Until three weeks ago, Macon was nothing more than a green exit sign along the interstate for Beth and Bill Healey.
They had passed through on trips from their Midwestern roots in St. Louis to their home on the Lower Gulf Coast of Florida.
But they had never given Macon more than a sideways glance. They don’t remember stopping for gas or grabbing a hot dog.
Then came the terrifying phone call on the Sunday afternoon of March 23.
Before sunrise that morning, Beth had helped their 17-year-old son, Nick, and a friend pack for a trip. It was the start of spring break at their high school, and they were traveling to meet a friend in Atlanta.
All three young men were involved with Young Life and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They planned to visit several Christian colleges in Georgia and North Carolina. Nick wants to pursue a career in the ministry.
Beth was told Nick had been seriously injured in an automobile accident near Perry and had been taken to a hospital in Macon.
Beth feared the worst. She could not locate Macon on her mental map, when all she had to do was turn her wheels to the north and stay on I-75 for the next 535 miles.
As a registered nurse, she was concerned about the medical attention her son might be receiving.
“I pictured Macon as having a tiny, two-bed emergency room,” she said. “I was thinking we needed to get him to Atlanta or north Florida.”
Then she did some quick research on The Medical Center of Central Georgia and learned it had a Level 1 Trauma Center. A nurse later called and let her speak to Nick. It was comforting to hear his voice. She and Bill arrived to find a waiting room of strangers there to meet them as if they were family.
Although the Healeys arrived in Macon on the third day of the Cherry Blossom Festival, Bill doesn’t remember seeing a single cherry tree.
“If I did, I didn’t notice,” he said. “What I did notice was the people. We will never forget them. This experience has changed our lives. It could have been just us here with Nick, and maybe a few friends from Naples. But we were not alone.”
Nick, who was not driving at the time of the accident, suffered critical injuries. His right leg was severed, and he has had two surgical amputations, the second above his knee. He had two additional surgeries and was able to stand on his left leg, with the assistance of physical therapists, for the first time this week.
His moral support has come from folks he never knew three weeks ago. They embraced him.
“Amazing angels,” said Beth, “who came into our lives forever.”
One man stopped at the accident scene and used his belt as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. The Healeys never learned his name. During Nick’s 23-day stay in the hospital, he received visits from students, parents and administrators involved with local Young Life and Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapters.
He was visited twice by Scott Rigsby, of Atlanta, who became the first double amputee to complete an Ironman Triathlon and is the author of the best-selling book “Unthinkable.”
Rigsby lost both legs in a car accident 28 years ago when he was 18 and has run in the Boston Marathon. He lifted one of his prosthetic legs onto Nick’s hospital bed and offered words of encouragement.
Nick also received visits from players and coaches from Mercer’s football, golf, women’s soccer and men’s basketball teams.
The Bears basketball players had to forgive Nick after he told them he would be taking several classes at rival Florida Gulf Coast College as a high school senior next year. (And, yes, a couple of the nurses at the Medical Center requested senior guard Kevin Canevari do his famous “Nae Nae” dance -- the one that received national attention after the team upset Duke in the NCAA tournament.)
Nick was released from the Medical Center, and the Healeys began heading back to Florida on Tuesday to begin his rehabilitation. Bill and Beth stayed at the nearby Ronald McDonald House during their son’s hospital stay in Macon.
Bill said he will miss hearing songbirds in the morning. “We don’t have them in Naples,” he said. They have “snowbirds” (winter tourists), but not songbirds.
He will also miss the sound of the train, he said.
“There’s something very comforting about it,” he said. “It lets you know everything is running on schedule.”
Macon was an unfamiliar place when they arrived. Now it feels like home.
“I told everybody we were going to have to leave in the middle of the night because it’s hard to say goodbye,” Bill said. “I’ve never met so many people who wanted to give without expecting something in return. There are too many to try to name. I didn’t know there were still people like that in the world.”
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.