There was never a shortage of visitors to Ron Dunkley’s bedside at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.
His parents, siblings and his brothers from the Langley City fire department were there talking to him, laughing, keeping his spirits alive as medical staff fought to save his life.
In a room down the corridor, lay another firefighter. Her name was Heidi.
Badly burned on the job, she lay on her bed, her body encased in a special rubber suit. Tiny holes had been cut out for her eyes and mouth.
At first, she didn’t have many visitors.
Sandy and Gene Dunkley rarely left their son’s side. But when his buddies visited from Langley, or Ron was having one of the 40 operations, they often walked down the hall to Heidi’s room. They talked to her and prayed for her. Then firefighters who came to visit Ron, dropped by Heidi’s room. Her visitors signed a book, adding words of encouragement. Heidi was unresponsive; no one knew if she could hear a word or even knew that they were there.
In November, 2010, Ron had gone to Seattle with a handful of colleagues from the fire hall for a Seahawks game on Nov. 7. The evening before, he had hailed a taxi to drive him, alone, to the group’s hotel. It must have been a hellish drive: His parents say it must have been for Ron to make a desperate 911 call, describing the driver as “a lunatic.”
Nobody knows whether he was dropped off, or jumped out of the moving cab to escape the lunatic behind the wheel, and was already injured as he climbed between two cars of a stationary train. He did not see another train approaching, and was hit and then dragged several metres.
He suffered two broken legs and massive internal injuries. The following weeks would take him and his family through peaks and valleys of hope and despair, until finally, on Jan. 4, he died of a blood infection.
Today, his Brookswood home is very much as it was when he left it.
His parents, who had moved from Langley to Nashville so that Sandy could pursue her career as a country music writer, put their house on the market and moved into Ron’s, making their son’s passion for the Denver Broncos and baseball a focal point of their home.
Despite their sorrow and the suffocating burden of Ron’s extensive medical bills, they are finding comfort in the goodness that has come from his death.
Weeks after he died, Heidi called out of the blue.
She told the Dunkleys that every night when her husband came to visit her, he would read the comments that the firefighters had written in the visitors’ book which lay at her bedside table.
Heidi never got to see Ron, and was sad to learn that he had died. She had hoped to meet him.
She thanked the Dunkleys for all the wonderful people who had come into her room.
Heidi told the couple how their words of encouragement and presence had given her the strength and determination to hang on.
For Sandy and Gene, it shows that their son has left a legacy of kindness and they became determined to ensure that all the money raised in Ron’s memory is well spent, and that only good will come from his death.
At a blood donor clinic held last November, close to the anniversary of the accident, the Canadian Blood Services were able to draw 93 units of blood that will mean many lives saved or altered for the good.
At first, threatening to overshadow Ron’s death and interfere with his family’s grieving were the mounting bills from Harborview Medical Center. Ron’s own insurance covered less than half of the $2.4 million. Then the family learned that the bulk of the balance had been “mysteriously taken care of,” Sandy Dunkley said.
Months after Ron’s death, Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn contacted the Dunkleys with important information that related to Ron’s wild ride with the “lunatic” cab driver he had flagged down. Seattle, McGinn told them, had just implemented a new policy aimed at improving public safety in the entertainment district by adding five more taxi stands so that people can enjoy the city nightlife and get home safely.
Ron Dunkley’s legacy lives on, inspiring his family and friends to ensure that there will be a steady stream of benevolence. Fundraising will benefit Harborview Medical Center, associations that represent firefighters and ambulance paramedics in Seattle, and the children’s burn unit at Vancouver General Hospital.
Langley City firefighters have launched an annual scholarship of $500 for a student at H.D. Stafford Middle School who plans a career in the emergency service.
The Dunkleys have started their own scholarship for a student at Langley Secondary. Ron attended both schools.
“He loved the City and the people who live in it,” Gene said.
“He wanted to be on City council,” Sandy said. “And maybe the mayor one day. That was his dream.”
The couple describe their son as a star athlete who was affectionate, spontaneous and very funny.
“He was lots of fun,” his father said. “He was absolutely polite,” a quality which neighbours observed with pleasure as they watched him grow up.
Their son was also a hero. He was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Bravery for jumping into the swollen Nicomekl River to rescue a woman. It was a dangerous operation for the firefighter, who was off duty when he came across the panicked pair.
“It’s my job,” he explained to his family. His colleagues helped to pull a child, who had been with the woman, safely out of the water.
Among the hundreds of messages of condolences Ron’s family received on the day of his funeral, was this from a friend: “To have known Ron is an honour. I’m humbled and proud to celebrate his life with you today.”
Natasha JONES/Langley Times
Gene and Sandy Dunkley have made their home in the Langley City house where their son Ron lived until his death in January, 2011.