Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Warning that this story contains graphic content
Life or Death on a Tuesday
This afternoon, I was driving home from a meeting. One of my daughters and her young children had gone with me, and we were in separate cars on a side street near a freeway, their car about a block ahead of mine. ‘Road Rage Remedy’ on 101.1 FM was broadcasting something Baroque, my favorite, when just in front of me on the street ahead lay a young woman. Her head and neck were cradled by the curb, and the rest of her body was in the street, her legs, as they say, akimbo. People suddenly coming upon her were driving around her. I could see blood on the bottom of her face and in the area of her neck. The instant I saw her just in front of my car in the road was one of those surreal moments, a juxtaposition of events which made so little sense that it almost seemed normal. But this was no commonplace situation, at least not in the world most of us inhabit.
I stopped my car in the right lane of the three-lane road about ten feet from her and turned on my emergency flashers to warn the traffic behind me. Looking down the street, I saw a group of about eight young men talking to one another, pointing in her direction, but not approaching. In retrospect, time then slid into a kind of slo-mo. There seemed to be two or three people between me, the woman, and the group of men, but, oddly, no one was close to her. Yet there was a lot of traffic on the street. It was very strange, like one of those scenes you hear about but can’t believe happen, where people stand by and look on while someone is perishing.
As I stepped up to the woman lying in the street and walked around to the side of her which was away from me to search for the source of the blood, I was stunned to see a gaping gash at the base of her neck which reached from just in front of her ear almost to her windpipe in the front. The wound must have been three inches long and was so deep I couldn’t see the bottom of it, and from it blood pulsed in spurts with each beat of her heart. Calling 911 as I looked, trying to describe our location, I thought that an artery had been cut.
Meanwhile, people began to approach her and try to help, but I can’t remember how many — four or five — or what they looked like. Just behind me, in the middle lane of the road, a family in an SUV paused in the traffic and asked what was needed. “We need something — a cloth of some sort — to stop the flow of blood,” I told them. “I’m afraid she’s going to bleed to death.” Already, her blood had flowed down the side of her neck, onto the pavement, and was inching its way down the hill along the gutter for a distance of two or three feet.
Understanding me instantly, and without hesitating, the mother on the passenger side of the SUV sitting in the middle of rush hour traffic grabbed a sweater of thick velour from beside her and put it in my hands. I turned back to the prostrate young woman and pressed the wad of velour against the wound on her neck, remembering a primary rule of first aid — stop the bleeding with direct pressure when there is no other option, and don’t worry about germs.
I had gotten through to 911, given them our location, and they were calling me back, wanting to know if I’d seen what happened. I heard someone nearby say that the woman had been stabbed. I told 911 that I’d only come upon the scene after the fact. Looking back, I must have come upon it immediately after, which might explain the inaction of some of the people nearby.
Someone else had brought a sweater to press against the wound now, alongside the velour one I was holding to her neck. As I knelt over her, suddenly there appeared kneeling at her head an EMT with ‘Dallas Fire Rescue’ on his shirt. He was so calm and kind. I couldn’t believe he had arrived so quickly, and I thought that someone else must have called 911 before me. I thanked him for coming so fast. He gently pulled the velour jacket away from the wound to look at it, then pressed it back, and asked the woman if she could tell if she had breathed blood into her own lungs, apologizing that he had to ask her to speak. She murmured something softly — I couldn’t tell if it was coherent, and the EMT was unable to understand her. But her eyes, which haunt me still, were staring up at the sky in a sort of uncomprehending disbelief, and I felt that she was hovering somewhere between life and death.
At that moment, a fire truck pulled up behind my car to our right, and an ambulance arrived coming up the wrong side of the boulevard to our left. Calmly, purposefully, a number of uniformed men surrounded the woman. I walked away to give room and asked the driver of the fire truck whether I needed to move my car. “You’re fine there,” he said. “I can’t believe you got here so quickly,” I said again, “Thank you so much.”
I stood by my car as the medical team bent over the woman, stabilizing her for the move into the ambulance. I remember a moment when I noticed her beautiful long, black, wavy hair lying against the pavement under her back, and was struck by the strange combination of the orderliness of her tidy hair contrasting with the blood spattered across her chest and face. The EMTs lifted her onto a board, then onto a stretcher. I got into my car, and waited as they rolled her to the back of the ambulance and loaded her in, turned around and drove away.
“She’s somebody’s daughter,” I thought, feeling oddly numb and detached. Though I knew I was shaken up, I couldn’t feel it yet. I thought of her clean bermuda shorts and t-shirt — ordinary, everyday clothing for a not-at-all ordinary day. The gaping wound in her neck danced in front of my eyes in the profoundest detail, as time after time I watched her life’s blood flow out of her body and onto the street.
I called each of my children as I drove away, and we talked it through — I needed to debrief, I guess. One of them asked, “Will you be able to sleep tonight?” “It’s her eyes more than her injuries that will haunt me,” I told her. “It was as if suddenly her life had come to a standstill, and she simply couldn’t make sense of it at all.” “In shock,” she said.
The word that comes to mind when I think of what happened to this woman today is: vicious. If someone inflicted that wound on her on purpose, they did it with the utmost intent to decimate and destroy.
She was pretty, clean-cut, innocent-looking and utterly bewildered when I came upon her. Again — somebody’s daughter, and, as she looked to be around the age of thirty, quite possibly somebody’s mother. Where was everyone as she lay utterly alone and crippled there on the border between the street and the sidewalk, between life and death? How will they feel when they find out?
Driving to Starbucks, I got something hot to drink, turned off my cell phone, and went to sit on a bench by White Rock Lake. Random thoughts drifted by as I watched a sailboat on the water and a crew of people rowing. “I remember when Queen Anne’s Lace was considered a weed,” I thought to myself as I watched a patch of it blow in the wind, and Lady Bird Johnson flashed through my mind. A red-winged blackbird flew past, and I was thrilled to spot it. What a particularly exquisite afternoon.
A thought uppermost in my mind was that I was overwhelmingly grateful that we live in a country where, with the dialing of three numbers — 911 — heroes can appear out of nowhere and make things better — much, much better — for perfect strangers… with kindness, with calmness, with training, with precision, practicing their art. Today, it seems like a genuine miracle. I sometimes find a lot wrong with our culture, but there is a lot that is very right about it, too.
I felt, I feel, the most certain connection to this woman that I encountered today. I want to find her, go to the hospital and sit by her bedside, hold her hand as she comes back to consciousness, if indeed she does. Although I will in all likelihood never see her again, she is my Sister.