“Seeing that woman lying there on the street, with tubes in her nose and
an emergency crew around her, reminded me of a tumultuous period
in 1975 when I myself had been picked up off the street and taken by
“angels of mercy” to a nearby hospital.” —Cat Saunders
By Cat Saunders
Thank God for bad movies–and especially, for my refusal to sit through them anymore. If my partner, John, and I had suffered through the awful movie we went to last week, a woman might now be dead.
Last Monday was one of those days. You know the kind. The kind where you wish you could hide under the bed and hibernate until the weather in your mind changes. I told John that if I did things like get drunk, that day would have been a great day for it. However, I don’t drink. Besides, drinking never solves anything anyway. But I wanted a break from my mind, so when John suggested a movie, I went for it.
Before I tell you what happened that night, let me give you a bit of background relevant to the story. Before that blue Monday, I’d been thinking about old beliefs that were no longer working for me.
I’ll spare you the philosophical details. The punch line is that my ruminations left me in a rather disheartened state. In short, I was wondering if the universe was a completely impersonal place. If so, then my all-too-human concerns seemed no more relevant than lint in a monkey’s navel.
In the midst of my feelings of disconnection, I prayed. I asked for guidance about what I needed to feel more connected again. The answer came swift and sure: gratitude. But I was feeling so sad that I had no idea how I could make such a big emotional shift. So I waited. This is where I fast forward to that Monday night at the movies.
The movie turned out to be a dud, so John and I walked out after fifteen minutes. Actually, we hesitated for about sixty seconds first, wondering if the movie might get better. Following those few seconds of hesitation, however, we decided to leave.
John and I walked down the sidewalk toward our car. About a half a block away from the theater, we saw an older woman coming toward us. Suddenly, she began to falter and lose her balance. It was clear that something was wrong. John noticed what was happening first, and he immediately started walking faster. I then realized that the woman was in trouble, and I also rushed toward her.
Just as we got to her side, she fell into our outstretched arms. The woman appeared to be in her mid-seventies. She was very frail, with thighs the size of my arms. As she fell toward us, I found myself wondering how she could possibly hold herself up with those legs. Her health was obviously debilitated in some way.
We asked her what her name was and if she could tell us what was wrong. She was completely unable to speak. Instead, she sort of hissed at us in an eerie way. I’d never seen her before in my life, so I didn’t know how well she could communicate when she was okay. I’d worked as a counselor with seriously ill people, but I’d never experienced anyone hissing at me like that. It was disconcerting.
John and I realized that something was wrong with her breathing. But when we tried to help and she hissed at us, we wondered if she wanted us to leave her alone. We didn’t want to be invasive in our efforts to help, but the situation was confusing.
Had we not caught her, she would have fallen to the sidewalk. She would probably have been hurt–or possibly killed–by the blow to her head, since she was in such a fragile state. However, now that we had prevented her fall, what was the right course of action?
We were unsure what the woman wanted, so we decided to do what we would have wanted in a reverse situation. We did not feel comfortable leaving her there on the sidewalk at night in the middle of a big city (Seattle). So we carried her to the steps of a nearby apartment building. John stayed with her while I went to find a phone booth to call an AID car. (Note from 2017: This was obviously before the era of ubiquitous cell phones!)
Seattle’s emergency response system is extraordinary. When I dialed “911” for help, the operators were wonderful. They asked only a few essential questions before dispatching an AID car. Knowing that help was on the way, I walked back to John and the woman. In the five minutes I was gone, she had urinated in her pants. Her face had turned a pasty yellow color, and her breathing had almost completely shut down.
John looked relieved to see me. It was clear to us both that she was close to death. In no more than sixty seconds, an AID crew arrived in the form of a big red fire truck and three caring firemen. They asked us a few questions and then tried to talk with the woman. She was pretty incoherent, although John had managed to find out her first name.
One of the firemen kept asking her if she could squeeze his hand. John had done the same thing while alone with her. He did this to help the woman keep her attention focused outward, so she would stay conscious. Next, another crew member put tubes in the woman’s nose to administer oxygen. Her entire left side was drooping as if she’d had a stroke. She was unable to respond much at all until some oxygen got to her brain.
John and I continued to hold her head up off the concrete steps. I also placed one of my hands gently over her heart. She was in such bad shape that we didn’t know if she would live. The firemen confirmed that she had probably had a stroke.
When she was feeling a little better from the oxygen, she said she was on her way to see a “boyfriend.” He was up the street at a tavern. She seemed very concerned that he know what happened to her, so John went to find him. Apparently, she and her boyfriend were both regulars at the bar, so the man was easily found.
John brought him back to the scene and gestured to me that the man had been drinking. As soon as the man opened his mouth, it was clear that he was actually quite inebriated. It was tragic to watch him try to function as a responsible adult in a life-or-death situation.
The firemen said the woman needed to be hospitalized right away. When they said that, her boyfriend started talking about atrocious hospital bills rather than showing any concern for the woman’s life. Even the woman herself suddenly sat up and said she was fine and didn’t need any help.
I could understand their dilemma about poverty and health–I’ve been there. But I knew the firemen were right. The woman needed immediate medical attention. Eventually, they were able to persuade the man that his friend needed to be hospitalized. Once he was convinced, he talked her into it. The firemen then ordered an ambulance and she was taken to a local hospital.
After she was gone, the firemen packed up their stuff and thanked John and me for our help. We thanked them, too. Throughout the whole experience, we had remained nameless to everyone. As we walked away, we were in a mixed state of shock and wonderment.
I picked up my cup of sparkling water from where I’d left it on the sidewalk before catching the woman in our arms. When we got back to the car, I downed the water in a couple of big gulps. John and I thanked each other for providing mutual support. Then we drove home in alternating periods of silence and exclamations of amazement.
When we got home, I took a minute to sit down in front of my altar. As soon as I sat down, I began to weep. My tears fell stronger and harder until I was sobbing, because I was completely overcome with gratitude.
Before we had left for the movie that night, I’d paused in front of my altar for a moment of prayer. I’d been feeling confused about life, as I mentioned to you before. I had no idea who or what I was praying to or if my prayer would be heard, but I decided to pray anyway.
My prayer went like this: “I don’t know who or what I’m praying to, but I know I need help. I don’t feel connected and I want to feel connected again. Please help me.” After I uttered that simple prayer, I left with John to go to the movies.
Seeing that woman lying there on the street, with tubes in her nose and an emergency crew around her, reminded me of a tumultuous period in 1975 when I myself had been picked up off the street and taken by “angels of mercy” to a nearby hospital–in my case, to a psychiatric ward.
Those had been very hard times, and I was grateful to be on the angel side of the equation now. More than anything, though, I wept with gratitude that night because I realized that my prayer for connection had been answered through the simple act of helping someone else in a moment of need.
This article was adapted from an article called “How to Get Drunk on Gratitude,” originally published by Spiritual Women’s Times (Summer 1988) and updated in June 2017.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).