It was early summer 2011 and the dog needed a walk. I got my things together, strapped on my walking shoes and headed out for the usual loop through the neighborhood.
I was about halfway through the loop when a young man coming from the opposite direction ran past me. I remember thinking to myself, “I really should start running again,” and continued on my stroll with the dog.
A few moments later, I heard a loud thump as if someone had tripped and fallen to the ground. I turned around and saw the jogger who had just passed me laying half on the sidewalk and half on the street.
“Maybe that is his yard and he is resting on his lawn.” I thought.
Suddenly, his back arched and his chest lifted off the ground. It was as if someone was pulling a string from the middle of his chest, trying to lift him up. I ran over.
“Sir. Sir, are you okay?”
His breathing was shallow. His eyes rolled back into his head and he had some cuts on his leg from the fall. He looked like he was in his late teens or early twenties.
I called 911 from my cell.
“911, what is your emergency.”
“Yes, someone just collapsed on the pavement. His breathing is shallow… he was just running and… here, listen!”
I held the phone up to his face so that the operator could hear his breathing pattern.
“Okay, ma’am. You need to start doing chest compressions right now. I’ll walk you through it.”
I didn’t even think twice. I tied the dog’s leash around me and I started doing CPR.
Just then, a tan suburban pulled up.
“What happened? Is everything ok?”, said the driver. I didn’t answer and kept focusing on what I was doing in the moment.
The driver pulled over and came out of her car. She offered to watch my dog as I kept my focus on the compressions.
1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3…
“Come on, kid. Come on.” I said aloud.
I heard sirens in the distance and the neighbors starting to crowd around me.
The emergency crew showed up, after what seemed an eternity. I remember someone placing a hand on my shoulder.
“Ma’am, we’ll take it from here.”
I stood up and walked backwards, staring as the rescue workers continued CPR. One of the neighbors knew who this young man was and went to tell his family. I gave a police officer my account of what happened. The young man thankfully hadn’t hit his head in the fall and the rescue workers were doing all they could to save him.
Then, his mother showed up. Stabs of fear tore through everyone’s hearts when we heard her cries.
The workers put the young man in an ambulance, now doing chest compressions with something called a thumper. One of the officers pointed me out to the young man’s mother and stated that I was the person who had called 911. She hugged me with thanks and went off to follow the ambulance to the hospital.
The crowd slowly disappeared as the ambulance sirens grew softer in the distance. The woman from the tan suburban offered to drive me home. I thanked her, but said at that moment I preferred to walk. She gave me her phone number and said to call her if I needed anything. The daylight started to dim and I walked back home with the dog.
I barely slept or ate that night. I worried about what had happened to the young man from my walk. Was he okay?
The next morning was very surreal and I anxiously worried about the outcome of the young man. I decided to call the police department to see if they knew what his condition was.
“Yes, um. I was the officer on call last night. He passed away yesterday evening.”
My heart swallowed my insides, and then shot straight through my feet. I had a terrifying ache of loss and failure.
I thanked the officer and hung up and called the lady with the tan suburban. She had been there with me and I felt the most connected to her at that moment. I told her the bad news. We cried and talked for a while longer.
A week or so later, after scouring the obituaries in the local paper, I saw his name and a date for the funeral. I called the lady with the tan suburban, and we made plans to attend together to pay our respects.
The day of the funeral was a beautiful, sunny day. There were hundreds of people at the service. You could tell he was deeply loved and had an amazing community surrounding him. At that moment, I felt this terrible feeling of guilt and grief. Why could I not have saved him?
After the service, we went to give our condolences to the family. I was terrified. There was a very long processional and I didn’t think we would get the chance to pay our respects. The lady I came with grabbed me by the arm and said, “You need to talk to them. Let’s go.” She pushed her way through the crowd and caught the parents, right before they were about to leave.
“Excuse me, but this is the woman who called 911 and did CPR on your son. We were both there and came to pay our respects. We are sorry for your loss.”
I could not breathe. My entire body was dripping with fear. His father was in the car, telling his mother that they had to go. His mother leaned into the car to tell him who I was.
Pure, utter, fear and sadness. What would they say to me? I didn’t save their son and now he was gone.
His father stepped out of the car. He looked at me for a moment.
And then, I felt his arms around me in an embrace. Tears started streaming down my face. He wiped them away and I remember telling him how sorry I was, over and over again. They both said how grateful they were that someone had stopped to help their son and not left him there alone to die. At that moment, I experienced a wave of relief and love that flowed right through me.
For some time afterwards, I still had a feeling of incredible guilt and sadness. How could this have happened to someone so loved, so promising and only twenty-two years old? What else could I have done to try to save him?
What I have realized is this: I will never really know if I could have saved him. I do know that in order to respect his life, I need to enjoy every moment of mine. Taking the good with the bad, and appreciating those around me and the things that matter most. Things like spending time with close friends and family, enjoying nature, art, good food, conversation, music, and most of all… love.
Random events such as mine can connect us closely to people we otherwise would never have known. Strangers become intertwined in our lives in an instant, and we become closer to them unlike anyone else. It is strange to me that it sometimes takes an event like mine to find the connections we have to each other and bring out the best in us.
This post was originally published on Medium on April 23, 2013. Jamal Lamar Martin was the name of the young man I posted about in this story. Here are some words printed about Jamal from his funeral program:
“He was 22 years old when he passed away and was attending college at Missouri Western in St. Joseph, MO in the Fall of 2007, where he declared his major in Art Studies. At the time of his passing he was diligently pursuing his degree at Longview Community College…[ ]”
“Jamal had a heart that was geared to love, and negativity was as foreign to him as the thought that G0d does not exist. His ability to focus on the good in every person and every situation, was as effortless and natural as taking in the air we breathe. And that smile, of that smile, had to be part of his attire, because you never saw him and his face was not adorned by it. He had the spirit of a man that held the spirit of G0d.”