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Injured Mormon senior missionary shares long recovery from Brussels bombing

SHARE Injured Mormon senior missionary shares long recovery from Brussels bombing

SALT LAKE CITY — Richard Norby knew exactly what had happened as soon as the first terrorist bomb exploded. Blasted to the floor of the Brussels airport, frustration gripped the Mormon missionary.

He yelled into the smoke and haze. "We're just here to send a missionary off!"

A second bomb burst, sending large ceiling tiles raining down all around the 66-year-old Utahn. People screamed as they ran past him. He jumped up to join them, to run for safety. He fell on his face.

He tried again. Again he fell on his face. He looked down. His left foot was broken. His left leg was broken. He looked at his hands. He thought they were covered in flaky and stringy black soot. He tried to pull it off. He stopped when he realized it wasn't soot. It was his own burned skin.

Today, Norby believes he had been standing in the kill zone with three other missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on March 22 when a terrorist carted a suitcase bomb close to them at the Delta Air Lines counter and detonated it. Sixteen people died. The four missionaries were among 81 injured.

Norby suffered terrible wounds. Burns over 35 percent of his body. Broken bones. Dozens of shrapnel wounds in his neck, back and legs. He has since battled pneumonia and infections, including mold in a foot wound. For four months, doctors on both sides of the Atlantic fought to save his left leg. The concern was accompanied by a visual reminder. His left calf is missing, so his lower leg looks impossibly fragile.

His ongoing journey of recovery began in the horror of the departure hall on the third floor of the Brussels Zaventem Airport, which Norby now considers a sacred place. The story winds forward with love, faith and patience.

"Our focus isn't terrorism, because we're not terrorized," Norby said in an exclusive interview with the Deseret News. "We're just grateful. The Lord has our hearts. I want others to understand the miracle, and I want others to understand the miracle Pam witnessed."

Shaken, but fine

For Norby, a mission call to the LDS Church's France Paris Mission in France and Belgium was a delight. As a young man, he'd served in the old Franco-Belgian Mission. Now, beginning in August 2015, he was back there, serving with his sweetheart, whom he'd met in a BYU skiing class.

Then terrorists attacked Paris, killing 89 in November.

A week before the March bombing, the Norbys discussed the Book of Mormon prophecies they were reading together. They talked about global turmoil. That morning, Pam walked up behind Richard as he sat at a table preparing a presentation for a mission conference. She put her arms around his neck.

"Do you think our family," she asked him, "is strong enough to not be shaken with anything that can come our way?"

He tapped her hand reassuringly.

"I think we'll be fine," he said.

"And we have been fine," Pam Norby said this week. "Shaken for a moment, but fine. It's one of those defining moments, where we can look back and know that things will be OK with what you know, with the testimony you have."

After they returned to Utah, Richard Norby called his children and grandchildren together to deliver a message.

"It's not God's fault," he said. "We don't blame him. If this is how he in his plan has deemed it, then that's what I want."

He said when people ask him if he is scared, or if he would worry about returning to Belgium, he turns to a Book of Mormon phrase. He wants to act, not be acted upon.

"I'm not a victim," he said. "I'm a survivor. Fear won't stop me from going to Europe or an airport or accepting refugees. If we become more fearful, we're being acted upon. I'm going to live my life, and I'm going to teach my children and grandchildren that we put our trust in God."

Comeback victory

When the Rio Olympics begin, the Norbys will watch for his favorite event, the 4-by-100-meter relay. He likes to daydream that he is running the final 100-meter leg, and his team is behind. In his daydreams, he always comes from behind to win the gold medal.

Last week, Norby reached a milestone. As his wife Pam made breakfast in their apartment near the LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, he called to her and a daughter who was visiting.

"Look what I can do!"

They turned around as he gingerly took the first unassisted steps on his left leg.

"I took three steps," he said this week with a bright, grateful smile. "I stopped to look up and tears were falling down their cheeks."

Earlier that morning, a doctor had told the Norbys he could put weight on the leg, but Pam still was stunned.

"I turned around," she said, "and had a real quick flashback to the very beginning and not knowing the path it would take, and now all of a sudden he was walking. It was a wonderful moment and surprise."

Listen carefully

On March 22, reality for the Norbys was harsh. The bombs exploded at 7:58 a.m. At 8:17, Richard called Pam on his cellphone. His voice was weird. He said her name, and she immediately knew something was wrong.

"Listen carefully," he said. "There's been a bombing. I've been burned on my face and my hands. My leg's broken."

He told her he was OK. He repeated the message twice more, but her anxiety doubled when he said he couldn't see the other three missionaries. He said he needed to go and hung up. She didn't want him to go. She had more questions, but he was gone.

She wouldn't see him for eight hours, and they wouldn't speak for weeks.

Elder Joseph Dresden Empey found Norby and Elder Mason Wells and gave them priesthood blessings. That, Norby said, was the catalyst for his healing. It was the start of his belief that he would be OK with and would accept any outcome.

"I had the most peaceful, comfortable feeling ever, laying there for 45 minutes. I knew I could have died but that I wouldn't. As soon as I called my wife and knew the other missionaries were safe and got a priesthood blessing from Elder Empey, I just sat and waited."

One by one, a half dozen EMTs stopped to check on him. They put a tag on him based on the severity of his injuries. One gave him a blanket because he was shivering with cold. Finally an ambulance took him to a hospital 15 minutes away. As he was wheeled through the hallways, he said, "I was trying to physically reach out and hold people who were hurt, to touch them to let them know it would be all right, even the medical staff and the nurses; I wanted them to know I was so grateful."

War wounds

Meanwhile, Pam and her friends frantically called hospitals to try to find him. The alarm grew. She began to question what he had told her about his condition. She imagined his injuries were worse than he had let on.

He himself hadn't realized it, but she was right. Now, with the perspective of time, she says his injuries are war wounds.

"That's really what this is," she said.

Finally, she tracked him down at a Brussels hospital. He was in surgery when she arrived. A young surgeon sat down to brief her. He said he had pictures of her husband taken before the operation. He wasn't sure she would want to see them.

"It's pretty gruesome," he told her.

The first suicide bomb, detonated by the terrorist Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, pockmarked Richard's head, neck, back and legs with razor-sharp shrapnel. It burned his head and neck, hands and legs. His left fibula broke in two places, and he suffered a broken left heel.

"Some of the penetrations were to the bone," Pam said of the shrapnel. "He had an entry wound on the side of his leg that was just a clear channel to the bone. We think it was from a nail, because they put nails into the bomb. There was always a risk of infection, and if it had gotten into the bone, then..."

To walk again would require a comeback victory.

Different stories

Pam looked at those gruesome photos. She has a deep interest in nursing, and served as the mission nurse in Belgium. Every day she changes the dressings on his wounds. She cleans them and massages them and looks for pieces of shrapnel.

She and Richard experienced his comeback very differently. He spent the first two to three weeks in an induced coma or sleeping or groggy. When he woke up, and after he began to communicate, he didn't believe the pictures Pam showed him were really him.

"Pam had to convince me," he said. "I had a full gauze facemask, because I was burned everywhere. I was hooked up to machines to keep me alive."

The first time he looked in the mirror, he had the same sensation when he saw his shaved head and a scab from the burns.

"I heard this gasp," Pam said to him this week. "We were surprised by your reaction. We thought you looked great compared to what you had been."

He contracted pneumonia. He had infections in his foot. Mold grew in his foot. Just as it looked like he might be released from a Belgian hospital to return to Utah, his fever spiked. Doctors found a jagged piece of shrapnel — Pam referred to it as "barbaric shrapnel" — that had worked its way to a blood vessel and kept slicing it. He had to have eight units of blood that night.

The setback forced them to remain in Brussels another two or three weeks. He flew by air ambulance to Utah on April 16. He was released as a missionary the following day.

Richard is mindful of what his wife went through.

"Pam didn't have any bandages," he said. "She didn't have a hospital stay. But she was wounded. She was involved in a blast of her own, and she has been healed, too."

The miracle

A second suicide bomber, Najim Laachraoui, rushed to push the suitcase bomb on his luggage cart toward people fleeing the first bomb. The suitcase fell off the cart and exploded upward away from the crowd, the Wall Street Journal reported. It destroyed the ceiling, sending large ceiling tiles down on Norby and others.

A third attacker fled without detonating the third bomb, which was twice as powerful as the first two bombs combined. The highly unstable device went undetected for four hours, then exploded as a bomb squad examined it. No one was hurt. A final bomb, at a metro station in Brussels, killed 16 more.

The man who spent more than 30 years in the LDS Church Education System as a seminary teacher, administrator and trainer now uses an Old Testament term to describe the airport. The word "Ebenezer" — a place of remembrance — also appears in the song, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing."

"I don't know why 32 died," Richard Norby said, "and I don't know why 89 died in Paris. I don't know. But I know the Brussels airport is a sacred, holy place, because we were saved there. It's not a place I don't want to return to. It's a place I want to return to, to remember the Lord, and that he saved me there."

He is sifting through pictures and stories to piece together a history of what happened.

"I want to remember this," he said. "I don't want to lose the miracle."

He wakes up each morning, he said, looking forward to simple things like breakfast, and to the vast pleasure of more time with Pam and their children and grandchildren.

"How could it get better than what this is? I just love life.

"I don't really care about this," he added, waving at his injured legs. "I don't care about ISIS. I've never given them the first thought. I'm concerned about the people who were injured. Every time we hear about a disaster, and the disasters are coming just about daily, I know what that feels like, to be in the hospital, to be burned and broken. We're survivors. Not victims.

"So every day's a picnic for me. I could not be happier than I am today."

Next steps

On Friday, Richard Norby woke up early and unloaded the dishwasher for the first time. Then he and Pam visited the University of Utah's Burn Center. He quizzed everyone in the room about their jobs as the physician's assistant, Crystal Webb, pulled dead skin from a pressure ulcer on Richard's left heel. She applied some silver nitrate to the wound to stimulate healing.

Webb assured Pam that an "angry" spot on the top of his left foot was fine.

"That's how scars look as they heal," she said. "They become more red and purple."

Richard praised healthcare assistant Maddi Olsen as she put a fresh dressing and wrap on his left foot and leg.

Norby, a man thick with patience, was delighted when the center's director, Dr. Stephen Morris, stopped by and teased him by saying he'd heard that Norby's patience was growing thin.

Morris encouraged Norby to put weight on his foot. "You guys hang in there," he said. "You're getting better."

Doctors and nurses have scraped away his left calf as the muscle and soft tissue died. Now he can joke about it — "I'm looking for a calf transplant, if you know anyone" — but there was one emotional moment in Brussels when he looked down at his impossibly thin left leg and told Pam he didn't think he could do this.

"It was temporary," he said. "It was coming to grips with what I had to go through. I just had to be patient. I just tried to think, 'I could still be on the floor of the airport terminal.'"

His next goal is to wait patiently for the pressure ulcer to heal. Then he will be fitted for an ankle foot orthotic that will stabilize his calf, ankle and heel and fit inside his shoe so he can better walk around downtown Salt Lake.

Last month, Norby turned 67. He said he doesn't experience any flashbacks or anxiety. He said he has never had any pain. He feels blessed.

"Gosh, it's a good life," he said. "I just can't tell you how good it is."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com