Nothing was going to keep Gary Bustance from walking his daughter, Heidi, down the aisle on her wedding day.
He even practiced extra caution during the weeks leading up to the big event by avoiding risky activities.
A tree fell in his yard and he chose not to cut it up—an accident could happen. He bagged a big buck in Wisconsin and chose not to drag the deer out of the woods—no sense risking a heart attack. He wasn’t taking chances. He had to be ready for the big day.
The morning of the ceremony, Dec. 7, 2019, the finish line was in sight.
Until suddenly, it wasn’t.
Despite his best efforts, at 9:30 a.m., Gary slipped walking down a steep hill and seriously injured his right knee.
At the same time, Heidi sat in a chair, getting her hair and makeup done, preparing for a life-changing moment. She remained blissfully unaware that her dad had hurt himself and would require emergency care to enable him to stand, let alone walk her down the aisle that afternoon.
“I went down the hill and I biffed it,” Gary said. “When I went down, I heard it pop. I’m a big guy and I tried not to cry, but that son of a gun hurt!”
Gary and his wife, Tracy, had stopped at Heidi’s Freeport, Michigan, home the morning of the wedding to load her wood stove and walk her dogs.
Tracy had warned Gary about the hill the night before, telling him to walk the longer path down the driveway and around the hill to flatter ground.
But he rushed the morning of the wedding, as his other daughter, Sara, had asked him to pick up “the something new” to help fill the “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” tradition for brides.
Gary, weighing about 300 pounds, fell backward and twisted his leg underneath him as he walked down the hill. He had ruptured his patellar tendon, which connects the shin bone to the knee cap.
“I knew I was screwed,” he said. “I couldn’t lift it, I couldn’t turn it, but I could move my toes.”
Tracy tried to help Gary up, but as Gary said, it was “like trying to pull up a lead anchor.”
They called 911, but because it wasn’t a life-threatening injury, they didn’t expect an ambulance for 45 minutes.
“I was worried, I’m not going to lie,” Gary said. “I wanted to walk her down the aisle. Right then and there I figured I wasn’t going to make it, because I couldn’t walk.”
Here comes the cavalry
After the 911 call, the nearby Freeport Fire Department first responders rushed to the scene.
Word travels fast in a small town, and many of Heidi’s friends are part of the fire department, including neighbor Lani Forbes, who also serves on the Spectrum Health Pennock Hospital board of directors.
Forbes’ daughters were with Heidi at the venue, and after getting word from Lani, they decided to keep Gary’s injury from Heidi so she could enjoy her wedding day and not worry. They took her phone, encouraging her to soak in the day.
“Nobody said a word to me,” Heidi said.
Back at her house, 12 miles north of Hastings, Gary sat on the ground.
Gary’s father and brother went on standby to walk Heidi down the aisle in case he couldn’t make it. “I said, ‘There’s nobody but a Bustance that’s going to walk her down that aisle,’” Gary said.
Forbes arrived and told Gary they would have to wait until the ambulance arrived.
“I said, ‘That ain’t going to happen,’” Gary said. “‘You see that Ford F250 right there? Put my fat rear end in the back of the truck—we have to find out if I’m going to walk her down the aisle.’”
The wedding was at 3:30 p.m., and he was supposed to be there at 2 p.m. for pre-ceremony photographs.
First responders braced his leg and lifted him into his truck.
He told Tracy to put the truck hazard lights on and go. “Get me to the hospital now!” Gary said.
Forbes called ahead and let the hospital staff know they were on the way, and upon arrival at the emergency department entrance, Tracy, a security guard and three nurses moved Gary onto a gurney and into the hospital.
Gary focused on getting to the wedding on time.
“I said, ‘I don’t care how much it costs, do what you need to do just so I can hobble her down the aisle,’” Gary told the emergency department doctor, Amy Poholski, MD.
“My goal was Gary’s goal,” Dr. Poholski said. “We needed to work as a team to get him on his feet—on crutches—to walk his daughter down the aisle. It was one of the most important days of his life and we wanted to help him get to the church on time.”
Gary said everyone stayed positive, assuring him he’d get to the wedding on time.
“Even the nurses gave me reassurance that I was going to be able to walk her,” Gary said. “I thought they were just trying to appease me. They never doubted it. They were always positive, every one of them.”
Still unaware of what was happening with her father, Heidi met her soon-to-be husband, Tony Sewell, at 2 p.m. for pictures, and Tony asked her if she had talked to Gary. Heidi hadn’t and replied, “‘Why, did something happen?’”
Tony then told her about Gary’s injury, but said he’d be OK.
“It was supposed to be our first moment,” Heidi said. “It was pretty intense.”
By this time, Gary had been treated and released from the hospital after the medical team immobilized his leg and gave him pain medication. He would require knee surgery the following week for a patellar tendon repair, but he could make it to the wedding.
Tracy and Gary went home to get dressed for the big day.
They arrived at the venue, with 15 minutes to spare.
When he showed up at the bride’s room and saw Heidi, he felt flooded by emotion.
“I had tears in my eyes,” he said. “So did she.”
“I could tell he was in a lot of pain,” Heidi said. “We had 15 minutes until it was show time.”
And the show goes on.
Gary used one crutch on his right side and balanced himself against Heidi as they walked down the aisle, almost tripping once on the floor runner.
He kissed his daughter and gave her away. He made it.
Later, at the reception, Heidi told her father they didn’t have to do the father-of-the-bride dance.
But Gary wouldn’t think of missing it, and even ditched his crutches for it.
“I said, ‘No. All these years I’ve supported you. I’m going to lean on you and we’re going to make this look good,’” he said.
They danced to the song “I Held Her First” by Heartland.
“We were crying,” she said. “He made it through.”