In Junior High and High school there were extra-curricular activities and after-school classes that earned students extra credits toward commencement. The classes varied from Vocal Choral, to Basket Weaving and Macramé to miscellaneous sports activities. I wasn’t interested in any of those. I was always interested in the same set of classes: First Aid. Not only did you learn how to save lives, but you got to watch thoroughly graphic movies. I have already told you that I do not enjoy horror films and it’s true. The difference between the blood and gore of a crazed axe murderer in the movies and the blood and gore of a lumberjack slashing himself with an axe in the forest is motivation and intent. The motivations of an axe murderer are somewhat different than those of a lumberjack with an axe. It’s a small difference, I grant you but a significant one. By the time I graduated from High School, I had held my Senior Life Saving Card for five years.
In 1979, Bill Judd, of The Shining double date fame, invited me to come and live with him in Portland, Oregon while I looked for a job. Bill was the manager of a local Thom McAnn shoe store and told me that he could wangle an interview for me, based on my experience as the administrator of the concession stand and bookstore at Camp Tadmor. So, I showed up at his door and in no time at all, had an interview with a regional big shot in Tigard.
I was on my way one afternoon, not a week later, for a one o’clock appointment. I was driving the freeway; four lanes separated by a cement barrier in the middle. I was mindlessly listening to the radio and rehearsing the interview in my head when I saw an erratic movement in the opposing two lanes of on coming traffic. In the back of my head, I said to myself,
“That car is going to hit the center divide.”
It was more a matter-of-fact statement to myself than it was a present exclamation.
And then it dawned on me-
“That car is going to hit the center divide!”
She careened across the opposing lanes, hit the center divide; smoked the tires, careened back across the lanes, cutting off following traffic as she swerved. hit the far right wall; nearly flipped end for end as the rear differential came up off the pavement and then slammed down to a steaming, smoking, grinding halt.
I checked my mirror and headed for the shoulder.
By the time I got across all four lanes to the crumpled remains there were already six or more drivers stopped and surveying the damage and injuries.
“Does anyone know first aid?” I asked.
Everyone turned and stared blankly at me. No one said anything. No one moved. It was time to put the years of training to use.
I grabbed an old duffer in a golf cap by the crook of his arm.
“Call an ambulance.” I ordered him and moved toward the crash.
The woman who had been driving was sitting near the open door of her car crying over her two-year-old daughter. I asked her if she was okay?
“My baby!” She screamed and held the child out for me to see.
The child was already turning a light violet shade of blue. She was pallid, sweaty and limp.
I took the little girl, trying as carefully as I could to support her neck. She was not breathing.
Holding the child in my left arm, supporting the length of her small spine, I closed my mouth over her small nose and lips and gave a short puff. I pulled away and anxiously waited to see her chest rise and fall- nothing. I breathed for her again but as I did, realized that there was no air getting into the child’s lungs. She was choking to death!
As gingerly as I could, I laid my right arm the length of her poor pitiful body, sandwiched her snugly between my forearms and turned her over so that she lay like a reclining leopard on a tree limb; the web between my thumb and forefinger cradling her chin and struck her three stout times on her upper back.
She gurgled, coughed and choked and then puked a vile yellowish pink liquid all over me.
“Pink…” I thought to myself as my heart sank. It could be a sign of internal injuries.
And then she began to cry. Normally, the sound of a squalling child immediately sets my nerves a jangle but this was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. A crying child is a breathing child!
I laid her gently down in the back seat.
“Sshhh, honey,” I cooed, “everything is going to be alright. Try and lay real still, okay?”
She focused her wild frightened eyes on me and slowed her crying to a small whimper.
Meanwhile, the passenger, who had been complaining loudly that her neck hurt, had begun to crawl hand over hand out of the car. The driver, kept wailing,
“My baby, my baby!” As she clutched at her abdomen.
I ran around to the right side of the car in time to catch the passenger as she spilled out of the seat like a bag of potatoes.
“My neck…” she gasped, “I can’t feel my legs!”
I shrugged my suit jacket off.
“You have to lay still!” I instructed her as sternly and calmly as I could.
I rolled my jacket lengthwise and used it like a jellyroll to stabilize her neck. She stared up at me with abject terror in her eyes.
“Don’t move.” I said. “You’re going to be alright.” I assured her.
By that time, the driver, whom I thought was simply obese, was frantically running up the roadway against the oncoming traffic, which had mercifully slowed to a crawl.
“My baby, my baby.” She kept screaming.
I was able to collar her about five yards from the car and usher her gently back to the smoldering vehicle.
“Your baby is going to be alright.” I told her. “She’s in the back seat.”
The driver was bloodied and bleeding from her mouth.
“You don’t understand.” She grunted deeply. “I’m pregnant and my water broke. I’m having labor pains!”
Things had just gone from bad to worse.
I could handle routine first aid; bleeding, choking, broken bones but delivering a baby on the shoulder of the freeway was something altogether different and not a subject that had been covered and any of the first aid classes I had taken in Junior High and High School.
The woman held her abdomen, crouched over and grunted hard as she clenched her teeth.
“Uunngghhaaaaa!” She groaned.
I was momentarily stunned.
“Lady…” I told her incredulously, “you can’t have a baby here!” Boy, was that ever a stupid thing to say!
Not only could she have a baby right there on the freeway shoulder, but all outward signs pointed toward the fact that she WAS going to have a baby right there on the freeway shoulder and she was expecting me to do something about it.
I hurriedly looked around. I saw the old duffer I had told earlier to call an ambulance.
“Hey, get me some blankets or a newspaper!” I told him. “And find out where that ambulance is! Tell them I have multiple victims: a possible broken neck, possible internal injuries to a child and a woman who is about to have a baby!”
He looked as if I had just slapped him in the face but turned and trotted off.
“And tell them to get a move on!” I called after him.
I turned back to the pregnant woman. She was hyperventilating.
“Lady, take it easy!” I begged more than asked. “Lay down.” I instructed.
She lay across the seat and pulled her knees up. She was wet from her crotch to her ankles. I got a real sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Do you know what day this is?” I asked her as I began to loosen her clothing.
I couldn’t have cared less what day it was but I wanted to know if she knew. And besides, maybe I could get her mind off of the labor pains and stop her from squirting her child out onto the pavement!
She told me what day it was. She told me who the president was. She told me her name, age, birth date, and Social Security Number, which was probably correct but since I didn’t know her personally, I just took her word for it. She was clear and alert, as much as she was going to be for the circumstances. It seemed to work for the short term; at least, she stopped grunting and pushing while she was distracted trying to answer my inane quick-fire questions.
Meanwhile the little girl in back started to choke again. I left the pregnant mother and went back to attend to the little girl. I scooped her up and laid her against my chest and lightly tapped her upper back. She puked on me again. I laid her back down. She looked up at me, confused, frightened and dazed. Her face, neck and upper chest were badly bruised.
“It’s okay.” I comforted her. “Help is coming.”
The driver resumed her deep guttural grunting and moaning. The passenger resumed her moaning. The little girl resumed her crying. The situation was quickly spiraling out of control.
Finally, in the distance I heard the sirens. I sighed with relief. It looked as if I was going to get out of delivering a baby after all. And since I didn’t know how to deliver a baby, I figured I was getting off pretty light.
Two ambulance crews pulled simultaneously up to the wreck. An EMT, who was either told I was in charge or simply assumed it, asked me,
“What have you got?”
“I have a child in the backseat with possible internal injuries. She has choked twice, vomited twice and I have revived her twice.” I took a deep breath and continued. “The passenger, on the ground has possible neck injuries and is in shock. She says she can’t feel her legs. This one,” I pointed to the driver, “is pregnant and she says her water has broken and she is about to have a baby!”
The EMT quickly surveyed the scene. His associates were already attending to each victim as I spoke.
“Okay.” He said. “Thanks. We have it from here. Give your name to the Highway Patrol and then you can be on your way.”
A young patrol officer pulled me aside. I gave him my report. I told what I had seen and gave him my name and number. Before the EMT’s loaded the two women and the little girl into the ambulances, one of them brought my stained and wrinkled suit jacket to me.
I was more than an hour late for my interview but I figured I had a pretty good excuse. I had stopped to render aid at a car accident. I had saved a small life and came close to bringing another one into the world. What prospective employer wouldn’t want a responsible young man like me running their shoe store? What prospective employer wouldn’t consider what I had done heroic and a reasonable excuse for showing up an hour late rumpled, disheveled, covered in puke and blood and in general looking like I had come straight from a lost weekend in a dark alley with a bottle of cheap bourbon?
Well, the regional big shot interviewer at Thom McAnn shoes, for one.
He couldn’t have cared less why I was late. I had transgressed his small fiefdom and far as he was concerned, that was all that mattered. I had inconvenienced him; my appearance was a disgrace and my interview with him was over before I sat down. I’m not even sure why he asked me to sit down because I was summarily excused before I even cleared my throat to explain, which I did while I was being ushered out of his store. I did not get the job.
Later that evening, I called the State Patrol offices to find out about the women and the little girl.
Here’s what had happened. The mother had been driving with her little girl in her lap. No one was wearing seatbelts. The child had tangled her feet in the steering wheel, causing her mother to lose control of the car. Either when they slammed into the center divide, or when they slammed into the far right wall, or both, the mother had been thrown forward at speed into the steering wheel. Her child was bruised on her face, neck and upper torso from being forcefully pinned between her mother’s weight and the rim and spokes of the steering wheel. The impact had forced the contents of her little stomach into her esophagus but she had not vomited them, probably due to the second impact. She had a mild concussion and bruises but miraculously, was otherwise not seriously injured.
“I don’t understand,” the patrolman said grimly. “why she wasn’t crushed to death between her mom and the steering wheel, but she would have choked to death if you hadn’t stopped…” His voice trailed off.
“What about the passenger?” I asked him.
The passenger did not suffer a broken neck but she had sustained a serious whiplash and a broken arm. At impact, she had flown forward into the dashboard, was thrown violently back against the seat only to be thrown forward and back a second time.
“She should be dead too; hell they all should be!” He growled.
“And the mother?” I queried.
She did not lose her baby. The impact into her daughter and the steering wheel had caused her to lose her bladder, not her water. The blow to her abdomen had caused her muscles to spasm and contract. Her pains were classed as false labor. The hospital would keep her, her daughter and the friend over night for observation.
Everyone was fine. Everyone would recover. The only injury I had not diagnosed was the broken arm.
“You did a good job out there today.” He said. “You probably saved that little girl’s life.”
Somewhere out there is a thirty something young woman walking around today, who is alive because I stopped at a car wreck; who cost me a job in Tigard, Oregon at a shoe store because she was choking to death. I traded employment as a manager at Thom McAnn for her young life. And to that young lady, whoever she is and wherever she might be, I want to say: ‘Thank you’ and:
“Sweetheart, I’m sorry for what you suffered, what you had to endure that day, for what surely must have left a scar on you and a terrible memory but it was my privilege and greatest honor to have been there to help you that day and believe it or not, I owe you!”
Shoe sales? What was I thinking?