In the four years since his death in a Seattle hospital, the tragic story of Langley City firefighter Ron Dunkley has become a familiar one to many local residents
And now, four years later, it is a story which, for his family, finally comes the closest they will likely ever get to a happy ending.
Dunkley was in the U.S. city in November, 2010 to attend a Seahawks game when, on his way back to his hotel, he stepped between the cars of a stationary train and into the path of a moving locomotive.
He was taken to hospital with catastrophic injuries and died 60 days later, on Jan. 4, 2011.
During the weeks Sandy Dunkley sat at her son’s bedside at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Centre, the songwriter who was then living in Nashville, with her husband Gene, struggled to make sense of it all.
After two long months of ups and downs, of surgeries, amputations and a litany of treatments, of visitors welcomed and songs sung around his bed, her son who fought so hard to live, had passed away.
Sandy still recalls her conversation with Gene as they walked along the hospital corridor that winter day, knowing already that while Ron was gone, his legacy had to live on in one form or another.
“I said, ‘This can’t be the end. He’s only 34, it can’t be over,’” Dunkley recalled.
“We’ve got to do something good. Something good has to come out of this.”
Last August the Ron Dunkley Memorial Society was officially established.
Its motto — One life touches many.
A registered charitable foundation, the RDMS will raise funds for a number of causes — the B.C. Professional Firefighters Burn Fund, Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, Canadian Blood Services (a blood drive has been held in Ron’s name each year since 2011) and University of Washington Medicine among them.
Although the foundation will focus for the most part on charitable causes in B.C., it was important to the Dunkleys to include the UW Foundation because, although they can’t be certain, they believe they have a huge debt to repay.
In 2011, still reeling from the loss of their son, the couple was hit with another blow — this one, financial. During the two months he spent in hospital, Ron’s medical bills had climbed to US $2.7 million.
The doctors, the hospital, the university, the anesthesiologist, all had to be paid.
Dunkley recalls opening a single notice in the amount of $173,000 — due immediately.
Blue Cross would cover the first $1 million, they learned, but had the Dunkleys sold everything they owned, they still couldn’t have covered the balance.
The community had already stepped up with donations to help the couple, who moved back to Langley in the months following Ron’s death.
“I don’t know what would have happened without the memorial fund set up by the firefighters,” said Sandy.
But it wasn’t enough to cover the seemingly endless onslaught of bills.
Desperate, Sandy reached out the doctor who had been in charge of Ron’s treatment.
During the two months her son had been in hospital, his unusual case had been used as a teaching tool for medical students, she reminded him.
“I asked, ‘Is there any chance you could possibly help us? Can you put us on a payment plan? We’ll never pay it off, but we’ll try.
“I haven’t even had time to mourn,” she told the doctor. “My son is gone and the bills keep piling up in the mailbox.”
Then, one day not long after that conversation, as Gene was at the store, trying to buy milk and bread only to have his card declined, Sandy took a phone call from Blue Cross.
“Good news,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “All your bills are paid. You don’t owe a penny, it’s all been taken care of.”
“I fell down on my knees, with the phone in my hand (saying) ‘Thank you, Jesus’ and crying,” said Sandy.
Who had paid the bills, the insurance company was not at liberty to say.
But, of course, the Dunkleys have their suspicions and much of their decision to start a memorial foundation is rooted in their need to pay back at least a portion of that debt.
Led by a board of directors made up of community members, friends and professionals, the foundation will host several events throughout the year. Fundraising began last weekend with the sale of seat cushions during the Rivermen game at LEC.
On Saturday, Nov. 29, from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. the RDMS will host its first event — a burger and brew night at the Langley Twin Rinks Grillhouse, including live music and a silent auction.
Proceeds from the event will go to the Professional Firefighters Burn Fund to help complete a new burn centre in Vancouver.
The following weekend, on Dec. 7, the fourth annual Ron Dunkley Memorial Blood Drive will be held at the City of Langley firehall on 203 Street.
Plans for future events include hosting a gala, a golf tournament and a firefighter cook-off as well as producing a firefighters’ cookbook, said Dunkley.
“By doing this, we’re going to be able to help a lot of people,” she said.
With the establishment of a foundation in his name, Ron’s senseless death is made more bearable by the idea that some good can come from the tragedy, said Dunkley.
“If Ronny’s gone and there’s a reason, this has to be it.”
Editor’s note: The story which appears in Thursday’s print edition of the Langley Times contains incorrect information. The website for the Ron Dunkley Memorial Society is rd-ms.com as it appears here, not rd-mf.com. The Times regrets the error.