Almost 2 months ago on Labor Day (09/02/19), a dive boat vessel was anchored for the night close to the coast of the Channel Islands of Santa Barbara. It was in the early morning while its 33 passengers and 6 crew members slept that this dive boat caught fire which completely destroyed the boat, killing 34 individuals who were trapped and unable to escape. Of the 34 individuals who perished, 33 were passengers and 1 was a crew member. Five of those passengers were my friends: Michael Quitasol and Fernisa Sison, who were two of my VERY BEST friends, and Michael’s three daughters, EvanMichel, Nicole, and Angela. This dive boat was The Conception.
Later that morning, around 0830, I began to receive text messages and telephone calls from my friend who did not want me to find out from social media that our friends were missing and that it was 99% certain that they were all on the boat. At first I did not comprehend what she was telling me as I do not watch television or the news. When what she was telling me finally set in, the devastation of the news hit me quite hard. My friends … my LONG time friends were forever gone. It was very difficult and heartbreaking for me to accept that I would never again see them or talk to them.
It seemed unbelievable, completely unreal. I had just seen Michael on the Wednesday prior to them leaving on their annual diving trip to Santa Barbara to celebrate Michael’s birthday over Labor Day weekend. Looking back, our last conversation seemed eerily ominous of something to come.
That Wednesday before, I was covering a break for a co-worker and as I was settling a patient in, we talked about life and how short it was. We talked about bucket lists and what was on mine, what I had ticked off of it, and then I asked him what was on his. He spoke of traveling and of diving. Upon hearing this, I immediately think of Michael and begin telling my patient about him, how he was the main reason I became an ER Nurse, how he travels and dives all over the world … And upon saying that, in walks Michael Quitasol himself! Talk about synchronicity! I tell him what my patient and I are talking about, Mike critiques my IV start and tells my patient that he taught me how to start a good IV, and they talk traveling and diving as I head to the nurse’s station to chart. When their conversation is over, Michael comes over to talk to me for a few minutes and I walk with him a little ways as he leaves the department. Our conversation went like this:
Me: “I won’t see you on your birthday next week. I hope that you have a good one, and that you enjoy your trip. I love you and I’ll see you later.”
Michael: (rolling his eyes and smirking) “Yah, see you later.”
And that was it. It was ominous in that I never – NEVER – have told MQ that I loved him. I also know that “Yah, see you later” translates to how MQ conveys his love for me. In our over 20 year friendship, MQ and I had never told each other that we loved each other, but we knew, we had an unspoken understanding. So for me to tell him that I loved him, for that to “slip” out of my mouth … I didn’t know how ominous, how important it would be, or how glad I would be to have verbalized it.
And Fern … I saw Fern about two weeks before this whole ordeal. I had asked her to attend a chakra painting and sound bath workshop with me. We had a great time, talking, painting, and then relaxing to the sound bath. Her sister, Felisa, had just passed the December before, so it was important for me to get Fern to go out. Fern hadn’t gotten over the death of her sister yet. She had a lot of guilt, regret, and unresolved feelings. I was thankful for the time spent with her that day. Fern knew that I loved her dearly and I never left her without telling her so.
I question at times, “Why?” I know that asking that question is pointless as it won’t bring them back, nor will it change anything. I don’t know what else to say about that. I’m human and humans want answers sometimes.
Please know that this is NOT the first time that Michael and Fern and their family had been on this boat. They had sailed on and dived off this boat every year on labor day weekend to celebrate Michael’s birthday for several years now. Michael and his daughters, Fern and her children were all scuba certified.
From the moment the news hit, I received a barrage of telephone calls and texts messages. It seemed somewhat crazy for me to have people ask me if I was okay. At first I didn’t understand, but people knew that I was close to Michael. They knew I was close to Fern also, but I was closest to Michael. He was truly one of the best friends that I have ever had. He did so much for me. He raised me as a nurse, always guiding me and supporting me. He was so much like my dad, but he corrected me that it was more like a brother/sister relationship that we had. I truly loved him. I loved both to them.
In the weeks following, as I grieved the loss of my friends, I felt lost and asked what could I do knowing that there was really nothing that I could do for anyone. Out of the blue I was asked by the Director Of Nurses, Dr. Anitra Williams, where I worked occasionally and where I first met Michael if I would write a memorial speech for him. How could I say no? Of course I would do that for him. Seriously, of course I would as it was truly an honor.
The following is the speech that I wrote for the Celebration of Life for Michael, Fern, EvanMichel, Nicole, and Angela. I wrote it immediately after being asked to deliver it, and only made minor tweaks to it.
Good Morning …
My name is Rowena Wallen, but most of you know me as Row.
When Anitra first asked me to do this, I hesitated for a moment. Only a short moment though before I told her that of course I would do it.
I hesitated NOT because I didn’t want to do it, but because it’s NOT supposed to be this way, right? I hesitated because I didn’t want to get up here and talk about my friends in past tense. I never want to talk about my friends, people that I admire and love, in the past tense. But this isn’t about me. I’ll do it because I love them, and because I would do anything for them.
I don’t even know where to begin.
I guess I’ll start by telling you how I became an ER Nurse.
More than 20 years ago, when I was still trying to find my way, still trying to find my place as a nurse, I had been mandated to float down to the Emergency Department from the ICU. I didn’t want to go. I heard ALL the stories about the ER – how crazy the nurses were and how busy and unorganized the department was – and I knew that it wasn’t the place for me, but I really wasn’t given a choice, so off I went. Let me tell you, I was TOTALLY out of my comfort zone and scared out of my mind – kind of like how I am feeling right now – but the difference between then and now is that I was fortunate enough to have floated down to the ER on a night when my friend Fern was working, and on a night when someone named Michael Quitasol was in charge.
That was the very first night that I had ever met Michael. I didn’t know anything about him, nor did I know what to make of him. He scared me. He appeared to me as this very intimidating force as he gave me my assignment, showed me the lay of the land, and told me what was expected of me as I worked down there in HIS department.
Now, you know that the ER is a scary place when you’re a patient, but it’s an even scarier place when you’re a nurse totally out of your element! Somehow, I survived and got through that shift, but I seriously had NO intentions of floating down there ever again!
The Universe had other plans for me, though. Have you ever heard that saying, “What you resist, will persist?” What ended up happening for me was that I was floated down there to the ER more times than I can remember because of various reasons (mostly because my co-workers in the ICU didn’t want to go, and I volunteered to go in their place). Eventually, it got to where I didn’t mind working there because I got to work with my friend, Fern, I got to know the regular crew that worked there, and I got to know Michael better every time.
On more than one occasion, Michael would ask me if I ever thought of becoming an ER Nurse and transferring to permanently work full-time in the ER. I’d laugh nervously and say, “Uh … yeah … NO!” I knew that he was serious though when he actually sat down and had a serious conversation with me telling me that I had the qualities to be a good ER Nurse and that I really should consider it. I wasn’t convinced that what he was telling me was true. I thought maybe he was feeding me a line because he wanted to fill a hole in his staffing. You know how that is. But you all know how this story goes … He was sincere, and wore me down eventually and the rest is history still unfolding.
That was over 20 years ago, but I still remember it as if it were yesterday.
I don’t know what Michael saw in me. I certainly didn’t see myself as “ER Nurse material.” I felt like I was this small, timid nurse in a whole different world, but he somehow was able to get me to SEE and, more importantly, to BELIEVE that I had what it took, that I could do it, and that I would be really good at it. He believed in me and in my possibility when I couldn’t see it yet. He promised me that he would teach me, guide me, lead me, and he NEVER let me down. He was my mentor, my teacher, and, in time, he became one of the very best friends that I could ever ask for and that I have ever been blessed with.
Michael was a catalyst for me, playing a HUGE part in shaping me into the nurse that I am today. I could always count on him to have my back. I knew that I could call on him at any time, day or night. It got to where we could be in the same room together and I knew what he was thinking before he even said anything. I have learned so much from him over the years … I wasn’t finished learning from him. He possessed so much knowledge with so many life lessons enmeshed within his teachings … It was incredible. HE was incredible.
As I look out into this audience, I know I am not the only one who can say this. There are so many of you – Doctors, Nurses, EMTs, Medics, Techs, and even Patients – whose lives and careers have been made better because of Michael. He guided so many of us, saved so many lives, and he always worked to instill excellence in the healthcare and nursing fields, and in the process he became a great friend to many of us.
I could go on and on and on. I have so many memories. So many stories. So many lessons learned. So many inside jokes shared between Michael and I.
Michael had some incredible strengths and expertise when it came to healthcare and nursing. He possessed so many skills and talents that were so valuable that he shared with us SO generously and SO often, and because he did this we ALL won.
I know that I haven’t said much about Fern or The Girls – Evan, Nicole, and Angela. I was asked to write about Michael, but I could not in good conscience conclude without acknowledging them. I am so thankful to have known Evan, Nicole, and Angela. The Q girls were Michael’s life. He worked so very hard for them and they, too, turned out to be some incredible people! Christina, my heart goes out to you.
And Fern … Oh my gosh, I can’t tell you how much I loved her and how much she meant to me. Fern was the very first friend that I made when I started working at St. Joseph’s Hospital. She was my friend, my soul sister, along with her twin, Felisa. She had a huge heart full of love for her family, especially for her children, Dominic and Nisa, and Vanessa, and her grandchildren, Aria and Keanu, and also for Michael and all of his girls. They were her life. She had such a passion and zest for life, and for her career as a Nurse. She was kind to me and my family, and I know she loved me. She taught me so much, not just about Nursing, but about everything. She possessed beauty, grace, intelligence, love and so much more. I’m really going to miss her.
It has been a priviledge and honor to have been part of their lives. I am incredibly grateful for their presence in my life, for everything that they have done for me, and for how they have impacted my life for the better. I cannot tell you how much I will miss them.
Let us all remember that their lives – Michael’s, Fern’s, Evan’s, Nicole’s, and Angela’s – have made a difference to so many of us. Let’s remember that they were here, that they meant something, and that they mattered.
It is my intent to keep their legacies alive, to keep their memories alive. Tell each other your stories of Michael, Fern, Evan, Nicole, and Angela. If they taught you something, teach it to others. This way we can be sure that they will ALWAYS be remembered and continue to live on.
So to my friends … Rest easy. I love you dearly. I’ll miss you always. I’ll remember you always. I’ll be grateful for you always.