June 5, 2013

For The Woman I Found on the Freeway

Yesterday was a rough day.

First I was taking the car for a looksie at the mechanic, and then I was taking RH to her second neurology appointment.

I'll save you the suspense and tell you that neither went particularly well.

But neither of them were the most difficult nor emotional part of my day.

I had seen the mechanic, who listened to the car idle with the hood open for about thirty seconds. He *guessed* that at the very least, we'd need to replace an exhaust pipe. Not great when it's attached to your catalytic converter.

I didn't mention the noises that I was positive were related to the transmission. I figured the car would have to be in gear for him to notice that.

And so, already worrying about the sudden need to invest a third of the car's value into keeping it running, I took off on my journey across the city to bring DD and SI to a friend's house while RH had her incredibly out-of-the-way appointment.

And as I took the ramp from one freeway to another, I saw just ahead on the curve, there was a man bent on the ground next to a very small, old woman, who was crumpled on the pavement.

In that split second, it looked like she'd gone through the windshield of a car during an accident, but no cars appeared to be involved.

I swerved to the shoulder, told the girls NOT to get unbuckled, and jumped out of the car, already dialing 9-1-1.

"There's a woman on the ground on the ramp from 55-S to 94-W- just past McCormack. She's unconscious. I have no idea if she was hit by a car. Please send an ambulance as fast as you can..."
"There was a car accident?"
"No, there's just a woman on the ground... I have no idea where she came from..."

The man who arrived first was also on the phone, but he kept dropping the call. As I ran over, I saw to my intense relief that what I had taken for a massive head wound as I drove past was actually a silk flower on her hat.

Her face was pressed into the pavement, and her limbs were still. I paced for about two seconds, and then dropped to my knees in front of her.

There was a couple who had pulled their cars over, hovering by their automobiles. "Is she alright?" they called. "I don't know..."

The man who was there first started babbling- "I saw her come out of the grass. She just came out of the grass and stort of stumbled across the ramp and then... collapsed. I swerved to avoid her and then ran out to see what happened..."

I relayed the info to the dispatcher, still on the phone, still trying to figure out where we actually were.

I saw her ankle twitch, and realized with a swell of relief and terror that she must be waking up...

There is something about our culture of fear of strangers. We don't talk to strangers. We avoid eye contact. We certainly don't reach out and touch them. We don't like to be touched by them.

But we need people. And when we need people to help, the distance between our lives matter very little.

As she twitched on the side of the freeway, I reached down and held her hand.

After a split second, she wrapped her fingers around mine. Her grip wasn't shaky, it was gentle, but firm.

I called out to the small, gathering crowd, "She's alive!"

The couple and another man who had stopped, all a safe distance away, nodded and got back into their cars.

The man who had stopped first went down the ramp a ways to wave cars to the other shoulder- to keep them from hitting us as we sat in the road.

She started trying to move, and I began gently pressing her back to the pavement, explaining as gently as I could that we didn't know what happened to her, and if she had a spinal injury she could be hurt by trying to move.

I took in everything I could about her. Her tiny, frail wrists, her knobby knuckles, her straw hat, her black velvet jacket with purple and green butterflies embroidered on, her worn black slacks, her soft cotton shoes...

I tried to say calm, comforting things, she only groaned, and gripped my hand.

"Do you understand me?" I asked her. No response.
"¿Halbas espaƱol? I tried. Nothing.

A young man jumped out of his car and ran over.

"Is she dead?" he asked. I shook my head. "Was she hit by a car?" "I don't think so..."

"Where did she COME from?" he asked.

I looked around. She had come stumbling from the grass to our left, which divided the ramp from the freeway proper, which was full to the brim with the morning rush traffic...

Satellite image courtesy of Google- picture this, but filled with cars.
So where DID she come from?

He leaned over and asked her if she spoke Vietnamese. She didn't respond. "Chinese?" he asked. Nothing.

I began to suspect very strongly that she had fairly advanced alzheimer's.

She lifted her head up and looked me in the eyes. She was terrified, confused, and in pain.

"Please don't move, there's somebody coming to help..."

Turns out the nice young man who spoke Vietnamese was sort of a doctor. He graduated from medical school on Saturday. When I told him I was CPR certified, we both had a bit of a laugh.

Between us we felt like we should be able to help, but really the only thing we could do to help was keep her still and safe until an ambulance could arrive.

She kept looking up and trying to speak. She had dirt in her teeth, but she wasn't bleeding anywhere I could see.

She gestured a few times, to her leg, her arm, her chest.

I began telling the dispatcher, who now had me conferenced in with somebody else who could direct paramedics to the non-address, that she was experiencing chest pain.

I hoped it would get them there faster.

I sent the young doctor to my car, to tell my children that I was okay and that I was coming back soon. They'd been sitting alone in a car parked on the entrance ramp in the blazing sun for twenty minutes with no explanation, but the woman wouldn't let go of my hand.

Finally, a police officer arrived. He began taking notes, asking who we were, if we'd hit her. She began murmuring, trying to speak, none of us understood her language. Not me, with my awful Spanish. Not the doctor, who's parents were Vietnamese. Not the cop, who came from the neighboring Chinatown.

When the paramedics finally arrived, the doctor and I helped them move her onto the body board. She kept trying to move herself, so the doctor helped keep her legs steady as they rolled her over. I held her hands. Once she was strapped in, I told her she was going to be okay. She looked at me, and gave me a thumbs up. As she took hold of my hand again, I smiled and I nodded.

"Yes, you're going to be fine. They'll take care of you."

The firemen who had arrived to take her to the hospital looked right past me. "Ma'am, you can let go now, we need to take her to the ambulance."

She would not let go of my hands.

"Looks like you're coming for a walk, then..."

And I walked with the half a dozen burly firemen across the grass, from whence she'd come, to the ambulance parked on the shoulder of the freeway proper. The grass was waist high, and there was a steep slope.

Where the HELL did she COME from?

As we carried her, she looked me in the eyes.

"They're going to take care of you..."

I had to pry my fingers out of hers. I placed her hand gently on her stomach, and patted it, to let her know I cared, that I wasn't just abandoning her with strangers.

But I was still a stranger.

Except that I'm not.

I feel so responsible for that woman. I want to check up on her, to find out how she's doing, to make sure that her family came and took her home. To make sure she's getting help.

But as the police officer informed me. that can't give away that kind of information. They can't even tell me what hospital she was taken to.

She has been weighing heavy on my heart ever since. The woman who appeared from nowhere and miraculously wasn't killed as she crossed the freeway.

The very old woman with the purple butterflies on her jacket, with her sunhat with the purple flower, with the lost eyes and dirt in her teeth.

I think she will be with me a long time.


  1. Wow how scary. It's a good thing you were willing to stop your car and actually help. Too bad no one will tell you what happened to her.

  2. Lea, that was amazing of you to help. And I can picture where you were on the expressway, and just wow.

  3. This is beautiful Lea, you are amazing to stop and help. I understand how something like this could haunt you, when I was a teenager my friends and I witnessed a pregnant woman get hit by a car. We stayed with her until the paramedics came and I never found out if she was okay. When I think back on it I can remember the feel of a buzzing in my ears and they way my heart was pounding. I remember so much about that night and I often pray that she and her child are happy and healthy somewhere.

  4. Awww, I think I have dust in my eyes! Thank you for stopping to help a stranger. You and she are in my thoughts tonight

  5. I'm very proud of how you handled this situation.

  6. Oh my goodness, what an experience. I had goosebumps the whole time I was reading this. So proud of you for being the kind of person who stops to help. Most people just drive by w/out a second thought. Thank you for being you!

  7. I hope she is okay. You being there and holding her hand and comforting her- you might never see her again, but you made a difference for her.

  8. I hope she is ok, but how kind of you. Beyond kind.... Thank you. Thank you for being a kind person to someone you never even seen before. It restores hope.

  9. This was beautiful. It is so true, how we all too often leave a stranger to be a stranger, to be responsible for themselves and we will care only for ourselves. And yet, how much richer our lives would be (sometimes painfully so) if we just reached out to someone, offered kindness in whatever way we can. Thank you for bringing more good to our world. That woman won't forget it, I know you won't forget it, and I think you will be amazed at the lesson your children take from this, from seeing your kindness and compassion for a stranger who needed it.

  10. Lea- what a story! Bless your heart for stopping and caring for this woman in desperate need! I think your children will always remember that their mom stopped to help a precious person who was suffering. She WILL remember you. Oh my friend, you have an everlasting imprint on her heart- no matter the language.



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