Common Wisdom: Strangers in the Night

It had been a convivial dinner dance, and several of us extended the evening by repairing to the hotel’s cocktail lounge. We were there only briefly before a waitress came hurriedly to our table, asking if a doctor were present. In fact there were not one, but two, and a nurse. They followed the waitress, and I turned my head to locate the problem. It didn’t take long. Slumped over the bar, gray-haired and smartly tailored, was a man utterly still.

Approaching the unconscious patron, not knowing the cause of his condition, our trio began team efforts. A strenuous Heimlich maneuver by one failed to produce a lethal projectile. The limp body was then eased to the floor. His breathing was irregular and periodically faltered. One physician monitored the pulse while the other pounded rhythmically on the patient’s chest, coordinated to a specified count with the nurse giving mouth to mouth resuscitation. She bent to the task in her stunning dinner dress, a feathered boa thrown aside.

This jarring sight accurately reflected the contrast in mood. Moments ago, the nurse and doctors were engaged in lighthearted bantering. Suddenly, an emergency, and a different demeanor took hold. Accumulated years of training and skill came to the fore. Someone had called 911, but the patient was already literally in the hands of competent medical assistance. He was not, however, responding.

On the periphery the rest of us stood shaken and horrified, helpless in the sobering and unexpected encounter with imminent death. It was all too clear to us, too graphic, too self-referential. Here was a man, Everyman, one minute enjoying a drink—enjoying life—and the next minute catapulted toward eternity. Unspoken was our pre-eminent concern: Is this the way it would end for him? For us? Dying among strangers?

But the reality was that he was not alone. Everywhere I looked, every drawn face, every hushed expression, demonstrated sympathy for the fallen man we did not know. Tending him, the nurse and physicians tirelessly and purposefully ministered. Our ring of observers, hotel staff, and recent revelers kept a respectful distance, riveted on the motionless body. Wrenched from individual pleasures, we were collectively distressed, focusing on a life-and-death struggle, pulling for the stricken man to survive.

Through what seemed an interminable amount of time waiting for the EMS team (actually seven minutes), prayer formal and informal tumbled from my mind to God’s ear. For the stranger, for his family unaware, for the three desperately trying to save his life. On the floor in front of us lay our rather alarming, often forgotten, fragility. His vulnerability was our own.

This shared distress reminded me of a passage I read in college long ago. It was arresting then, but its impact was experienced only now. We are diminished by the death of another, wrote John Donne, because we are joined in a common humanity. In his memorable metaphor, no man is an island, “any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” Strangers included.

The EMS team cut a welcome swath through the lounge, moving swiftly to the comatose man. They began set procedures with great efficiency, smoothly making the transition from one to the next. Unpleasant to observe were the results of electric shocks, jolting the man’s body, extremities trembling. Undaunted by repeated failure to achieve a solid cardiac response, to establish a normal rhythm, the team continued. They were still working when, emotionally exhausted, most of us left, sadly assuming we had witnessed a death.

I awoke feeling heavy and grieved. Hours later came the incredible news: He had survived! The immediate and continuous attention from our trio, combined with that of the EMS team, was ultimately successful. The man was not taken to a morgue but to a hospital ICU. His wife and children from nearby states would shortly arrive. An internal defibrillator would be implanted to treat future potentially fatal arrhythmias.

A few days later, the discharged patient returned to the hotel, joined by three people whose prior, dramatic interaction in his life made possible a second meeting. He heard the narrative of that other night, met the physician responsible for his sore chest and the beautiful nurse who gave him CPR. As the reunited quartet chatted convivially, passersby gave them scant notice. Just an ordinary mix of friends, recollecting a shared event. The extraordinary fillip was that only three remembered.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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