My Dad’s Heart Attack Saved Our Youngest Sister

You never know the results of changing your plans until later.

Family photo of family with dad in hospital Staselnik, enase | Canva, family photo | Courtesy Of Author

In late December 2004, as my sister sunbathed on the golden sandy beaches of Indonesia, a mighty tsunami of unimaginable proportions was about to hit the area.

2004 Boxing Day Tsunami: Our Dad’s Heart Attack May Have Saved His Youngest DaughterPhoto: Ray Bilcliff / Shutterstock


Two days before Christmas, my 76-year-old father was seriously ill in hospital after a heart attack. I contacted my two sisters, urging them to get the next flight to Canada to be with him. After speaking with my older sister, Jackie, in Holland, I called my younger sister, Hayley, who was backpacking around Southeast Asia.

Hayley had been staying on Ko Lanta, one of Thailand’s most beautiful islands. She had plans to continue traveling throughout Asia. A last-minute invite from a friend to spend Christmas together saw her on a flight to Manila and then on to El Nido on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.


Hayley had been in El Nido a few days and was on her way to a restaurant with friends on Christmas Eve when she got my call and heard about our dad’s heart attack. She managed to get one of the last flights to Manila before Christmas and booked a hotel. At the hotel reception, my sister explained she urgently needed a flight to Canada. The desk clerk told her all the booking offices were closed, but seeing her distress, he said he had a friend who may be able to help.

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The friend took her to the small travel agency where she worked. The office had already closed for the night, but she opened up and booked my sister a flight for the following day. Then she insisted Hayley check out of the hotel, which she considered dangerous, and took her to her apartment. Hayley was grateful but felt overwhelmed to find the flat full of the woman’s family chatting, watching TV, and playing games.

My sister was beside herself with worry about our Dad, and the last thing she felt like was partying with a large group. However, she had no choice but to go with the flow. They took her to the local mall — traditional in the Philippines, and they shopped, ate, and drank. They returned to the apartment around midnight, turned on the karaoke machine, and sang until the early hours.


The kind, friendly people took turns sitting with my sister, asking her what they could do for her, and making her feel loved and protected. About fifteen people stayed overnight in the two-bedroom apartment. They gave my sister the only double bed, and the others spread themselves around and slept on the floor.

The next day, the travel agent’s husband drove Hayley to the airport on his motorbike. She was so grateful for this couple’s help and considers them her angels. She gave him the $100.00 note she always kept in her wallet for travel emergencies and boarded her flight to Canada.

My husband and I drove to the airport on Christmas morning with my older sister Jackie and our two children. Hayley walked into arrivals, wearing beach sandals, looking dazed and distraught. Though exhausted, she insisted we go straight to the hospital.

Dad was happy to have his girls with him, and we tried to keep the atmosphere light despite our fears for his health. I’d decorated Dad’s hospital room with a mini Christmas tree and a photo board with pictures of family and happier times. Our children opened some Christmas gifts, including ones from Granddad.


2004 Boxing Day Tsunami: Our Dad’s Heart Attack May Have Saved His Youngest DaughterPhotos from author | Taken by Warren McCulloch

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On Boxing Day, we awoke to shocking news.

Worldwide, reports were coming in of a major earthquake and tsunami that had hit Indonesia. This would later be described as the worst natural disaster in recorded history.


A 9.1 earthquake — the world’s third largest ever recorded — occurred under the ocean, with the epicenter off the west coast of Sumatra. This quake caused an enormous displacement of ocean water and created a tsunami with mammoth waves. These waves raced across the Indian Ocean, impacting 14 countries, including India, Thailand, Somalia and Indonesia.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the waves in Indonesia’s Aceh province in Northern Sumatra reached 167 feet (51 meters), causing flooding up to three miles (five kilometers) inland.

The average height of the waves was 10 meters. In Banda Aceh, they were over five times higher.

For many, what started as a beautiful sunny day on the beach ended in horror and tragedy. Gigantic waves swept onto the coastline, wrecking everything in their path and causing widespread destruction to coastal communities. In Thailand, paradise beaches turned into visions of destruction. Nothing could withstand the power of the full force of the ocean hitting the coast. Onlookers described the colossal waves as “a black mountain” and “a horrifying wall of water.”


Nearly all victims were taken by surprise, and people near the coastline didn’t stand a chance. At that time, there were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean. The public had not received emergency alerts despite a delay of several hours between the earthquake and tsunami.

Around the globe, people were glued to televisions, watching in horror as the disaster unfolded. Survivors shared heartbreaking footage of appalling destruction. Monstrous waves swallowed people on the beaches, swept away cars and whole villages, and tore children from their parents’ arms.

2004 Boxing Day Tsunami: Our Dad’s Heart Attack May Have Saved His Youngest DaughterPhoto: Frans Delian / Shutterstock


“The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t.” — Christopher Paolini

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A week after the tsunami, I noticed a donation box on the counter of my gym reception with a family photo attached to it. One of the janitors at Fitness World had lost 16 family members.

There are no words for this kind of loss.


The tsunami claimed approximately 230,000 lives and injured hundreds of thousands more. It remains the deadliest natural disaster of the 21st century. Fortunately for our family, Hayley was not among the victims.

Footage captured by tourists on Koh Lanta — where my sister had been staying days before — showed a wall of water swamping the beach. Video taken at another location showed a gigantic wave approaching the shore, lifting a yacht and flooding the beach.

When I asked Hayley to describe her feelings around that time, she said, “I felt horror, shock, the injustice of it all, thankful I wasn’t there but sadness for all those that were.”

Three weeks later, on January 18, 2005, we lost our beloved dad. My sisters and I were with him, holding him gently as he took his last breath. It will always be a comfort to me that the three of us were together and able to support our dad and each other in our grief.


If not for her last-minute change of plans and her flight out of Ko Lanta, my sister would most likely have been on the beach on Boxing Day and may have been a victim of the tsunami.

Our dying father may have unknowingly saved her life.

Life is unpredictable. You never know what will hit you next. It may be a fantastic opportunity or a tragedy. Some people die as a consequence of bad timing. Others, like my sister, have a lucky escape. However, for all of us, life comes with an expiration date, and it’s up to us to choose how we live until that day. We can plan to live a comfortable life or choose an adventurous, risk-taking path. Either way, life may have other ideas for us over which we have no control.


Despite our best intentions and careful preparation, life may suddenly throw a random obstacle in our path, forcing us to change direction. The more resilient we are, the better we will fare. We must learn to adapt, go with the flow, and be open-minded and flexible.

“Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.” — John Wooden.

For each of us, life is a mix of good and bad. However, nothing lasts forever. Challenging times have a beginning and an end. As we survive, they often teach us valuable lessons and strengthen our character in ways we could never have otherwise achieved.

“Life is like the oil within a lamp. It can be measured, but the pace at which it burns depends on how the dial is turned day by day, how bright and fierce the flame. And there is no predicting whether the lamp might be knocked to the ground and shatter, when it could have blazed on a great while longer. Such is the unpredictability of life.” — Margaret Rogerson, Sorcery of Thorns

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Gill McCulloch is a writer, mother, and owner of a Red Cross first aid training agency in BC, Canada. Her articles, poems, and stories have been featured on Medium and in Chicken Soup for the Soul.