BLAINE - On March 6, a Vietnam veteran who was supposed to drive home to Sequim after his appointment at the Veterans Hospital in Seattle took a wrong turn and found himself hours later at the border with Canada.
He lacked a passport. More important, he was thirsty, hungry and out of his medications, leaving him disoriented and full of anxiety. He was in no condition to turn around and drive home.
When U.S. Customs and Border Protection workers called Sherwood Assisted Living in Sequim, where the veteran lives, the administrator, Rena Keith, tried to find a place in Blaine where he could stay until someone could escort him home. Keith called Stafholt Good Samaritan Society, a nursing home near the border, to see if he could stay there.
Rhonda Gray, the nurse manager at Stafholt who lives in Bellingham, was finishing her shift at 9 p.m. when the phone rang.
"I was just walking out the door to go home and I got the call," Gray said.
After Keith explained the situation, Gray contacted her supervisor to see if the veteran could stay at Stafholt. Concerns about liability made that unfeasible, so Gray called Keith back and said she would stay with the veteran at the Peace Arch border station.
Gray had no idea how long it would be before help arrived. It didn't matter.
"I just knew there was somebody in need," she said.
It's not unheard of for people with dementia or other mental health challenges to find themselves in limbo at the border. If family members or other contacts can't be found, border workers try to find an agency, church or community service to intercede.
The Vietnam veteran has no relatives in the region, Gray said, but he had her to keep him company.
"I couldn't believe that she would do that," Keith said. "She was absolutely an angel."
The veteran usually limits his driving to the Sequim area. On March 6, he was supposed to drive to a local stop to catch a van to the hospital in Seattle. Thinking he had missed the van, he drove to Seattle without notifying anyone. He made it to his appointment, but became very lost on the way back.
Gray, who has been a nurse for some three decades, taught nursing at Bellingham Technical College before going to work at Stafholt in September. She has traveled overseas and done missionary work in Cambodia and India, so she felt comfortable spending an open-ended amount of time helping a distraught stranger.
She helped round up water for him to drink and pudding and power bars for him to eat. Mainly, she stayed by his side and encouraged him to share stories from his life, so he wouldn't focus on being lost and upset.
"I just kept reassuring him," she said. "I told him, 'I'm not leaving you.'"
Knowing that the man faced health risks without his medications, Gray found out what prescriptions he takes, so she could inform whomever showed up to take him home. After about two hours, an ambulance service driver arrived. By then, the veteran had calmed down.
"He gave me a hug and told me, 'Thank you for everything,'" Gray said. "A very precious man. My heart went out to him."
The veteran was driven to the state ferry in Edmonds, where he transferred to an ambulance to take him the rest of the way to Sequim. Someone later retrieved his car at the border.
Keith wrote a letter to Stafholt the next day expressing her gratitude for what Gray had done.
"I'm sure that she was tired and ready to go home after a long day of work but put that aside to spend literally hours with a person that she did not even know," Keith wrote.
For her part, Gray said she just did what nurses do.
"It's a godly thing to help others," she said. "I would do it again in a heartbeat."
Reach DEAN KAHN at email@example.com or call 715-2291.