June 20, 2011 8:13 AM
Thomas Vander Woude: Father's Day remembrance
A Father's Day remembrance of a man whose life prepared him to make the ultimate sacrifice for his child:
A Father's Day Lesson About Children, and Life
By Jeffrey Goldberg
Jun 17, 2011
The morning of Sept. 8, 2008, was like most mornings for Thomas S. Vander Woude, a former airline pilot who, in retirement, kept a farm in Nokesville, Virginia. He went to Mass, and then turned to the relentless demands of his 26 acres. By his side was his youngest son, Joseph, known as Josie, who was 20 at the time, and who had Down syndrome. Josie's six older brothers had long ago moved out of the house, but Josie was his father's inseparable companion.
While Thomas was working, Josie was off in a different part of the yard when a broken septic-tank cover gave way under his feet, and he slid in. Vander Woude, from a distance, saw his son fall. He understood right away that Josie was in mortal danger. The tank was 8 feet deep, and filled almost to the top with waste.
Vander Woude rushed to the hole, which measured 2 square feet. He reached down to grab his panicked son, but without success. A workman at the house saw what was happening and told Vander Woude's wife, Mary Ellen, who called emergency services. The workman and Mary Ellen rushed outside to help. By then, Vander Woude had lowered himself into the tank. He treaded in the sewage in an attempt to keep Josie's head above the water line, but Josie was still sinking.
A Deliberate Decision
So Thomas Vander Woude made a decision: He would hold his breath, dive under the sewage, and lift Josie onto his shoulders. When rescuers finally arrived, they pulled Josie out of the tank; he was alive. But Vander Woude, 66 years old, was dead.
He had made the deliberate decision to risk drowning in sewage in order to save the life of his child.
For a while, it wasn't clear that Josie would survive, either. He was in a coma, on a ventilator, suffering from double pneumonia. But he lived. His oldest brother, who is also named Thomas, told me that the physicians treating Josie were stunned to see a person survive 20 minutes in a septic tank. "It is one of the many miracles we have experienced," he said.
I first read about Thomas Vander Woude's death in the Washington Post soon after he died, but this is the sort of story that stays with you. The hellishness of his final moments gives the story a kind of ghastly power. But there is also something opposite: an intimation of nobility, and a lesson about living.
Prism of Fatherhood
I understood the story of Vander Woude's death through the prism of fatherhood. I tell myself, as I imagine most fathers do, that I would make any sacrifice, suffer any hardship or humiliation or pain, for my children. If a physician told me that one of them, God forbid, was seriously ill, and needed a new heart to live, I would offer mine without hesitation. I believe that every father I know would do the same. But, of course, most fathers never have to face a moment when they must choose between their lives and those of their children. If I were to face such a test, I believe I would pass, but perhaps I'm just flattering myself.
Another question arises from the story of Thomas Vander Woude, one which has to do not with his death, but with his life: How did he become the sort of man who could devise a plan to save his drowning son, and then carry out that plan, knowing all the while that it might mean his own death?
Read more at Bloomberg
From the September 10, 2008 Washington Post: