Melanie Sarra Hanson ’77 grew up on a farm in Kansas and followed her mother and older sisters’ footsteps to Ottawa University. While at OU, former OU President Dr. Hal Germer was her advisor. He recalls faculty discussing characteristics of ideal students—capable, motivated, bright and smart. “A few students were all that and more. They continued to ask thoughtful questions, were immersed in additional reading and reflection and did not stop just because the course ended. That’s how I remember Melanie Hanson.”
Hanson went on to attend Harvard University, where she studied human development. While at both institutions, she was challenged and haunted by this question: “What is the fullness of a human person and how does he or she become it?” An outing to Kansas City on July 17, 1981, answered that question in a very unlikely way.
Tragically, that night 114 people lost their lives when the fourth floor walkway of the Hyatt Regency Hotel collapsed into the second story walkway directly beneath it, and then crashed into the lobby below. Victims were crushed and water pipes burst, threatening to drown those trapped inside the hotel.
Hanson wrote an account of the walkway collapse for the Greek Orthodox Church. In it, she explains that she and her sister, Rachael, were both injured when the walkways collapsed. Rachael Hanson was pulled from the rubble with non-life threatening injuries. Melanie Hanson, on the other hand, says, “All I remember is an image of Rachael’s face, that maybe I looked at her and saw alarm on her face before I was crushed. My face was now between my knees; my legs were straight out in front of me on the floor, and I was crushed into them, bent double. The pain was terrible. I became aware of breathing and all the breaths were heavy, gasping moans when I exhaled.”
She remained in that position until a heroic rescuer carried her to safety and held her until help arrived – a rescuer for whom she never had a name and whose face she could never remember, though she often tried.
Hanson’s prognosis included a broken back, paralysis and a certainty that she would never walk again. The prognosis did not take into account the possibility of a miracle, however, and after three months in the hospital, she was released wearing nothing more than a brace, which she wore for a few more months before taking her first steps without help.
When Hanson returned to Harvard, she began to explore the Greek Orthodox Church. “Growing up on a Kansas farm, there was no question if there was a God,” says Hanson. “God was very clear to me. The questions I had, the Orthodox Church helped answer. They knew about prayer. I wanted to know how to be with Him, how to commune with Him.” She embraced her newly-discovered denomination as a way of life after recovering from her injuries.
At some point following that decision, Hanson received a seemingly benign photograph from a spiritual leader in her church. The picture bothered Hanson because the man in it looked so familiar to her, but she could not place his face. “Then one night I remembered the question that I had always asked myself from the time of the accident as to why I couldn’t remember the man’s face who saved and held me the night of the accident, and especially his eyes. It seems that suddenly that question, and the question of why the man in the photo looked so familiar, met and answered each other forever. They were one and the same person.”
The man was Archimandrite Aimilianos, the former abbot of the Monastery of Simonos Petras on Mount Athos in Greece and the founder of the Convent of the Annunciation of the Mother of God in Ormylia, Greece. Hanson realized that God had sent Aimilianos to save her from death that day. She left her life in the United States and moved to the Holy Monastery of the Twelve Apostles in Karditsa, Greece, to join the order.
What is the fullness of a human person? For Melanie Hanson, God’s plan of fullness worked a miracle in the depths of tragedy and took a Kansas farm girl to the other side of the world for a life of service, peace and devotion as Sister Aemeliani.
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