Friends We Don’t Know We Have

Yesterday, my spouse and I were leaving Costco, which meant walking by their Food Court. Neither one of us felt good, and was simply trying to support each other so we made it through the day together. We were talking, so I was not looking when I heard this:

“Sir? Can you help me, please?” I turned to my right and saw the speaker, a white woman approximately 60 years old, sitting on a bench, with a man – presumably her husband – slouched against her. I got the impression she had barely managed to get him to the bench on time.

“Can anyone call 911?!” she shouted.

My phone appeared in my hand and the buttons were punched.

“Please call 911,” she pleaded.

I stepped closer to them, and said as calmly as possible, “It’s done.” I was waiting for an answer.

The man began to slump further, almost sliding off the bench, and the woman was desperately trying to hang on to him. He was bigger than me, but if I grabbed him it might stabilize the situation. I snuggled up close, trying to prop him with one hand while preparing to speak to the 911 operator.

Someone said, “Let’s get him to lay down.”

Just as I heard the words, “911, please state the nature of your emergency,” the man began to slip onto the floor. I handed my phone to my spouse and said, “Handle it.” While they tried to explain what was going on I had my hands full of a big man falling into my embrace, his wife continuing to clutch at him.

“Don’t let him fall!” she cried.

“I’ve got him. No one’s going to fall,” I said, giving him a bear hug and easing him to the floor where he would lay for the next several minutes.

“Grab him by the head!”

“Don’t worry, he’s safe,” I said. Now he was stretched out on the floor, with my hands cradling his head.

The floor of Costco is cold cement. I didn’t know what was happening. Epileptic seizure, diabetic faint, heart attack, stroke? Whatever it was, his head wasn’t going to touch the hard, cold floor on my watch. His eyes were open, frightened. We locked gazes and I smiled in what I hope was a reassuring manner.

A crowd was gathering. Two Costco employees, other well-meaning people, mostly women.

I heard through the hubbub and frantic speech, “Medical . . . can I help?” A woman’s voice.

I looked up. A nice, young, dark woman wearing a hajib. “Yes,” I said. “Are you a doctor?”

“I’m a medical student. Can I help, please?”

The man’s wife and several others were babbling to her and over her, none of it making sense to me. The man gasped, and I looked down. We locked gazes again and he calmed.

Lots of thoughts ran through my head. Mostly, how much medical training has she actually received? One year, two, how much did she know? The answer: A hell of a lot more than I did. I kept the man’s gaze because it seemed to keep him calm and hoped his wife was telling the nice lady what was happening.

Then another voice called from my right. “I’m a paramedic. Let me in.” A white man approximately 60 years old crouched beside me and rested his hand on the man’s chest, gauging something. Heartbeat? Respiration?

“Do you know where you are?” he asked the man on the floor.

And the patient uttered his first words, still looking at me. “Yeth, Cothco.” Slurred speech. His face seemed slack on the left side. A stroke, then.

The paramedic began directing my spouse things to tell 911, who were still on the line.

I found out later that 911 didn’t understand where this Costco was by its major cross streets. They needed a physical address, which we didn’t know. But, one of the employees gathered at the scene dictated the street address, giving time for the paramedic to quickly evaluate the situation and provide more instructions.

“What’s your wife’s name?” the paramedic asked him. The man answered, but I couldn’t understand it. I was too busy just keeping him calm.

Things got quieter suddenly. Not because there wasn’t a lot of activity and people fretting anxious words. No, quieter because this man and I were definitely connecting and it felt like there was only the two of us here now.

I was saying things like, “You’ll be okay.”

He grimaced, uttering a swear word, and said, “Embarrathed. Thorry.”

“Don’t be. These things happen sometimes. We’ve got you. Try to see how many friends you have that you didn’t know about until now. The medical team is on the way. You’ll be fine.”

Someone brandished a blanket, and said, “Here, put this under his head.” And it was so. I no longer needed to cradle his head.

The EMT’s siren could be heard. I’m not sure if it was some kind of walky-talky squawk, or over the store intercom, but someone said, “Direct them to the Food Court immediately.”

“See? They’re here. Rest now. Just lay there and relax. We’ve got you. You’re safe.”

The man closed his eyes and sighed in relief.

The paramedic said, “I’ll stay here until the emergency response team arrives.”

I nodded, and my spouse and I moved out of the way. The wife said, “Thank you so much.”

My spouse acknowledged it by saying, “No problem. Hope he’s okay.”

I was no longer looking at anyone. No, I was looking for someone. Only she wasn’t there anymore. What happened to her? Where had she gone? More importantly, why had she gone?

We left, allowing room for more experienced people to do their jobs. I do not know the woman and her husband, nor even know their names. They don’t know us either. I’m fine with that. Anonymity feels right. We don’t need affirmation of our humanity. I am glad my spouse was there for support and teamwork.

My feelings were – oddly not for the stroke patient – but for that medical student in the hajib who had offered help. The paramedic had arrived a moment later, and she had disappeared. Why? Did someone reject her because of her religion? Her race? Had an older white guy paramedic just taking over cause her to just leave? What was she thinking right now? Was she thinking we didn’t care about her, wouldn’t listen to her, and didn’t want her help? She would be wrong on all those counts, at least on my part.

Then my feelings went to despair. Why was I worrying about her more than the stroke victim? He was getting experienced help. But who was comforting her?

Why was this bothering me?

Answer: Because of the stressful, fearful, and hate ridden climate in this country right now. It was changing me. It was affecting me. I am now hyper concerned for those who might seem “Other.” I had not worried much about that before.

I am not aware of any biases within myself. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It just means I don’t think along those lines and may be unaware of how my surroundings have influenced me.

But I do know this: All of this panicking about these fears is not helping us be better people. It is really getting in the way of our humanity and our acceptance of other humans. And I’m wearied by it.

So, to the nice medical student in the hajib: Thank you. Thank you for caring. Thank you for overcoming your fear. Thank you for just being you. I don’t know you, but I am grateful people like you are around me. You are a friend I didn’t know I had. A friend that none of those at Costco knew they had. Thank you.

Oh, and thank you, strange white man paramedic.

23 November 2016

VA

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