Before Michelle Davis said goodbye to her 17-year-old son, Nathan, she tried to convince him to stay home. She’d didn’t like his bull riding, but until this moment, she had never asked Nathan not to ride. The mother of five had been hesitant to discourage her son because she was afraid that he would want to ride all the more.
For a moment, it looked like Nathan might listen to her, but then Michelle saw the look of resolve on his face.
On that warm summer’s day in August of 2014, at the Gratiot County Fair, in Alma, Michigan, Michelle and Tim watched their son struggling to keep his balance as an angry, 1,500-pound bull named Vegas leaped and twisted his body. Vegas was determined to unload his rider in a hurry.
Michelle remembers what happened next in slow motion. “As Vegas’s hind legs shot up one more time, Nate fell. Still, in midair, Vegas took his final revenge and drove his left hind hoof into Nathan’s abdomen. In a fraction of a second, before I could fully comprehend what was happening, a cloud of brown dust swirled around them as the full weight of Vegas’s hoof slammed Nate onto the ground.”
“Please don’t be hurt,” Michelle whispered to herself in a panic.
No one imagined the extent of the damage
Tim reassured Michelle by telling her that Nate would be OK because the rodeo clowns got him up, and he was able to walk off the field.
Michelle and her husband rushed to find their son. When she saw Nathan lying on a stretcher, he grabbed her hand and said, “I’m OK Mom. I’m OK.” Looking her son over, Michelle didn’t see any blood, which was reassuring. Her relief quickly dissolved as saw the color leave Nathan’s face, and she noticed that he was sweating profusely.
The last thing Michelle heard her son say was, “Everything is black! I can’t see anything!”
On this day, there was an advanced life support ambulance at the fair, which was unusual. A seasoned paramedic, who was a friend of the family, was also at the fair. On the way to the hospital, only a few minutes’ drive, Michelle held her son’s hand while pleading with him, “Please don’t leave me!”
‘Three Very Beautiful Prayers’
While doctors were desperately trying to determine the extent of Nathan’s injuries, he stopped breathing, and they had to intubate him. Michelle realized that her son needed miraculous intervention. She called her mom, crying, “Nate’s hurt. It’s bad. I need you to pull out the Three Very Beautiful Prayers and say them. … I do not have the Pieta Prayer Book with me. They need to be said right now! Please mom.”
The Three Very Beautiful Prayers are prayers for the dying. Legend says that a sinful pope was dying and assumed that he would face damnation but was saved by these prayers that implore God’s mercy.
Bleeding to death
Nathan was bleeding so much that doctors performed emergency surgery to stabilize him enough for an airlift to a level one trauma center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While in the emergency room, Nathan received 12 units of packed red blood cells, five units of fresh plasma, and five packs of platelets.
When Nathan was considered safe enough to fly, the trauma nurse came out to tell the Davises, “We are going to load Nate into the helicopter now. Come and see him before he goes. Whatever you want to say to him, you will have to do it quickly while they are wheeling him down the hall. You must hurry.”
Michelle asked the nurse, “Is he going to survive the trip?” Her question hung in the air.
Michelle realized that no one expected her son to live.
Despite the looming darkness, Michelle clung to her faith noticing that her husband, Tim, had taped her blessed Fatima medal on the bottom on Nathan’s foot. She told herself, “Mary will intercede for me and plead before the throne of God to spare him,” she writes in her memoir.
Hard words to hear
At the hospital, family and friends prayed fervently and waited for news about whether Nathan would live. When the surgeon finally came out to speak to them, he told them that the bull had nearly severed Nathan’s liver into two pieces and the only way he could stop the bleeding was to hold it together with his hands. A transplant was not an option because there wasn’t one available.
Doctors had one last procedure to try; they would block the blood supply to the severed part of the liver, pack his stomach, and put temporary stitches in his abdomen. The procedure appeared to be working, but Nathan’s prognosis was still grim.
Less than 5 percent
The next morning after the accident, one of Nathan’s doctors — amazed that the bull rider was still alive — told Michelle and Tim, “He is only alive because God does not want him right now.”
Just the day before, his doctors estimated that Nathan had less than a 5 percent chance of surviving.
“I am convinced that having so many people prayerfully storm the gates of heaven changed the outcome,” Michelle writes. “Over the course of the first two weeks, we would find out churches and groups of people in 20 states and eight different countries were praying for Nathan.”
Michelle’s Fatima medal never left Nathan’s side during his ordeal in the hospital. Until that day of the accident, she had never worn the medal — a gift from a friend who traveled to apparition’s site — fearing that she might lose it. Before leaving for the fair, something had compelled her to run and get it.
Michelle says that she could feel Our Lady’s presence as Nathan fought for his life in the hospital.
A different Nathan
During the next 30 days nearly 19 gallons of blood were needed to keep Nathan alive; he endured close-call complications, setbacks, and extreme weight loss. One of the side effects of the tremendous bleeding he experienced was a condition called abdominal compartmental syndrome, which caused a pinched nerve in both of his legs. As a result, Nathan suffered unbearable leg pain and had to learn to walk again. To this day, he occasionally has shooting pains in his legs, and he does not have a full range of motion in his left foot. Otherwise, he’s healthy.
He told Catholic Digest, “I am able to go to work and do almost anything, including weightlifting at the gym a few times a week.”
The real change for this former bull rider — who wears his mom’s Fatima medal around his neck — was a spiritual transformation. Before the accident, he felt himself drifting away from the faith.
“Since the accident, I no longer take my family and faith for granted,” said Nathan, who works and attends college. “I will never be the same. Now I always think about God and life has more meaning.”
The tragedy also transformed Michelle. She has become more peaceful and trusting. She told Catholic Digest, “I know, now, that God is always in control, and I am more tuned in to that fact. I realize that I may not see or understand the outcome of a situation, but I believe that everything that happens — good or bad — is allowed for God’s glory.”
Michelle says she never really understood the virtue of hope: “One of the most profound blessings of all was finding hope on a bull named Vegas,” she writes. “It was only then that we learned how to completely trust in Divine Providence.”