Nick Leibold: Just after 11 a.m. and already the sun was blistering hot in Northern Iowa. Sweat ran down my back as I finished mowing a wide strip of grass between endless rows of corn—an area with drainage too poor for crops.
Not that we’d seen rain lately. The ground was dry and dusty, coating everything with a film of dirt.
Thankfully I was nearly done, just in time for lunch with my wife, Kendra. Normally I’d be inside an air-conditioned cab, but for small jobs I like driving my dad’s 1963 John Deere tractor, pulling a mower behind me.
I’m a fourth-generation farmer, born and raised here, like most of my neighbors. Around these parts no one is a stranger.
I backed the tractor to the edge of the field, close to a post I’d wrapped with old wire fencing taken down years ago. I heard a loud scraping noise, like the mower blades caught on something. I pressed the control to lift the blades—
Out of nowhere, a sharp pain stabbed me in my chest. Hard to get a breath. I had to get off the tractor! But I could barely move. I half-fell, half-stumbled to the ground.
Lying there on my right side, I was helpless. Didn’t have the strength to grab my cell phone from my right pants pocket. How long before Kendra comes looking for me? She was my only hope.
This time of day everyone was working. No one would be driving down our road. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open. The sun beating down on me. “Please hurry,” I whispered. What was the point? There was no one to hear my plea.
Aaron Blatti: “Nick, can you hear me?” My neighbor barely nodded. A circle of blood pooled on his back. Not 15 minutes before, I’d decided to take my antique tractor for a spin.
Normally I go straight at the intersection. But today I’d felt a strange urge to turn left. That’s when I saw Nick lying in the grass. The mower sitting over some rusty old wire fencing nearby. Could a piece of wire have plunged into his back? It looked like he’d been shot.
“We’re going to get you help,” I said. I hit speed dial on my cell phone for the sheriff ’s department. “Nick Leibold’s been hurt bad,” I said. I called my wife to call Kendra. Dear God, please keep Nick alive, at least until his wife can get here.
Minutes later I heard a car coming up the road. A brown van pulled in behind my tractor. The van was spotless, not a speck of dirt on it.
A white-haired man walked toward me. No one I’d ever seen before. A farmer, dressed in jeans and a button-down short-sleeve shirt, his hair neatly trimmed under a ball cap. “Anything I can do?” he asked.
“We are waiting on the ambulance,” I said. “We may need help lifting him.”
The man nodded. “I’ll stand here and block the sun.” I wouldn’t forget the kindness from a complete stranger.
At last Tim Phillips, a volunteer first responder, arrived. He put an oxygen mask over Nick’s face and cut the back of his shirt open, an entry wound barely visible. Kendra pulled up.
“The most important thing is to keep him calm,” Tim told her. But I could see the worry on his face. We were running out of time.
Kendra Leibold: I wasn’t scared. Not at first. Nick didn’t seem to be in pain. There was only a little blood on his back. I crouched next to him and stroked his cheek. “I’m right here, honey,” I said.
The ambulance arrived and the paramedics rushed a backboard to Nick’s side. The men lifted him onto it and then each of us took a corner and carried it to the ambulance. The ambulance pulled away, roaring down the road.
Wow, they’re in a hurry, I thought, my chest suddenly tightening. That can’t be good. I saw the almost-gleaming brown van leaving behind it.
“Did you get that farmer’s name?” Aaron asked.
“No,” I said. “I figured he was a friend of yours.”
Aaron made me promise to call if I needed anything. “We’ll be praying for you and Nick,” he said.
I hopped in the car, the ambulance and the van up ahead, a thick cloud of dust billowing behind them.
At the hospital it seemed like forever before a doctor met with me.
“Your husband has massive internal bleeding,” he said. “He needs major surgery. We’re going to airlift him to the Mayo Clinic.”
An icy chill run down my spine. Nick was dying! The Mayo Clinic was 70 miles away in Minnesota. What if there wasn’t time?
“I’ll let you know when the chopper gets here,” the doctor said. “Until then, we’re doing our best to keep him stable.” He went through the doors, back into the ER. I wanted to see Nick. Had I told him I loved him that morning?
Soon Pastor Kevin arrived with Nick’s dad, Joe, close behind. We waited together. At last the doctor escorted us back to Nick. He was semiconscious, an array of monitors flashing and beeping, IV tubes running from his hand. I touched his arm and kissed him.
“I love you,” I said. Could he even hear me?
“Dear God,” Pastor Kevin prayed. “Help Nick and Kendra feel your comforting presence.”
I tried to feel God beside me, but all I felt was worry.
The chopper arrived for Nick, and Joe and I left for the Mayo Clinic. The drive seemed never ending. Nick seemed someplace unreachable, a world away. I tried to focus on Pastor Kevin’s prayer. God, are you really here with us?
We found the ER and I ran inside while Joe parked the car. It was 1:30 p.m. A nurse took me to a waiting room to speak with a doctor.
“Your husband’s in surgery,” he said. “He went through three bags of plasma on the way here. Good thing the chopper had plasma on board. Not all of them do.”
We sat in the waiting room for hours. I felt helpless. Friends and family drove up to be with us. I appreciated them, but all we could do was pray. It didn’t seem like enough.
It was evening when the surgeon came to the waiting room. I searched his face for any sign of hope, but found none.
“Your husband’s suffered a major trauma,” he said. “We found a small piece of wire lodged in the back of his breastplate. It ruptured a major vein, the vena cava, and went through his heart, liver and diaphragm.
“He’s had a huge amount of internal bleeding. I’m hoping he’ll make it through the night, but you need to prepare yourself…”
I felt faint. The news only seemed to get worse by the hour. Nick needed a miracle, something amazing, like the healing touch of an angel. But what were the chances of that? I needed to be realistic. That’s what the surgeon was telling me.
Aaron Blatti: The next morning I drove down mile after mile of back roads, looking for that brown van. It’d nagged at me ever since I’d come home from Nick’s cornfield. I knew everyone in town, knew the cars they drove. I’d never seen that old farmer or his van.
Besides, how could it not have been covered in dirt like every other car in these parts? I had to get to the bottom of it.
“I think he was an angel,” my wife said plainly. But I was skeptical. Surely, I’d know if there was an angel standing beside me. Still, I’d driven for hours, even stopped and asked folks if they knew of a brown van. No one had the faintest idea what I was talking about.
Kendra Leibold: I pushed Nick in his wheelchair to the hospital chapel. A week and a half had gone by since that first fear-filled night here at the Mayo Clinic. It was only now, after two more marathon surgeries, that I dared believe that Nick was going to live.
Even the doctors were amazed. It was humbling, mind-boggling really. We knew that Nick had months of recovery ahead of him, but I couldn’t wait to thank God for all that had happened.
Aaron arriving in the nick of time. The stranger who had—“Honey,” I said, barely able to contain my excitement. “Do you remember the farmer who stood by you?”
Nick nodded. “He blocked the sun,” he said.
“Maybe he did way more than that,” I said. “Aaron could never track him down. Couldn’t find any proof he existed at all. Aaron’s wife thinks he was an angel sent to watch over you.” Nick looked up at me from his wheelchair and smiled.
Two days later, the doctor cleared Nick to go home. “I can’t explain it,” he said. “But there’s no longer any need for therapy.” It seemed Nick’s angel was still on the job, the comforting presence Pastor Kevin had asked for.
Nick Leibold: Aaron came to visit soon after we returned home. “You’re looking better than the last time I saw you,” he said.
The three of us talked about everything that had happened: Aaron deciding to take a joyride, his sudden urge to go by our fields, the care of the first responder, the helicopter carrying plasma, my miraculous recovery—and of course the unaccounted for stranger.
It was a lot to take in. To think that we’d all been in the presence of a heavenly being, how he’d quietly seen to every detail of my care. Amazing! And yet, like a farmer, he hadn’t drawn attention to himself, happy to give the glory to God, the one who makes all things possible.