterness or regret? Not a speck.

Burton also speaks of the blessings received both in the canyon and at the hospital by Bishop Bradley Morley of her church congregation on BYU’s campus. “I know that the power of God here on earth helped to lessen my trial and keep me safe. I am so grateful that I am surrounded by worthy Priesthood holders that can respond to any situation!”

Displaying spiritual maturity beyond her years, Burton described her new appreciation not just for priesthood power, but for the importance of congregations and callings. “I have seen God’s hand in my life through service. Several church members, including my Family Home Evening Family and home teachers, visited me in the hospital. But it was after I returned to my apartment that I observed the most amazing service. The Relief Society Compassionate Service Committee created a signup sheet with my schedule for church members to push me to class and back every single day.”

For the remainder of the year, Burton was never on her own as she navigated a campus she was still learning for herself. “I now know that church isn’t just organized as a convenience, but to truly serve and lift up members. The church’s structure is truly of God!”

Burton has also been impacted by the tremendous love of her roommates and her “squad” — an iron tight-knit group of young men and women who’ve become a family at BYU. For Brianna Santos, Austin Steele, Nathan Cowley, Jacob Hansen and my daughter Oakli, the opportunity to serve Burton has acted as a bonding agent unlike anything they’d ever experienced.

After spending time with Burton, her roommates and the infamous squad on a recent trip to Provo, I came away in awe of her attitude. Having her life’s hike temporarily rerouted in such a dramatic way, and doing it with grace and gratitude, is inspiring to everyone around her. And while she didn’t learn as much from textbooks during her first college semester as she’d planned, she learned more than many do in a lifetime.

It’s true: the most important things we learn don’t always come in a classroom. They happen when we least expect them. And even though they’re sometimes painful, if we let them, they can all be tender mercies.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including “Christmas Jars,” “The Wednesday Letters” and “The 13th Day of Christmas.” He can be reached at feedback@jasonfwright.com or http://www.jasonfwright.com