When Broken Hearts Become One

By Amanda B. Lewis
Church Magazines

Amanda B. Lewis, "When Broken Hearts Become One", Ensign, March 2011, 34–39

During 2006, the Issaquah Fifth Ward experienced several crises within a few months’ time. Their response is an example of the gospel in action—and of the blessings of ward unity.

The day that school got out for the youthin the Issaquah Fifth Ward in Washington State seemed like the start of any normal summer. That Monday in June 2006 the young men, young women, their leaders, and several other ward members gathered at noon to leave for youth conference. After an hour-long drive to their campsite, the group settled in for three days of swimming, playing, and team- and testimony-building activities.

Alexa Jensen

On the second day there, however, tragedy struck. Thirteen-year-old Alexa Jensen was swimming with some other young women when she had a sudden seizure and slipped beneath the water.

Alexa suffered from a rare liver disease that had left her with developmental disabilities, but she was a good swimmer. She had won medals at the region and state level in Special Olympics. So when Alexa disappeared, her mother, Denise, knew something was wrong. Alexa had dealt with seizures for years and Denise suspected this was the cause for her disappearance.

She yelled for help and many of the youth started looking for Alexa in the water.

Alexa had been in the water for only four or five minutes when she was found and pulled up onto the dock. The youth gathered around and watched their friend receive CPR.

“It was terrible,” recalls then 16-year-old Chandler Balkman, the Jensens’ home teacher at the time.

Alexa was rushed to the hospital moments later, but when she arrived she had no pulse. The medical team at the hospital stabilized her heartbeat, but her brain function never returned to normal. Two days later, Alexa died.

“It shocked everyone,” says Chandler. “It was tragic. She was such a sweet girl.”

The Jensens’ overwhelming shock and grief was softened by the love and support they received from the ward.

“Going through it with our ward—because it was with them and at a ward activity—in a lot of ways was comforting for us,” Denise says.

“Not that you want them to have to experience that too, but it was very good for us because we saw how much she was loved by how they were all affected.”

Many families who experience such a tragedy break apart, but the Jensens were determined to make it through.

“It was hard to comfort each other because everyone kind of grieves in different ways,” Gary says. “Because of the stress involved, it’s hard to have anything left to give your partner.”

“What got us through was that we had so much of an outpouring from our ward in that initial tough time,” Gary recalls. “And then we realized we needed to help each other and comfort each other. Initially you need help getting to that point.”

As Gary and Denise and their children, Aubrey and Tyler, worked to pull together after Alexa’s death, the ward strengthened and sustained them as an extended support network.

In addition to providing meals and assisting with funeral preparations, ward members reached out in numerous, sometimes-seemingly small ways. Members wrote letters and cards expressing their love. They called often, even long after the funeral, to remind the Jensens they were not forgotten. Even now, years later, youth still talk to the Jensens about how Alexa and her passing changed their lives. Occasionally ward members join the Jensens to celebrate Alexa’s birthday in August.

“We talk about Alexa every day in our family,” Denise says. “We don’t ever want to forget her. We’re always praying for us so we can be with her again.”

“Never be afraid to bring up the topic,” she says to ward members who may be trying to support families who have experienced the loss of a child. “We love to hear people tell us stories about her, or bring it up, or ask how we’re doing. Acknowledge it even if you don’t know what to say.”

“We’ve come away from it stronger and more faithful,” says Gary. “Without a ward family to get you through it, it would be a totally different experience. I think you’d be lost.”

Chandler Balkman

Chandler Balkman

As the ward was still recovering form the shock of Alexa’s death, another tragedy struck.

Like several ward members, the Balkmans live on Lake Sammamish and spend a lot of time on the water. Sixteen-year-old Chandler Balkman and his father, Steve, the Jensens’ home teachers, raced out to a nearby buoy on Lake Sammamish one evening at sundown. On his way back from the buoy, Chandler, who had secretly slipped on swimming fins so he could beat his dad, was swimming underwater. Suddenly Steve heard a boat approach and saw it pass directly over where he thought Chandler was swimming.

Jessica, Chandler’s older sister, had taken the boat to visit some friends and was returning. Neither Chandler nor Steve had noticed the boat was missing from the dock, so they hadn’t been listening or watching for it to return. Because of the time of day and the direction of the dock, Jessica hadn’t been able to see anything in the water and didn’t know Chandler had been hit until he popped up out of the water. Chandler told his dad he had been hit by the boat’s motor and didn’t think he could swim any longer.

Steve swam over to Chandler and was able to hold him up.

“I reached my hand down, and it was just a horrible feeling,” says Steve. Chandler’s leg had been almost completely severed at his hip. “At that moment I didn’t think he was going to make it. I thought these were my last few moments with my son. So I held him close and started the 200 yard swim back to shore.”

The boat had stalled and Jessica was stuck without a way to go to them, but she called emergency services on her cell phone. Geoff, Chandler’s older brother, was painting the house when he heard the yelling and saw what had happened. He raced out in a canoe to Steve and Chandler, and, miraculously, got both of them on board without the canoe tipping over. As soon as they reach the dock, Steve gave Chandler a blessing.

Gary Folkman, the bishop of the ward at the time, lived four houses down from the Balkmans and came running when he heard the commotion.

Gary helped Geoff and Steve carry Chandler inside. Steve was trying to stop the blood flowing from Chandler’s leg, but Chandler’s femoral artery had been severed, and he was losing blood rapidly. Bishop Folkman asked if he could give Chandler another blessing.

In the blessing, Bishop Folkman promised Chandler not that he would recover, but that his “intellect and sense of humor would be perserved.”

“After he had that blessing I had no doubt that he was going to make it,” Steve says. But Chandler’s life was still in immediate danger.

Susan and Chandler’s younger sister, Stephanie, arrived home about that time. Chandler became alert, and after assessing his situation, realized he was likely going to die. He told each member of his family goodbye and told his family to tell Jessica, who was still stuck on the lake, that he forgave her and it wasn’t her fault.

An ambulance came and rushed Chandler to the hospital. Steve went with Chandler in the ambulance, and Susan stood for a moment after they left, wondering what to do. She knew she needed to be with Chandler, but she also knew that Jessica was still on the lake, uninformed and distraught. Jessica didn’t know whether Chandler was dead or alive.

“I didn’t really know what was happening. It was a blessing that some friends were coming by to visit and helped me tow the boat back,” recalls Jessica.

Police arrived to ask Jessica about what had happened. In the meantime, doctors were trying to save Chandler. When he arrived at the hospital, Chandler had no pulse and was considered dead. He had lost between 60 and 75 percent of his blood.

After doctors stabilized Chandler and gave him several blood transfusions, they began surgery. Steve, mindful of Chandler’s active lifestyle, begged them to save his leg. Finally a doctor emphatically told him he wasn’t understanding: it was impossible to save his leg. The surgical team was only hoping they could save his life.

Doctors worked through the night to save his life, amputate his leg above the hip, and treat several broken bones and deep cuts. It was the first night of three months Chandler would spend in the hospital, and the first of 30 surgeries.

During Chandler’s recovery, the ward constantly supported the Balkmans.

“Everyone wanted to do something that was helpful,” Susan says.

The ward brought in hot meals for the family to eat and frozen meals that Susan could eat if she was able to come home for a few minutes to see the rest of the family. They did laundry, yard work, and house cleaning in an effort to let the family focus on healing.

“With all of the programs in place, I didn’t have to solicit help. I didn’t have to do anything. The need was there, and it was taken care of. I think the organization of our programs is wonderful, because it’s [already] in place,” says Susan.

A big help was the ward’s care of Stephanie, the Balkmans’ youngest daughter. One day Susan realized she had no idea where Stephanie was. Jessica made some calls and found out that Stephanie was with a family in the ward. They’d fed her, taken her to a movie with their family, and she staying with them for the night. It was a relief to Susan to know what Stephanie was being taken care of.

Perhaps one of the most tender offers of assistance happened in the first days following Chandler’s accident. Denise Jensen and Debbie Calhoun, a ward member whose baby had been in the hospital for months, came to visit Susan. Although Denise was dealing with her fresh grief from Alexa’s death, she felt moved to visit and comfort Susan.

“You just feel for them. That emotion is so raw,” Denise says of her motivation to be with Susan at the hospital. “There’s a little bit of a bond there, just instantly.”

Denise’s experience with intensive care units just six weeks before proved to be very helpful for Susan.  In addition to her knowledge, Denise brought an understanding heart.

“She was a great comfort to me,” Susan says. “Even though she’d had such a loss, she came down to the hospital and she was there for me to talk to. She was understanding, even though her trial had been different.”

Debbie’s daughter, Claire, had been in the hospital frequently in the year before. Debbie knew something of the long, draining days that were ahead for Susan and was there to share her experiences with Susan.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that the promptings you receive as a mother are divinely sent,” Debbie says. “You might feel one way, and that’s important to share with the medical team. There have been many instances when I’ve picked up on things before the medical team, and it has saved Claire,” Debbie says.

“[Debbie] was so helpful in helping me navigate the procedures at the hospital,” Susan says. “She was a tremendous help.”

Also just days after the accident, one of the laurels in the ward realized there would be a lot of medical expenses as Chandler healed. She decided to have a car wash to help alleviate the family’s financial burden. She raised a couple thousand dollars and donated it to the family. They saved it, and those funds, along with other generous donations from ward and community members, enabled Chandler to get the prosthetic leg he needed six months later.

After Chandler’s initial surgery, he was in a coma for two weeks. Over the coming months, he struggled with several serious infections from the lake water, which his wounds had been exposed to. Even when it was clear that Chandler would survive, he still had long days in the hospital. He had to spend most of his time lying down since his pelvis had been broken and was partially missing.

The ward members maintained their support of the Balkmans and supported one another as well. Chris Callans, a convert of three years at the time of Chandler’s accident, remembers how ward leaders both facilitated service to the families in need and also supported ward members as they dealt with the emotional trauma many experienced.

“They would have a meeting at the Church and the bishop would talk,” Chris says. The bishop set the story straight, answered questions, and alerted ward members to sensitivities. He announced which people members could contact if they wanted to offer service. “I thought this was so professional,” Chris says. “It was businesslike and very organized out of respect for the family.”

But there was also always someone you could talk to, Chris remembers. “The bishopric was amazing.”

As ward members reached out to help the Balkmans, Susan remembers that “everyone jumped in to help with their specialty.”

A nurse in their ward helped coordinate Chandler’s visiting schedule. One of the doctors in their ward took time to answer all of Chandler’s questions about prosthetic legs.

“People were constantly telling us that they were praying for us. It was not just our ward, but the entire community,” Steve says.

In addition to his family members, ward members—100 or more—created a steady stream of visitors. They brought him food since he needed to gain weight, brought their families to visit with him, and rolled him outside on a hospital bed when he was allowed to so he could take photographs, a long-standing hobby of his. 

Chandler adjusted to answering questions about his leg when Primary children came to visit. “I think Chandler loved the little kids,” Susan says. “They’re just so honest. It was his first introduction to going out in public and this whole new person he was.” 

His young mens leaders treated him like he was the same old Chandler, and members of his priests quorum brought the sacrament to him every week that he was in the hospital. The quorum even set up a projector and had a movie night in Chandler’s hospital room for one of their mutual activities.

Chandler appreciated their immediate thoughtfulness, but he was especially grateful when months later, the priests quorum was still mindful of him.

“We had to change some things. Instead of doing a 50-mile hike, we’d take a road trip. I was a factor, but they didn’t come out and say it.  They’d say, ‘What’s something we can all do?’ They didn’t make me feel like a burden,” says Chandler. “I appreciated that my quorum was willing to do that.”

When Chandler returned to Church, he visited the Primary. They were so excited to see his “robot” leg. Some of the children told Chandler they had been praying for him.

“These little kids that Chandler didn’t even know, for them to say, ‘I’ve been praying for you.’ That’s powerful. And with that power comes a feeling of unity” says Susan.

“I've come to appreciate how well the structure of the Church works,” says Chandler. “It's designed to make people feel like family. So when terrible things like this happen, people want to help.”

“I guess what really made the different to me was the outpouring of love from the ward as a whole,” says Steve. “To me it was the gospel of Jesus Christ in action, the way that it's supposed to work. The true meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ was shown to me through these members of our ward who love us. I knew some, didn't know others, but they were there when they needed them.”

Today, Chandler is serving as a missionary in the Canada Toronto West Mission. Less than two percent of all amputees have lost a leg at the hip, as Chandler did. Because the group is so small, prosthetic legs aren’t very well developed for them. But Chandler hasn’t let that stop him. Before leaving on his mission, Chandler was a BYU student. He not only walked around BYU’s large campus just like any other student, he also water skiied and snow skiied on a competitive ski team for amputees in Park City. He has also learned to run with his prosthesis, a feat that only four or five other people in the world have accomplished.

“Obviously it's a tragedy that my son lost his leg,” Steve says. “But as I look back on it now, we were able to get through it because of all the help and assistance we got from everybody. It was extremely difficult for Chandler, his mother, and for me at times, but that really made a difference. When you feel loved, you feel like you can get through most anything. We definitely felt loved.”

Chris Callans

Chris has a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Among other side effects, it can cause a heart to experience an arrhythmia, or disruption of electric pulses, and stop beating. Chris was aware of her condition, but it had never caused her any trouble before. She had started her early-morning exercise when her heart experienced uneven pulses, and she collapsed. Her son, Brian, just 10 years old at the time, found her lying on the floor. He knew something wasn’t right, and ran for his father, Joe.

Callans Family

Joe told Brian to call emergency services and started CPR. It wasn’t long before paramedics arrived and were able to get her heart started again. As the ambulance drove off, Joe wondered what to do with his children. A neighbor offered to take care of his daughters, and Joe called ward member Sabrina Larsen, who lived a couple of streets away, to watch his sons. Joe, who is a member of another church, knew Sabrina because he occasionally attends LDS Sunday services with his family. “She was here in what seemed like 60 seconds,” Joe recalls. She took the Callans’ sons and told Joe not to worry about them.

As the ambulance sped to the hospital, Chris’ heart failed again, and when she arrived at the hospital, she was clinically dead. As emergency room doctors worked on Chris to stabilize her heartbeat, another emergency room doctor arrived. Dr. Eric Shipley was not on call that day but came as a ward member to see if he could help and support Joe.

“As I was driving to the hospital, I called [the emergency room] and they said she still didn’t have a heartbeat. I knew her chances were abysmal. I was angry. I just couldn’t imagine that the ward would have to endure one more thing.”

When Eric arrived, the doctors’ resuscitation efforts had been ongoing for about 40–55 minutes. In an older person, doctors usually cease their resuscitation efforts after 20 minutes, but since Chris was young and healthy and the doctors had monitored intermittent signs of heart activity, they continued.

“It was a pretty chaotic scene,” Eric remembers. After nearly an hour of resuscitation efforts, “for reasons that aren’t completely clear to me,” Eric says, she regained a pulse.

After Chris was stabilized and moved to a cardiac unit, Joe realized how many of members of the ward were there to support him. Bishop Folkman and some other ward members were in the waiting room. Matt Balkman, a member of the bishopric and Chandler’s uncle, told Joe he didn’t want him to have to worry about anything but Chris. Matt insisted that he and other ward members coordinate the logistics of picking up extended family members from the airport, taking care of their home, and making sure the Callans’ four children were well cared for. They also promised to be a buffer for Joe and keep people at arm’s length until he was ready to deal with visitors.

“They took care of all the logistics,” Joe says. “They left me to stay by Chris’ side.”

Doctors warned Joe that it was very likely that her brain had been damaged because of the significant time her heart had been stopped.

From Eric’s diagnosis at the time, there was less than a one-percent chance that her brain would recover completely.

Ward members reeled as they realized the Callanses were facing the same situation the Jensens had faced with Alexa a few months earlier: a healthy and normalized heart, but low probability of brain recovery.

In an effort to give Chris the best chance of complete recovery, doctors reduced her body temperature significantly. This was meant to allow the brain and the body to give all energy to healing.

“I don’t think Eric Shipley left my side from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” Joe says. “He was there mostly for comfort but also to navigate the medical side of things. I can’t overstate how important that was.”

There was little improvement in Chris’ condition during the night. However, the next morning, doctors were happily surprised when she woke up on her own.

The first time she opened her eyes, she focused on a friend who lived in Vancouver, and her sister-in-law Mary, who lived in Illinois. The shocked look that crossed her face convinced Joe that she knew who they were and she knew they didn’t belong in Seattle. “It was that more than any words over the next couple of hours that convinced me she’d be there. She’d be Chris again,” Joe says.

Half an hour after she first opened her eyes, Chris was trying to talk around the tube in her throat. Doctors were surprised and pleased with her progress, but sedated her for a few more days so her body could further heal.

Eric came to give Joe an update of Chris’ progress each day. He interpreted the reports and explained what the medical terms and statistics meant.

By Sunday, four days after Chris collapsed, she was stable and her memory was returning. Eric Shipley shared the miracle he had seen in Chris’ recovery as part of his testimony in fast and testimony meeting. He later told Chris that it had felt so good to be able to stand up and talk about an amazing, glorious miracle. For once, the ward could receive completely good news.

“‘We needed something,’” Chris remembers him saying. “‘We were weighted down with all this tragedy, and we needed to remember that sometimes things really can come out OK. We have to have hope.’”

“Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand,” Eric says. “This was a completely unexpected outcome from a medical intervention. 99.9 [percent of the time], it wouldn’t happen.”

Eric says the same is true of Chandler. “His [death] was easily 99 percent going to happen. He never should have survived it.”

Chris spent only eight days in the hospital. She and Chandler returned to their homes on the same day.

Chris, and especially Joe, were flabbergasted with what they found when they returned home.

“The ward is great, and people mobilize like nothing else I’ve ever seen,” Joe says. “Friends from the ward had stocked the pantries and done yard work. The house looked like a brand new place to come home to,” Joe says.

Ward members started bringing meals in and visiting the Callanses, expressing their joy at Chris’ recovery, and offering help. But ward members were careful to respect the family’s privacy.

“People were really good about giving us our space. They wanted to know, but they let us set the pace for how we would do that,” Joe says. “They’re very good about not crowding and not making a spectacle of things.”

“What was amazing about the ward,” Chris says, “is that everybody had a job, and they just fell in line. And they worked it out so that our family didn’t have to worry about anything other than the matter at hand.”

“I thought I understood the ward to the full extent,” Joe says. “I didn’t realize until later. Especially in the visits people made to the house afterwards. You could tell it was a group of people who lived and died by what was happening to the people they loved. It was so good having something to cheer for. Kind of like one mind—a singular purpose. It was something to hope for.”

“In the churches that we grew up in, there was not that cohesiveness of having your ward or church family,” Chris says. “This really does work. This Church really is true—it really does work this way. I really believe that this is the way God intended for things to work. They cried when we cried. They were joyous when we were joyous. They celebrated when we celebrated.”

“Here are all these other families in the ward, despite all that they’ve got going on in their families, they have a sense of priority. A lot of these men left their jobs that day. To leave your job for someone who’s not a member of your family—it’s a whole different way of thinking about relationships and people. It was good for us to see that. They practice what they talk about,” Chris says.

“It’s a community, it’s a congregation, it’s an army, it’s a school. It’s like an organism. It does a lot of good—you can’t deny that.”

Since Chris’s hospital visit in the summer of 2006, she hasn’t experienced any major health problems of her own. She and Joe still, however, take precautions to ensure their children—Brian (14), Jason (13), Megan (11), Stephanie (8), and Carrie (4)—three of which have genetic heart conditions, are healthy. A little over a year ago Brian had an episode of syncope. This caused him to become light-headed and faint and led to his receiving open-heart surgery. The surgery proved to be a blessing in disguise, and Brian is doing better than ever.

Claire Calhoun

Claire Calhoun

Not every family who was in crisis that summer experienced a life-changing event. Mike and Debbie Calhoun’s crisis started long before Alexa’s drowning and went far past the day that Chris and Chandler were released from the hospital.

“When Alexa drowned, Claire was in the hospital. When Chandler had his accident, Claire was in the hospital. When Chris Callans had her heart failure, Claire was in the hospital. I feel like Claire has been this constant theme that has run through these different things,” Debbie says.

Claire was born in 2005 with bone marrow failure. The Calhouns were not aware of her condition; none of the tests and exams before and after Claire’s birth had suggested there could be any problems. One day about six weeks after her birth, she went into respiratory failure and cardiac arrest. When doctors tested her blood level, it was seven times lower than normal. Doctors had never seen anyone with such a low level of blood survive.

For the first year of her life, Claire received blood transfusions every three weeks. Claire was in the hospital receiving blood transfusions during the four-month period when Alexa drowned, Chandler had his accident, and Chris experienced heart failure.

Debbie had taken a meal to the Balkmans in the first few days after Chandler’s accident. It was then that she learned that Susan would appreciate a visit from her. “I was so happy and willing,” she remembers. “That was one thing I could do for somebody else. All these things had been done for us; I would gladly do that for everybody.”

As each tragedy hit from June to October in 2006 and its effects rippled through the ward, ward members were still constant in their support of the Calhouns.

“I never felt that we were dropped off,” Debbie says of the four-month stretch of crisis. “As the difficulties became larger, the ward’s capacity to deal with those issues became larger.”

As Claire’s reactions to the transfusions became more and more violent, doctors looked for another treatment. They decided to try a bone marrow transplant and discovered that Sam, Claire’s older brother, was a perfect match.

Claire underwent treatment for months to rule out possible causes and prepare her body for her bone marrow transplant, which took place on October 12, 2007. Sam, who was only nine at the time, bravely underwent the operation to remove bone marrow from his hip to give to his little sister.

During the time that doctors were preparing Claire for her transplant, the Calhouns needed someone to be home with their sons while Debbie was with Claire and Mike was at work. Chandler, who by this time had his prosthetic leg and was adjusting to using it, had early-release afternoons during his senior year of high school. So he went to the Calhouns’ home two days a week to be home with Braeden and Sam, the Calhouns’ sons, when they returned from school.

“Talk about things coming full circle,” says Debbie. “He was giving back to us.”

The boys had been part of the Primary’s effort to pray for Chandler, and they remembered when he came and spoke to the Primary children and showed them his leg.

“They looked to Chandler as this total hero,” Debbie says.

June 2010 marked the end of two-and-a-half straight years of receiving meals from ward and community members. “It’s a big milestone for us,” Debbie says.

“The support now is friendship,” Debbie says. Debbie’s day-to-day life completely changed when Claire first crashed. Her life was consumed with Claire’s care; for example,  when Claire spent a month in isolation, Debbie stayed with her, never leaving her hospital room. Now Debbie is trying to re-engage in life, and things as small as picking her son up from Scouts and having a conversation with fellow ward members are very meaningful to her. “Experiencing that normalcy is a huge gift,” she says.

As the Calhouns work to introduce Claire into Church life, Debbie has seen the Church in a different light.

“The reality is that the world is not set up for people with special needs. But the Church is,” she says.

Susan Balkman has been Claire’s primary teacher. Because of Claire’s special needs, Susan comes to the Calhouns’ home to teach Claire a lesson and help her learn Primary songs.

Aubrey Jensen worked as one of Claire’s caretakers during the summers when she was home from school. Her involvement with Claire has only strengthened the bond between the Jensens and the Calhouns.

Claire’s bone marrow transplant didn’t solve her problems like the Calhouns had hoped. Claire still has several medical problems that require constant care and medication. However, June 2010 marked a new record for Claire: she has been out of the hospital for 7 months, the longest consecutive run she’d ever spent at home in her five-and-a-half years of life. She is doing well with full-time nursing care to help with the extra attention her condition requires. All things set aside, Claire is a happy, loving girl, who loves to chatter and play with her brothers and dog, Scooby.

“I wouldn’t change the experiences I have,” Debbie says, “because in the worst of times, you see the grace of God, and the absolute goodness of others. At one point, I think we were listed on temple prayer rolls across the United States and a couple different countries in the world. The sacrament was being brought to the hospital by priesthood holders in our ward. They’re just experiences that a lot of people never have the chance of experiencing. And they’re so raw and so tender, but I wouldn’t trade those things for anything.”