The minister from a tiny church in Colorado coal country dreamed he was dead.
His doctors were pretty sure he was right. How could they possibly save him when his broken body seemed to be failing?
He had crashed his Jeep and rolled off a lonely stretch of highway in northwestern Colorado where few people ever drive. Trapped 30 feet down an embankment in his gas-soaked car with a traumatic brain injury and a broken back, he could have died alone.
But inexplicably, a series of miracles kept Doug Zirkle alive.
Then a team of trauma experts at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital stepped in. They taught him to think again, to stand again, to preach again.
All the good moments after the accident — and even the tragedies, like a devastating fire at Zirkle’s church — seemed to bring blessings.
Zirkle has questioned his faith a time or two, but always felt the hand of God.
Now, Zirkle will walk again as he escorts his oldest daughter, Rachel, down the aisle for her wedding.
She called out to him during that dream. She touched his shoulder and said, “Dad, I’m here.”
Now he will be there for her as she marries her beloved on Father’s Day weekend.
A bad feeling
The Friday morning of the accident started off like any other. It was July 21, less than a year ago. Doug and his wife, Lisa, were planning to drop one of their cars off for service at their auto dealer in Craig. Their home and church, Mission of Grace, are in Hayden, 25 miles west of Steamboat Springs. Steamboat’s a mountainous resort town. Ranching, hunting and coal mining sustain Hayden and Craig. Further west, rugged canyons and sandstone cliffs rise up in land where Butch Cassidy and other outlaws once roamed. Nearby, two of the West’s biggest rivers — the Green and the Yampa — join and churn through Dinosaur National Monument.
Lisa headed out from the Zirkles’ home ahead of her husband at about 7:15 a.m. Doug planned to follow in 10 minutes to pick her up.
But, he never showed up.
As the minutes ticked by, Lisa knew something was wrong.
“I’ve got a bad feeling,” she told the service manager.
She took her car and headed out to look for her husband. As she pulled out of the dealership, she saw an ambulance with its lights on heading west out of town.
“That can’t be Doug,” she thought to herself. “It’s going the wrong direction.”
‘I can’t find Doug’
Lisa drove east, back home, scouring the highway for their car as she drove the 20 miles.
She opened the garage door. It was empty. Where could he be?
She called a friend.
“Something’s wrong. I can’t find Doug,” said Lisa.
She wondered if a parishioner had had an emergency. Maybe Doug had rushed to help one of the church members, as he had many times in the 20 years since they had sold their business and moved from Texas to Hayden. Maybe he was too busy to tell her.
Then it hit her. She had an app on her phone that could track Doug’s location.
For her work, Lisa inspects properties throughout their region. The previous summer, she had been alone at a remote property when she fell in a 3½ -foot hole.
“It was an old fire pit. It was just deep enough that it knocked me silly,” Lisa said.
She was able to get out and suffered only minor injuries, but the incident scared her. Both she and Doug are 59.
“The house was empty. I kept thinking that I could have screamed my head off, but no one would have ever heard me.”
So, she found a tracking app and loaded it on their phones.
Little did she know that Doug would need a rescue instead of the other way around.
Lisa clicked on the tracker. It showed Doug’s phone was 9 miles west of Craig, way beyond where he was supposed to have met her. She instantly knew that the ambulance she had seen in town must have been headed out to help her husband.
“I had a mini-meltdown, then knew I didn’t have time for a meltdown,” Lisa said.
She called the hospital in Craig as she sped back to town.
“Do you have a man there? His name is Doug Zirkle. He’s a diabetic kidney transplant recipient,” Lisa said.
Doug had come in without his ID. As far as the nurses were concerned, he was a John Doe and they couldn’t tell Lisa anything.
Still, she gave them all the background she could. She told them about the kidney transplant he had gotten in 2013 thanks to a friend and parishioner, Mike Markle, who had insisted on donating one of his kidneys. Doug had been diagnosed back in 1980 with Type 1 Diabetes, which usually affects children. Over the years he had developed kidney disease that sometimes zapped his energy. The transplant had turned him around and an insulin pump usually keeps his blood sugar in check.
Lisa knew her husband’s medical history made him especially vulnerable now.
“You need to call his doctors at University of Colorado Hospital,” she pleaded with the hospital staffers.
Lisa would later learn that Doug had gone into diabetic shock, a rare event for him. He didn’t remember cruising past Craig and well beyond it to the stretch on U.S. 40 that has little traffic.
In the first of many miracles that would keep Doug alive, a couple happened to be driving behind him. They witnessed the crash and immediately called for help. They found the Jeep tipped on its side. Fearing the car would catch on fire, they pulled Doug out through the Jeep’s sunroof and kept him safe until the ambulance crew took over.
When Lisa arrived at the hospital, a doctor was stabilizing her husband’s back and sewing up his head. Still unsure of their patient’s identity, the nurses didn’t allow Lisa to see Doug at first. They planned to fly him to a hospital in Grand Junction. Lisa insisted he go directly to the hospital where doctors knew him and had all his medical records.
Finally, the nurses confirmed Doug’s identity and agreed to send him to the University of Colorado Hospital, where he had had his transplant and much of his other care for years. Lisa jumped aboard the small plane as two nurses kept Doug alive during the 45-minute flight.
Lisa called two of the couple’s four children, all of whom were in New York. They caught the next flight to Colorado.
All Lisa could tell them was that their dad had some bleeding in his brain. She thought he was going to be OK.
Then, after his arrival at the hospital, his system seemed to go into shock.
“All of his vitals got worse and worse and his blood pressure dropped to almost nothing,” Lisa said.
The team suspected that Doug was bleeding internally. They needed to rush him into surgery. Lisa kissed her husband of 35 years and told him she loved him. Then the nurses wheeled him away at about 7 p.m.
At about midnight, the doctors came back and let her know that they couldn’t find an obvious reason for Doug’s decline. His organs, including the donated kidney, were in “pristine” condition, the doctors said. Still, they couldn’t promise that he would live through the night.
By 1 a.m., two of the Zirkles’ children had arrived: Rachel, 29, their oldest and the first in the family to be getting married, and her brother Chris, 25, who teaches 7thgrade math at a low-income school in the Bronx.
Lisa, Rachel and Chris stood sentinel at Doug’s bedside. And the next morning, a crazy thing happened. Doug’s blood pressure and pH levels, which had been at levels that could have killed him, improved dramatically. The doctors were thrilled, relieved and mystified.
“From all the signs, your husband should have died, but he didn’t,” one of doctors later told Lisa, with a big smile on his face.
He refused to take any credit and couldn’t explain Doug’s turnaround.
All Lisa could think was that another miracle had saved her husband.
The next job was to stabilize Doug’s broken back.
Dr. C.J. Kleck, an orthopedist with the UCHealth Spine Center, checked on Doug the day after the accident and, since he was rebounding, decided he could stabilize Doug’s back. Time was of the essence. Doug writhed in pain in his hospital bed and Kleck didn’t want him to further harm his spinal cord.
Doug had suffered a partial spinal cord injury along with what’s called a lumbar 1 burst fracture. That meant that his vertebra at the L1 level in his lower back had splintered and expanded out in all directions. It was putting pressure on the nerves surrounding Doug’s spinal cord.
On Saturday night, a little more than 24 hours after the accident, Kleck did surgery on Doug’s back, performing what’s known as a posterior spinal fusion.
From the 12th vertebra in his upper back, known as the T-12, down to the second vertebra in the lumbar region, or the L-2, Kleck performed the fusion, taking pressure off Doug’s spinal cord.
Immediately after surgery, Doug couldn’t stand or walk. But over time, he improved dramatically.
“It’s impressive that he survived the accident. That he’s walking is miraculous,” said Kleck, who is also an assistant professor of orthopedics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“He’s made a tremendous recovery in a short period of time,” Kleck said. “His strength in his legs is almost back to normal.”
A beacon of hope
Years ago, when the older Zirkle kids were teens, their parents decided to take sabbaticals from their jobs in Hayden and give the children a chance to experience an entirely different world: a big city.
Lisa found an apartment in New York near the United Nations, and for a month, the family delighted in exploring art, music, architecture and more.
Rachel and her younger sister, Laura, 27, then chose to go to college in New York. Chris was an All-American runner at Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Ore. Their youngest sister, Caroline, 18, just graduated from high school, and like her siblings, has a flair for the arts.
Rachel and Laura graduated from Hunter College. Rachel is now a singer-songwriter. She met her fiancé, an actor named Taylor Miller, through friends in New York in 2014. The two have been inseparable since. They got engaged last summer on July 15.
Then the accident jolted the young couple and the Zirkle family. While Rachel and Taylor rode a roller coaster of emotion, they never guessed that their plans would serve as a powerful motivation for her dad to heal.
Their wedding became a beacon of hope for the entire family.
A long road, but certainty her dad would make it
Rachel’s first glimpse of her dad at the hospital was a shock. She and Chris had flown all day and arrived at about 1 a.m.
“He had just come back from surgery. He was completely swollen. Liquid was coming out of his pores,” Rachel said.
Yet, as bad as her dad looked, an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and certainty enveloped Rachel.
“I remember being very thankful that he was alive and knowing that he was going to face a long road. But I had a strong feeling he was going to make it,” she said.
Before he could mount his fight to recover, Doug had to claw his way out of the fog of his brain injury.
For days, he floated in and out of consciousness as vivid dreams both terrorized and consoled him.
By then, Laura and Caroline had arrived from New York. Doug’s entire family surrounded him.
He remembers dreaming that he was stuck in a pit and couldn’t get out.
“I thought maybe I was dead and waiting for God,” Doug said. “I had this idea that I could not walk and my legs were messed up. But then, I saw this shining thing. Whatever it was, it seemed to have something to do with God.”
“Then, I heard Rachel say, ‘Dad, we’re here.’ And I heard Laura say, ‘Dad, I’m here.’ Then Chris and Caroline. I woke up to my kids talking to me.”
Doug’s dream had morphed into reality.
“I was thinking I was dead,” Doug said. “Then I woke up to all four of my kids. That’s about the sweetest thing you could wish for.”
Doug’s whole family really was by his side and he really was alive.
Powerful goals: a wedding and a calling
After recovering for nearly two weeks in the ICU, Doug moved next to the hospital’s rehabilitation unit, where he spent five weeks. That was an unusually long stay, but Doug’s medical team kept extending him because he was making such dramatic progress.
Two powerful goals kept Doug motivated.
Once his brain cleared, he told anyone and everyone: “I want to walk my daughter down the aisle.”
And he felt the call to get back to his church community.
The walls of his room were filled with encouraging notes from parishioners. Rachel created a book full of positive messages and memories from the important people in Doug’s life so he could know how many people were pulling for him.
He had arrived in the rehabilitation unit in rough shape. He needed two people to help him do anything: get out of bed, go to the bathroom, get dressed.
Having both a brain injury and a broken back meant Doug had to struggle both with thinking and with moving, a tough “double whammy,” according to his care team.
His doctor in the unit was Katherine Payne. And a trio of therapists joined with Doug’s family to coach him to regain lost skills. They included speech therapist, Kaylee Skidmore, physical therapist, Angie Bruflat and occupational therapist, Lauren Geismar.
“At first, he couldn’t connect the dots,” said Geismar. “He knew that he had been in an accident, but his memory didn’t carry over from one day to the next.”
So each day, Doug’s team members would have to remind him what had happened while offering hope for the future.
“We would start from ground zero,” said Skidmore. “We’d tell him, ‘You were in a bad car accident, but you’re in a safe place. We’re here to take care of you.’ We kept reassuring him day to day.”
Because the accident had severely traumatized Doug’s brain, Skidmore had to help her patient with thinking, cognition and memory before they could move on to more complex speaking, like remembering sermons.
Over time, the progress was stunning. By the time he left the hospital, his memory was excellent. He still has some challenges with short-term memory, but he speaks eloquently now and has shared his story of recovery many times from the pulpit.
Geismar, Doug’s occupational therapist, said Doug’s attitude and his family support made a big difference in his recovery.
“I found out pretty early on that he’s a minster. He’s very compassionate,” she said. “He has a smile that’s contagious and he sees the good in everybody. He’s a great human being.”
She said it was incredibly rewarding to see him improve both cognitively and physically.
“I will never forget working with him,” Geismar said.
One day, Geismar and Bruflat, his physical therapist, were with Doug when he had a major breakthrough.
He was sitting on the edge of his bed and Bruflat wanted to help Doug stand up for the first time without using his walker.
“I was scared that I would fall,” Doug said.
Bruflat knew he had the leg strength to stand, but Doug didn’t believe he could do it.
“He didn’t trust his body. We had to help him regain his trust,” Bruflat said.
Finally, after several minutes of encouragement from both women, Doug lifted himself off the bed, using only his own strength. He was standing for the first time.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Doug said. “Oh my gosh. I stood up! Then I sat down.”
He grinned, exhausted and proud.
“Ok. Now I want you to do it three more times,” Bruflat said with a smile.
Doug teased her for working him too hard, then he stood again and again.
“I pushed him as much as I could. I knew he could do it,” said Bruflat, who loves partnering with patients to help them reach their full potential.
Finally, after 7 weeks, Doug got to leave the hospital. He insisted on departing on his own terms and his own feet.
With several staffers in tow for the sendoff, he rose from a wheel chair and using a walker for support, put one foot in front of the other as he walked about 100 feet to their car.
There were plenty of tears and cheers all around. That stroll felt a little like a rehearsal for a big day to come.
“When he walked out of the hospital, he was one step closer to being able to walk his daughter down the aisle,” said Skidmore. “All along, he was so motivated. Even when he was exhausted, he would continue to push. He had big, big goals.”
An unexpected calling
When the Zirkles pulled back into Hayden, they found signs that said, “Welcome Home Pastor Doug.”
Community members had built a ramp for their home.
The Zirkles have been an integral part of their adopted community for 20 years. They’re actually transplants from Texas. They used to own a home health business in Dallas. Then Doug went back to school to become a minister.
“It’s hard to explain, but I just felt like we were supposed to build churches or help people,” Doug said. “We sold the company and walked away and we didn’t know what we were going to do next.”
Then one day, Doug was out back building a fence when a call came from a church in Colorado.
Doug didn’t know how they had found him. Besides, he and Lisa had some thoughts about where they wanted to move.
“I remember saying a prayer: ‘God, I don’t really want to be a pastor. I don’t want to live anywhere cold and I don’t want to leave Texas.’”
Nonetheless, as everyone knows, God moves in mysterious ways. And the folks in Hayden were persistent.
They kept calling and before the Zirkles knew it, they were packing up the three oldest children, who were then 9, 7 and 5, and moving to Hayden.
Doug instantly found his calling. He loves officiating at weddings and baptisms and tending to people in crisis.
“We’re not fancy. We’re a country church. We’re Baptist, but open to everybody. We have a lot of young families,” Doug said.
When he found himself in need, the community rallied. They supported him when he needed the kidney transplant and again after the accident. The church also suffered an electrical fire in February that did extensive damage. Thankfully, no one was in the building at the time and the church was insured. Doug said the kindness of community members after the fire once again strengthened his faith.
Gratitude and joy
Now, Rachel’s wedding day has arrived, on Father’s Day weekend no less.
Rachel and her fiancé didn’t plan that timing on purpose, but loved the symbolism once they figured out they’d be with both of their dads this weekend.
They have chosen to have a simple ceremony with just 19 family members at a gazebo in New York’s Central Park. It’s a country-style affair in the heart of one of the world’s biggest cities. They will have a meal together afterwards, then the couple will celebrate down the road with extended family and friends in both Texas and Florida.
The Zirkles expect plenty of tears and joy and gratitude.
“So many things have happened that have been miraculous,” Lisa said. “We feel so blessed.”
“It will be an awesome moment,” Doug said. “God has been really good to us. The whole time in the hospital was great. I’m glad I can walk Rachel down the aisle. I’m glad I get to see her get married. We probably sound like cornballs, but life is good.”
Rachel will be wearing a simple white lace dress. Taylor and her dad will don gray suits. Doug will hook his arm around Rachel’s elbow and he’ll escort her up a slight hill. Then, he’ll leave her in front of the gazebo, where she and Taylor will say their vows, celebrating love and life.
Said Rachel: “It’s been very poetic and romantic and sweet and happy, very happy, totally happy.”