RUMFORD — “Fire,” Jeremy Volkernick thought as a ladder truck’s siren pierced the lumberyard. He stopped working on the fire extinguishers he was repairing for a moment, listening as the whine receded under the late February sun.

A call came over the radio. 

“Base to unit nine — you wanna give the gate a call?” 

“Yup, when I get a chance,” Volkernick radioed distractedly, turning back to his work. “Too bad,” he thought, “Someone’s house is on fire.”

A minute passed, then the radio sounded again.  

“Base to unit nine — you need to call the gate now.” 

Volkernick’s heart pounded. Though Saturdays were his day off, he’d decided to work overtime at Catalyst’s Paper’s mill yard while the weather was nice. Kelly, his wife, had taken the kids skiing to Black Mountain in Rumford that morning. While his 13-year-old son, Colby, a skier since he was 4 years old, loved barreling down the mountain, Jeremy was a novice, better with his hands than his feet.

Had Kelly left something on the burner when she took the kids and my house is on fire? he thought in alarm, scanning the hills. But he couldn’t see smoke. What was going on?  

He quickly crossed the yard to the gate house when the door suddenly swung open. 

“You need to call this number right now,” a guard said with urgency.

Volkernick’s heart sank. “Don’t tell me my house is on fire,” he said.  

But all the guard knew was that someone had called and Volkernick needed to call them back — immediately. 

He dialed, not recognizing his neighbor’s cellphone number. 

Suzanne Legere’s voice was gentle. “I just want to let you know Colby has been involved in an accident. I think he’s going to be okay — but you’re going to want to meet them at the hospital.” 

“Do you know anything?” he pressed urgently.

All she knew was that Colby had been injured on the slopes.

“That firetruck was going to the hospital — with my son,” he thought in terror. He forced himself into calmness and walked to the locker room.

The guards followed him in, asking what had happened and if he needed a ride. But he didn’t have time to answer.

He got in the truck and started driving. In the distance he could hear a helicopter pulsating. It circled over the mill before lowering to a spot — the hospital. 

The three-minute ride was fueled by adrenaline — he’d beaten the ambulance there. Outside the emergency room, a women approached him in a panic. He couldn’t make out her out at first, but her features slowly came into focus.

“Oh, that’s Elaine Michaud,” he thought. “She taught Colby. Used to.”

“Oh my god — I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Michaud said, on the verge of tears. 

Volkernick’s heart sank as a question rose in his mind.

“Don’t tell me my kid is dead,” he said. 

*****

The toboggan seemed to descend in slow motion. Watching it, Kelly Volkernick felt like she was underwater, in a tunnel stretching with herself on one end and Colby on the other. The ski coach had just walked into the packed lodge where she’d retired, worn out from a full day on the slopes. 

“They’re bringing Colby down,” he told her, not meeting her eyes, his face wearing a twisted expression.

“Oh, s***,” she thought in panic.  

Around her, skiers shuffled around in snow pants and boots, their minds on Patrick Dempsey, the TV star, who was taking horse sleigh rides and riding the chairlift with families to raise money for the Rumford Hospital.  

Kelly went outside. The late afternoon sun was setting, and she could barely make out the ski patrol in the distance, fanned out around a sled like pallbearers. Someone was wrapped tight in a bright, yellow blanket — and that someone had blood pouring from his nose. 

“My back! My back!” she heard her son screaming. 

Thought left as she focused on Colby, and someone told her to stay back as he was loaded into an ambulance. She felt like she was going to pass out but knew she didn’t have time for that — Colby needed her. She fought to stay conscious. 

When Rumford Police Sgt. James Bernard he offered her a ride to the hospital, she got into the cruiser.  

*****

Jeremy Volkernick waited 15 minutes for the ambulance to snake down the mountain. First the firetruck arrived, then Kelly in a police car. When the first ambulance got there, it was empty. Jeremy approached the driver, his old boss from the fire department, Richard Coulombe, but he didn’t have any news. 

A second ambulance pulled up — Number 53. Though the Volkernicks couldn’t see him, they could hear him.

“My back! My back!” he cried. 

As Colby was rushed into the emergency room, Sgt. Bernard approached the Volkernicks. “As soon as I know something, I’ll come out and get you — but you guys need to wait in the waiting room for the doctor.” 

Inside, five, maybe 10 minutes passed — but it felt like a century. Bernard and a nurse came out and led them into an operating room. There was confusion and too much noise: firefighters, EMTs, doctors were moving around Colby, trying to stabilize him enough to slide a ventilator down his throat.

Colby looked up at them from a table, his chest inflated like a ballon. “Is this a dream?” he asked.

A doctor whisked them from the room and threw an X-ray against the wall. 

As the doctor started explaining what was going on, it was as if someone had turned off the sound in Jeremy’s ears. The doctor’s lips moved, but someone had pushed mute. Since Jeremy had been a firefighter, he knew what to look for on the X-ray. He studied it carefully.

His eyes traced where he knew his son’s spine to be. It was straight. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Kelly had heard the doctor’s explanation and repeated it to Jeremy. “The doctor said, ‘I know some of these ribs are blocked out, but I don’t know what’s going on over here,’ because he had air around his heart.”

Colby was loaded onto the helicopter, bound for Maine Medical Center in Portland. The Volkernicks picked up some clothing and followed, Elaine Michaud driving. 

It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Rumford to Portland, and the Volkernicks had but a cursory glance at their son. They didn’t know the extent of his injuries. They didn’t know what was going on.

Kelly, though talkative, was on edge. 

“It feels like we were going to California,” she told Michaud.

“I know, honey.” 

 Jeremy’s thoughts clouded as the car sped south. “Boston,” he thought.

A voicemail appeared on Kelly’s phone.  

Colby was stable, he said. He was going to be okay. 

*****

There are 24 ribs in the human body, and Colby had broken 13 of them, a trauma doctor in Portland told Kelly and Jeremy. He’s also broken his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade.

One lung was punctured; the other would collapse the next day. There was air surrounding his heart, and chest tubes were in place to whisk it away. The vertebra supporting his neck and head was broken. He had a concussion. It’d be a month, minimum, before he could leave the hospital. More likely three.

Colby was immobilized and hooked up to a ventilator.

“I almost didn’t dare to look at him because I didn’t know what to expect,” Kelly said. 

*****

For almost a week, a swirl of voices penetrated Colby’s half-awake dreams. Sedated, he dozed, his lungs unable to breathe on their own. Visitors came and went: most of his teachers, a therapy dog, Slugger from the Portland Sea Dogs.

Coming to, his first sensation was discomfort: a tube, where nothing had been before, was inside his throat, helping his lungs breathe while he slept. Get this thing out, he tried to signal to medical personnel. Then he made a motion to his parents, like picking up and hanging a receiver.

“What is he saying?” Kelly wondered.

But Jeremy knew — his son was asking if he’d broken his phone in the fall. 

Colby, who couldn’t speak, pointed at letters on a board to communicate with his parents.

Colby eyed his surroundings, understanding he was going to be spending a lot of time in the hospital. 

Pointing out the letters, he asked, “How much is all of this going to cost?” 

“Don’t worry,” Jeremy said. “That’s what insurance is for.” 

*****

Colby spent 15 days in the hospital before he was discharged. Kelly had spent all but one night in Portland, where they were staying at the Ronald McDonald House, lodging for the families of sick children. Jeremy commuted back and forth so Trevor, their 10-year old, wouldn’t miss school.  

He spent that time learning to walk  — though his legs were undamaged, his balance was thrown into confusion and he kept colliding with things — and regaining his arm strength. At home, independence was introduced in steps. The brace bolted from his neck to his chest kept his head still: he couldn’t cut his own food, or shower unaided. 

But after another 15 days, Colby was back in school. 

At school, a classmate walked him between rooms before the bell sounded, precaution against the stampede. He had no strength in his arms, and his right was in a cast for a month; Kelly, at first, helped carry his books to school. 

“He didn’t complain once,” Kelly said. 

“Positive, positive, positive,” Colby said. “That’s my motto.”

*****

Colby Volkernick drags a low cart saddled with toilet paper and brown paper towels behind him at the Rumford Hospital, pausing to open supply closets and check supplies. It’s been months since the accident, and he has healed beautifully — regaining “99.99 percent” of his former health.  

Now 14, Colby has been volunteering at the hospital three days a week, restocking shelves and taking out the trash.  

For as long as he could remember, he’d wanted to work in the medical field: first a doctor, then a dentist, and now a nurse practitioner. His recent experience gave him further inspiration to enter the field — to give back. 

Now that he’s mostly healed, he’s hoping to help someone else get back on their feet. 

“I like to care for people,” Colby said. 

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