Sunday, December 7, 2008

Life and Death

(Sunrise over Congressional Cemetery -- 12/07/08)

Last night I had an early dinner at one of my favorite Capitol Hill restaurants. Just as I was finishing my food, another diner starting spitting up and struggling for breath. Shortly thereafter, he was unconscious. The wait staff thought that he was choking, so they simultaneously called 911 and began the Heimlich maneuver. I put one comforting hand on the man's back and another on the shoulder of E, the restaurant owner -- I've known E for years and could tell that he was trying hard not to panic.

The Heimlich attempts were to no avail, but the DC Fire Department paramedics arrived within about 2 minutes of the 911 call. They hooked the guy up to a heart monitor and began to go to work on him right away. He had a faint pulse and his breaths were coming very few and far between. The paramedics first checked his throat for blockages, and apparently he wasn't choking after all. The wait staff and some of their family members, who were dining at the restaurant and who had been keeping the man company, said that the man pointed to his head and was trying to say something but couldn't before he became unconscious. They said that he had arrived at the restaurant drunk and ordered a rum and coke (the wait staff provided coke with no rum) and steak. Apparently the man once frequented all the Mexican/Salvadoran restaurants on the Hill and always arrived alone and already intoxicated and had a history of not paying -- all the other restaurants now refused to serve him. Despite his familiarity to the wait staff, no one knew his name, and he didn't have any formal ID -- just a collection of business cards and handwritten notes.

The man's story was pieced together by the waiters and their family members while the paramedics were cutting the guy's clothes off, hooking him up to the monitor, and performing CPR on him. I have to say, I was impressed by the paramedics -- I had never seen them in action before, and it was something. The whole time I kept trying to send positive energy and calming thoughts to the man, and E and I stood together with our arms around each other's shoulders for emotional support. I was the only non-family member dining at the restaurant at that point, although I've been going there so long that I think they all kind of think of me as family by now -- everyone was holding onto someone else with one arm and clutching his or her own chest with the other. It was really difficult to stand there and watch someone who was going to die without some serious medical intervention.

The paramedics were keeping the man alive, but he was not getting any better, and his heart rate became scarily low whenever they weren't pounding on his chest. After what seemed like forever but was probably only about 4 minutes, the paramedics put the man on a stretcher and took him to an area hospital. E said that he would check on the man today and give me a call, but so far I have heard nothing. I will post again once I get word.

I think that I always appreciate how tenuous our human lives are -- they are impermanent, very brief in the grand scheme of time, and can be whisked away in a moment, sometimes with no warning whatsoever -- but events like last night (which is the first time I've been present for an emergency medical call) put that into an even starker perspective. Last night also has made me think about how silly my obsession with the Sock Puppet Woman is by contrast.

(Amos & Jacob among the tombstones at dawn -- 12/07/08)


Barbara said...

This post does make each of us somewhat ashamed of the things about which we have been obsessing. In the grand scheme of things, only LIFE matters and most of us still have plenty of it.

I needed such a wake-up call and thank you for providing it.

I'm sorry you had to witness this incident, but glad you could be there for the restaurant staff and the man who was struggling between worlds.

And how appropriate that you should end up at your beloved Congressional Cemetery, where apparently nothing has changed in the least despite one man's trauma yesterday.

Merle Sneed said...

It is funny how tragic our problems are until we look the grim reaper in the eyes.

Lane said...

How awful. It certainly puts things in perspective. Once I was standing next to a man in a supermarket, choosing a greetings card and he dropped down (and died right there). It certainly brings home the truth that we just don't know when our time is up, doesn't it.

(but I did think your Sock Puppet Woman conundrum was very interesting. In a perverse way, I think it's good to have that sort of radar. You haven't made a snap judgement of her but you've obviously identified something not quite right and I agree - laughing about it, is the best medicine:-)

Reya Mellicker said...

Wow what a story!

How great that you could sit with all that energy and emergency, and have the presence of mind to send calming energy to that guy. I salute you!

Oh yeah - paramedics? They are true heroes. Amazing people, every one of them.

Now as for the sock puppet, don't you dare denigrate your humanity by thinking that it's silly. It isn't silly. It's powerful. It holds all kind of treasures for you, all that emotion, all those feelings. There are riches in problems like that. Believe me.

Reya Mellicker said...

I am not ashamed of my obsessions. I am fascinated by them, curious about what they're trying to teach me.

Sometimes I'm embarrassed, but not ashamed.

Ulysses said...

I'm going to try to convince you that the very fact that our lives are tenuous and brief is what makes it important to not think anything that moves you as much as the SPW is silly. It's certain you're meant to learn something important from it.

Val said...

thank you for sharing this with us - yes life is so tenuous, but i suppose the challenges are part of the fabric of living too? seems like we cant escape them even though we know how tenuous it all is.
am going to look into the Sock Puppet Woman - sounds intruiging.
beautiful photo