Dear Stranger, Thank You So Much
Health-wise, last year was really rough. In the spring of 2016, I was better, but my body was misbehaving, again. I had started to feel dizzy with day-long severe headaches that Ibuprofen couldn’t touch. I saw a couple of doctors about it, but they weren’t sure what was up. Oh, well.
My morning commute involved taking the train from the Bedford-Nostrand stop on the G line to the L at Metropolitan, then taking the L to 14th St./Union Square.
I’m a podcast nerd and much of my commute (one hour, each way) would involve me listening to the voices of Ophira Eisenberg, Kirsty Young and others. They accompanied on me on my journeys in and out of the city, distracting me from the miserable humanity on the train car around me.
This one morning in the spring of this year was not particularly remarkable. I’d eaten breakfast, put on my clothes and makeup and trekked out to the G station, where I stood on the platform, putting in my white Apple earbuds. On that day, the podcast of choice was Radiolab, which covers wide-ranging human stories that relate to science in some way. It was a rebroadcast and it sounded vaguely familiar. I wandered around, zoning in and out as I waited for the train. Suddenly, I was hearing the woman in the episode describing a bloody medical emergency she had had in gory, vivid detail. I’m not good with that sort of stuff and I know it, so I turned it off. But it was too late.
Each phlebotomist who fails to heed my warnings about how poorly my body deals with getting its blood drawn regrets it immediately when my six-foot-tall, 180-pound plus body suddenly slumps over in front of them, completely unconscious.
I remember that when I was young, back when this first happened to me, nurses bothered with smelling salts to revive me. (Let me tell you, that stuff works, too!) More recently, many seem more inclined to get me to come to through simply rearranging my body. At a doctor’s office back home in Florida, I came to after one of these episodes to discover that I had been moved all the way from a chair to the examination table while I was out. I looked around for the nurse. “How long was I out?,” I wondered. I was completely alone in the room.
I saw staff outside the open exam room door going about their normal day. My uprightness caught someone’s attention, I guess, because a male nurse sauntered in and greeted me like he was just saying hello to someone who’d woken up from a nice long nap. I have no idea how long I was unconscious that time. To quote the titular character of the animated FX TV series Archer, one shouldn’t be unconscious for long, as “it’s super bad for you.” Oh, well.
The G train came. As always, there weren’t any open seats, so I stood as the vaguely unwell feeling that I’d started to have on the platform fully settled in. I tried to calm myself down and keep myself distracted, but the vaguely unwell feeling turned clearly into pre-syncope, a.k.a. near-syncope, a.k.a. the telltale signs of imminent fainting that I know all too well by now.
My ears were ringing and my vision was growing dim. It was going to be seconds — maybe a minute, at most — until I fell like a sack of potatoes, possibly hurting myself on the way down and hurting someone else, too, with my big, heavy body. I knew what I had to do first. I had to sit down.
I took out my earbuds, which were no longer playing anything, and did one thing nobody in New York wants to do, particularly on public transportation: I broke the vow of silence between strangers. I hated it, but I had to.
Seriously, clearly, but very calmly, I said something like this: “I’m about to pass out. I’m sorry. I need to sit down.”
As I sat, the darkness of my vision increased, but I could still see well enough to make out other people standing around me. Some of them had backed away a little and were looking down at me. Others hadn’t noticed anything was unusual and were chatting or staring off into the distance.
The ringing got worse and I felt one of my arms jerk involuntarily. The world was very dark now, but I could still make out the signs outside the window. They were for the Metropolitan station. The train continued on, heading north towards Queens. Maybe I would pass out and then come to at the end of the line, I thought. Someone there could tend to me, I guess.
Then, a woman’s voice to my left asked, “Do you have water? Maybe in your bag?” She was speaking to me, in a measured, gentle tone. I indicated no while the world kept on growing dark and the ringing became ever louder, drowning out the sounds of the train car.
I sensed movement nearby. Maybe there was talking, but I couldn’t make it out anymore. I felt something. The spout of a water bottle on my lips. I drank. Then, something hard was gently inserted into my mouth between my teeth. Candy? I sucked on and ate it. A mint, maybe? More water, another mint, and I was back to life, aware of my surroundings, again. I had managed not to pass out, and it was because of the stranger next to me.
“Where are you getting off?,” the woman asked. I could see clearly now, but was exhausted from the ordeal and still getting my bearings. She handed me the water bottle that she’d held to my mouth before. “I already missed my stop,” I replied.
“OK, let’s get you off at the next station, OK? You’re sweating.” I hadn’t been aware of it, but, yes, she was right. My limbs were shining with sweat. My forehead was damp. Yes, I indicated, I would get off at the next step, and she would be with me. This was the understanding. I don’t remember if she said that or if it was implied.
After I got off the car, I lost her. What did she even look like? I knew she was a Black woman, maybe around my age or a little bit younger, but otherwise I knew her only by her voice. I hadn’t had the chance to make a mental note of what she was wearing and had no idea how tall she was when standing. I certainly didn’t know her name. Where was she?
Seconds later, I found her by her hair, dark and perfectly coifed. She was a little ways ahead of me, looking back for me, too. I followed her with all my strength. Others were getting off too, on their way to work for the day. I focused on her, only. She was my savior.
As we walked up some stairs out of the station, I noticed that she was holding her cellphone and had “911” already entered into it. Prepared. I thought to myself, “That’s exactly what I would do.” I trusted her fully.
Once we were out of the station and she was able to get a cell signal, she asked me if she should call an ambulance for me. I thanked her, profusely, as I had been doing all along the way since she had helped me, and said no, all I needed was a car. I kept on thanking her. “Thank you. Thank you.”
I dug my iPhone out of my bag and started trying to hail an Uber on my own, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix the fact that my card had expired. I stopped fumbling with the app after realizing how futile it was for me to mess with this in my state, and saw the woman nearby, already hard at work trying to hail a cab, still keeping an eye on me. “Thank you. Thank you.”
I noticed her shoes as she was looking down the street for a car for me. They were sneakers, and they were brightly colored. They looked like comfortable shoes, but not “sensible,” which is really just a code word for ugly. They were cool and very clean. I thought about how she was taking a lot of time out of her day to go way above and beyond for me, a total stranger to her. Were those the shoes of a nurse? Where was she going after this was over?Whatever she does, she’s on the way to work, but she’s doing this for me instead. She’s a good person with nice, comfortable, clean, cool sneakers.
I got into the car she had so kindly hailed for me. I thought about asking her for her name, or her business card, or something that would let me get in touch to thank her later. But I didn’t. I hoped she knew she had done an amazing thing. I hoped her boss would believe her reason for being late. I hoped she would feel good about herself for having done this for me.
It was around Easter time, so there were organic jelly beans aplenty in our apartment. Back home after the cab ride, I greeted my husband, who knew what had happened from my texts, and took the candy dish off the mantle. I sat with it in bed, eating jelly beans and drinking more water until I drifted off to sleep.
I was OK. Nobody else got hurt by my body falling on them. I didn’t have to suffer through being completely alone during a medical problem. Maybe most importantly, I now had more faith in humanity than I’d had in a very long time.
You did a really good thing that day, stranger. Thank you. Thank you.