The other day, I met a man named Steve (not his real name). He came into the building I work in with his wife, carrying coffee for himself and his mother. Steve joked with the other residents, all who seemed to know him well. As a maintenance guy, I try to be pleasant to all the people who live in and visit the building. It helps when people don’t think you’re an asshole. So, I said hello.
That day he was moving his mother out of her apartment and into an assisted living facility. He asked if he should call the office and was unsure of how to go about her vacating her lease. Steve left upstairs with his coffees. My colleague and myself went back to our work. We were attempting to fix a water line that had fallen. It seems that at some point in the night, some of the supports that the water line hung from broke. A few residents reported hearing a loud bang in the ceiling. My colleague Dan (also not his real name) was first on the scene in the morning when a water leak was reported. He found that when the water line had fallen, it landed onto a sprinkler line and created a hairline fracture where water was now trickling out. Fixing the line meant calling in a sprinkler specialist, draining the line and shutting the building down from emergency services. If we were not to shut down the buildings emergency services, as the line drained and lost pressure it would trip an alarm and the entire northern Vermont fire brigade would show up. As we started to shut down the sprinkler system, two ambulances and fire truck pulled into the parking lot, sirens blazing.
As a dozen EMT’s rushed into the building, I wondered if we forgot to shut the building down. Because of my proximity to the door at the time of their arrival, I stood and made sure it stayed open. A secure building means doors don’t get held open by themselves. The fact that the paramedics seemed to know where they were going told me this was way more than a false alarm from the sprinkler losing pressure.
The commotion of the EMT’s running through the building stirred the residents. Much like a bathtub draining, they hung around near the point of exit. They watched. They waited. When you live in, or work for a senior housing unit, emergency personal showing up is just part of the view. In fact, each apartment is equipped with an emergency pull cord that when yanked, will summon rescue workers no matter what. A fear of mine is accidentally pulling the cord.
As they do, the residents talked. Every time an ambulance showed up, they talked about it. They all knew who they thought it was. One assumed it was the lady being moved to assisted living. An older gentleman grabbed my shirt sleeve and talked softly at me, “She probably offed herself.” The look I gave him was mixed. I didn’t know the lady or her situation. But I couldn’t get behind the idea of an old lady “offing” herself.
I turned to look outside. Another firetruck pulled next to the building. Dan suddenly stood next to me.
“Crazy huh?” he asked.
I was about to tell him about the commotion, about the people speculating. Before I could get any words out though, he spoke. “I was just up there giving him CPR.”
“Steve.” Dan laughed nervously.
“Steve who was just down here talking?”
“I went up to let the pressure out of sprinkler, the guys wife came out of her apartment and started screaming.”
“Yeah, so I called 911 and started doing CPR until the paramedics showed up.”
I really didn’t know what else to say. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, I’m not the one who had the heart attack.” Of course he was fine. Dan’s done it all and seen it all. Even if he wasn’t fine, there’s no way he’d tell me. “Fuck.” He wiped his face with his hands. His age shown through his stubble. “Alright, I’m going to get a cup of coffee. I’ll be back.” He left, maneuvering his way through the emergency vehicles outside.
I couldn’t believe it.
Steve, the nice guy with the coffee I was speaking to only 10 minutes ago.
Steve, who was moving his mother to assisted living.
Steve, who most likely was lying upstairs dead.
Moments later, the stairwells exploded with the EMT’s coming down. The elevator burst open as half a dozen people pushed a massive gurney toward me.
Doing the only thing my mind could think of, I held the door open. There was Steve, no shirt, on his back, eyes half open, arms flapping off the gurney. There were tubes running the length of him and a man pumping oxygen into his lungs. This was a scene I had only experienced in movies and shows like my beloved Grey’s Anatomy. He was lifeless. Medical personnel squeaked through speakers.
In that moment, as he passed me, I didn’t see Steve. Yes he was physically there, but the only thought I had was my father. My father, who was the same age and size as Steve. In that moment I saw my father laying on that gurney, being rushed out the door. He was the one that had the massive coronary, not Steve. After all, if this could happen within a matter of minutes to a nice man I barley met. It could happen to a man I cared about my entire life.
And then the image and Steve, was gone.
If you’re willing to listen, life has a lot of teachable moments. Not just the obvious ones.
Yes, I now know why Dan had me keep the pull cords online.
Yes, I now understand that I fear my father dying more than I used to. But you learn about people too. You learn that life can literally push you over. And you learn that there are people like Dan, who may be half your size, but willing to jump on and save you because he believes in humanity a little more than he lets on.