September 2, 2016 was going to be a lovely day. My wife would go to a garden centre in the morning to see if they had any patio furniture in the end-of-season sale. Then drive up into the Cotswolds for lunch, before heading to Stratford-upon-Avon in the evening for a friend's wedding. That was the plan...
Returning to the car after shopping, I felt a sudden stabbing pain in my back near my kidneys and collapsed. My wife, a senior nurse, suspected a kidney stone but as I was drifting in and out of consciousness she called an ambulance while some fellow customers and a first aider from the shop kept an eye on me.
A paramedic arrived and checked me over. He was concerned that my blood pressure was low and felt I needed to get to hospital in Bath, about 20 miles away. There was no ambulance available, so he decided to drive me in his car, with me hanging on to a saline drip with one hand and the door handle with the other.
We got to Bath and I was seen quickly. Time blurred but I remember a doctor sending me for a CT scan. As I came out of the scanner I knew something was seriously wrong. There was a resuscitation team on standby and I was moved from the scanner to the trolley very carefully.
Back in A&E, the doctor told me that I had a 'Triple A' (abdominal aortic aneurysm). In layman's terms, the aorta was leaking and was on the point of rupture. 'It's very serious, Mr Gray. In fact, 50:50. We are transferring you to Southmead Hospital in Bristol for urgent surgery.'
I had enough time to say goodbye to my wife before being placed in an ambulance.
Lying in the back of the ambulance, all I remember is feeling really at peace. I knew I was in God's hands. I wasn't afraid. I was worried for my wife and son. But as for me, I was with God. I gave myself to God, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.
With hindsight this peace and tranquillity was literally a Godsend. I'm sure if I'd been stressed it would not have helped the condition at all.
I remember arriving at Southmead, but after that, nothing. In fact, three weeks went by before I knew anything again. I spent those weeks in the Intensive Care Unit having had several emergency operations. My wife tells me the first 24–72 hours were touch and go.
I woke to find that due to having a deep vein thrombosis, my right leg was paralysed. The blood supply to the nerves was cut off and the nerves severely damaged.
I remained in Southmead until early November before being transferred to a rehabilitation ward at our local cottage hospital. By the end of November, I was back home.
It was only on coming home that I think the enormity of what had happened hit me. Having to be brought into the house in a wheelchair up the ramp now built at the rear of the house had that effect.
Over the next six months or so, I received incredible support from community physiotherapists who got me from being reliant solely on a wheelchair, to walking with a Zimmer frame, to walking with crutches. All the while my wife did the exercises with me and cared for me.
By the autumn I was driving our now adapted car and this gave me a sense of getting back to normal – or at least the new normal. And finally, on January 7, 2018, I started back to active ministry, on a part-time basis, by leading the powerful Methodist Covenant service. My right leg still isn't fully functional but it is vastly improved.
During the first few months at home, two of my frequent visitors were fellow clergy but from different denominations. They both prayed with me and talked with me. And one of them asked me one day, So how are things between you and God?'
It was a very good question. But I was able to answer straight away that things between me and God were fine. I didn't blame God for what had happened, I'd felt God's presence with me from that moment in the ambulance and I was at peace. I also had this real sense of my ministry not being over but looking (inevitably) different.
I realised years ago that God doesn't speak to me directly, but he speaks through other people. He spoke at various times through the two clergy I mentioned. He's spoken through Methodist colleagues. And I've been blessed to have many wise Christian friends who have been beside me over this last 16 months and who have often given me words of encouragement.
And throughout God has sent others to be beside me. There was the Afro Caribbean ward orderly who came into my room one day whistling 'Give thanks with a grateful heart'. There was the physiotherapist who was a Christian. There was the close friend who gave me a holding cross 'for when you ae frightened' (which I was from time to time.)
On coming home from hospital, initially I had to have a bed downstairs. The only place to put it was my study, but that left the question of how I could manage to get to a toilet and sink for washing. One of the occupational therapists who assessed the house before coming home had a bright idea: remove the wall between my study and the downstairs cloak room. Genius!
Now I am back at work, the wall has been restored. But as yet the study isn't back to normal. There are still bookcases to be put back and pictures to hang. One picture that will have pride of place is a beautiful piece of calligraphy that my wife commissioned when I entered ministry. It is Jeremiah 29:11: '"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."'
I will soon look at those words every day and wonder anew what those plans are. But I know that I have hope and a future.
As I mentioned earlier, my first service was the Methodist Covenant Service. I conducted most of the service sitting on a perch seat.
The liturgy contains these words: 'Let us give ourselves to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.'
I'd rather not have gone through these last 16 months. And I certainly wish my family and friends hadn't gone through all the heartache they experienced.
But I can say with certainty, that by giving myself to him, 'trusting in his promises and relying on his grace', I am here to tell the tale.
Rev David Gray is a Methodist minister in Chippenham. His blog is here.