Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Day I Saw a Man Die at an Airport


We were sitting in the upstairs terminal at Akron/Canton Airport, waiting for our flight out to Savannah, which was just a few minutes from boarding. "It looks like someone is having a medical issue," my mom murmured.

When I turned around, I saw an older man slumped over in his wheelchair. He was facing away from us, so I couldn't see what was happening, but it seemed clear he was unconscious. Three times, a young woman traveling with him tried to raise his head, & all three times, it fell slack against his chest.

"Somebody help me!" she screamed. "Somebody call 911 now!" By then, a handful of people had gathered around in concern, though none seemed to be medical professionals. A gate agent said she was on the phone with 911, but the airport isn't near a hospital, so paramedics were still far off. Volunteers lifted the man out of his wheelchair & onto the cold tile floor to try to help.

Someone (still not paramedics) brought out a defibrillator & began CPR. The man's face began to turn blue, his bare stomach caving beneath a stranger's hands that pushed so desperately on his rib cage. Nearby, the same young woman - his granddaughter, I think - paced the terminal, crying & wailing: "I just brought him back to Ohio," she said, over & over. "How could this happen?" They had just arrived on a morning flight from Florida.

It was heartbreaking to watch this woman watch her grandfather die, helpless to help him. Behind her, a sea of strangers' faces looked on, sympathetic but unable to do any more than she could. Strangers rubbed her back, bought her water, called her mother - but no one could do anything to save the man dying on the airport floor. The robotic voice coming from the defibrillator counted down the seconds until it was time to shock him again, echoing throughout the terminal as hundreds of people looked on in horror, a life slipping away before our eyes.

More than once I had to turn away from the scene on the floor, welling up with tears as a family's very personal heartbreak played out in public. I couldn't help it - & I wasn't the only one. Others were crying, too, quietly. Perhaps they, like me, were reminded of times in their own lives when strangers stepped in to provide help & support during a moment of tragedy.

I thought of this recent piece in the Washington Post, from a woman who learned of her father's suicide while shopping at a Whole Foods. I remembered the day I learned of my ex-boyfriend's suicide as I walked down Greek Row, of hearing about my grandma's death while I sat inside a seaside Starbucks. I recalled the day in autumn of 2014 when I passed out on a busy sidewalk mid-panic attack, awakening to a swarm of strangers who stopped to help & didn't leave my side until I was loaded into an ambulance. I remembered the day I got off a bus to call for help for an old woman who had fallen - maybe had a stroke - while waiting at a K Street bus stop.

But none of those incidents were quite like this. Nobody died in those moments - & I am almost positive that this man did, right there as we watched.

My flight boarded before the paramedics arrived, but I know - in my bones, I know - that the old man in the wheelchair didn't make it. It had been too long. He had turned too blue. Help was too far away. The sound of his granddaughter's screaming still rings in my ears.

"Ronald," she yelled as volunteers tried to revive him. "Ronald, I'm here!"

We were all there, & I'm sorry for it. Whomever he was, Ronald deserved to die with more dignity than that, shirt up & stomach exposed on the airport floor, surrounded by strangers. And his poor granddaughter deserved to mourn privately, not in front of a terminal full of helpless, horrified onlookers.

May he find in death the peace & solitude he was denied in his dying moments.

As for the rest of us: Go hug someone you love, OK?
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