Gurbe van der Woude couldn't hold back tears Thursday afternoon as he recounted the story of his unlikely relationship with staff at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center.
The Dutchman and his wife, Feikje Posthumus, were in Boise to visit the people who had cared for them two years earlier when they were vacationing in the western U.S.
"It was so important for us, we wanted to see them again," said, van der Woude, 53.
The couple has stayed in touch via email with hospital staff, including Dr. Lisa Nelson, who invited them to stay with her family during their return visit.
"Some of my friends say, 'Do you invite all your patients to stay with you?'" Nelson told the couple over lunch Thursday.
"This is different. Now we're family," said the physician, 38, whose husband, Tim, is also a doctor.
Van der Woude and Posthumus are from Friesland in the northern Netherlands.
"They say northern people are stubborn and introverted, but we don't think so," said van der Woude, a former newspaper reporter who speaks five languages. He now works for the professional Dutch soccer team Heerenveen.
He seemed to be the picture of health when he traveled to the U.S. on holiday two summers ago - but that quickly changed.
TRAVEL FATIGUE DIDN'T GO AWAY, GOT WORSE
Van der Woude recalled feeling exhausted when they first touched down in the U.S. - at the airport in Seattle - but he chalked it up to the long flight from the Netherlands and anxiety about leaving his two teenagers at home alone for the first time.
He took the wheel of their rental car, and the pair traveled to Montana and down to Yellowstone National Park. While on a hike at Yellowstone, they encountered a couple of bears - but that was the least of their troubles.
Van der Woude wasn't able to keep up with his wife due to increasing weakness and difficulty breathing.
"I felt tension in my chest, and I was hiding it from her," van der Woude recalled Thursday afternoon. "We were on holiday, I can't spoil it. I won't spoil it."
But he began to suspect he was suffering from pneumonia; the symptoms were similar to what he'd experienced before, he said. They continued on their trip to Jackson, Wyo., and then to Boise.
"We were singing in the car," Posthumus recalled of their blissful ignorance of what was slowing her husband down.
Van der Woude's condition got worse in Boise. He suffered chills, more trouble breathing and couldn't sleep. In the middle of the night, he called his physician in the Netherlands.
That morning, he went to the emergency room at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, where he told ER physician Randy Barnes that he thought he had pneumonia.
"He said, 'No. You're looking too healthy,'" van der Woude recalled. X-rays confirmed it wasn't pneumonia, and more tests were done to find the cause.
Barnes delivered the bad news: Van der Woude had pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis - massive blood clots in his lungs and legs.
The couple were blindsided by the life-threatening condition, which required immediate treatment and hospitalization.
"That was quite a big shock, having our kids 5,000 miles away," van der Woude said.
The couple had to decide on two possible treatments, including an aggressive one that carried the risk of bleeding in the brain.
Van der Woude opted for the more aggressive treatment after realizing he could barely walk from his hospital bed to the bathroom.
Dr. Michael Blumhardt administered the clot-busting medication via IV, and ER nurse Michele Gaglianone made sure van der Woude was comfortable during the tense first 24 hours of the treatment. He began to feel a little better each day.
"He was so kind and so appreciative of the nursing and all the people caring for him," Dr. Nelson said. "Our hearts went out to him."
Nelson met the couple's children when they used Skype to talk to the teens in the hospital.
Doctors don't know what caused van der Woude's blood clots.
Clotting risk increases during periods of inactivity when the blood pools in the legs (on lengthy trips). Birth control pills are another known cause of clots.
Researchers have found a genetic link to a blood-clotting disorder. Van der Woude hasn't been tested for the Factor V Leiden gene.
Van der Woude was hospitalized for a week, then discharged so he could return home.
The Saint Al's staff who cared for van der Woude, including Gaglianone, helped the couple get their affairs in order and get out of the country with minimal hassle.
Nelson notified the car rental company in Seattle about the situation. ER nurses Jill and Rob Hart, who had relocated Posthumus to a hotel closer to the hospital, also drove the couple to the airport.
"Rob was there. He said, 'I'm going to help you. No problem,'" van der Woude said. "He talked to the hotel staff. He came every day to my room.
"When you are at such a difficult point in your life, it's important you meet the right people, and we met the right people."
Their airline wasn't as helpful. Van der Woude flew business class, but his wife wasn't allowed to sit with him.
He's doing well now. He exercises regularly, wears compression stockings and takes blood-thinning medication to prevent future clots.
After their stop in Boise, van der Woude and his wife are now headed to Portland and San Francisco.
"Now I have processed. In Holland, we say you get closure," van der Woude said. "This is ending it in a good way."
Blumhardt said van der Woude's "extraordinary return visit" is testimony to his gracious character, and the bond he formed with the medical staff at Saint Al's.
Katy Moeller: 377-6413