To Be Fully Alive

Goodness exists in this world. People do indeed care about one another- even in big cities.

I witnessed this past week a situation in which a dozen or so strangers came together as caring human beings to attend to someone who needed their help. It was a very natural and beautiful expression of our humanity.

Westheimer Road just west of the Galleria is one of the busiest roads in Houston, the 4th largest city in the country. At 3pm in the afternoon in mid July, that busy well-travelled road in the heart of restaurants, bars, and retail stores can produce some oppressive heat.

In Houston on business, I had choreographed a series of back to back meetings.  Suddenly, I found that I had an hour before my next meeting so I thought that I would indulge myself and stroll through that outdoor gear store that we don’t have back home.

I was driving slower than the hectic traffic travelling on the road because I was not sure of the store’s exact location. I noticed up ahead that a man pushing a walker along the sidewalk seemed to be losing his balance. Suddenly, I see the man fall head first into the busy street to his left.

My first thoughts were that he was going to be in danger of traffic not seeing him and he was also possibly going to need medical attention. I pulled off the road and into the parking lot behind the sidewalk where the man had just fallen. I run to the bearded and unkempt man now lying mostly in the street. He is moaning and convulsing. He’s having a seizure. I know that when someone is in the midst of a seizure, you assess if they are in danger in the position as they lay but to take note of the time and let the seizure run its course. I could see he was on his side, as is preferable, and focused on the oncoming traffic. I sensed that the traffic light behind us was about to change and so I took the man’s walker and backpack and positioned them a distance away from the man in his lane of traffic; I waved my arms at the first car waiting for the traffic light in that lane so that the driver would see me. I then ran back to the man and noted that the seizure had stopped but he was now vomiting. Around that time, a woman on her phone walks up and says “I am an emergency room nurse. I saw him fall. He’s probably suffering from heat stroke.”

She begins to instruct another man who has also just walked up to get some water. “We need to lower his body temperature,” she says knowingly.

I bend down to the man still laying face down in the lane of traffic and realize that the road must be hot. I am also aware of the waiting traffic in that lane and I am not confident that every Houston driver driving on Westheimer would see the walker and backpack that I’ve positioned as makeshift traffic signals in the lane. I begin to pray. I thus decide to move the man. I know that we should usually allow professionals to move victims but I decide to move him because I felt there was a greater risk to him remaining in the roadway. I start off with his legs forcefully moving them onto the grass up next to the curb. They were heavier than I had expected. I move his head a little more gently because I know he has fallen on his face. I could see that he had a scrape on the side of his face. He moaned quietly but was still largely unresponsive.

By this time, the lady on the phone has told a few other people who have just arrived from the restaurants in the shopping center to get water and ice.

Although it seemed as if a half hour or so had transpired since this drama had begun, it was in reality only three to four minutes.

Suddenly, a case of bottled water appears. The nurse repeats “we need to lower his body temperature.” One by one, we each grab one or two bottles of water and begin to pour water on the man. I start off with his head, making sure not to get any in his nose or mouth. Five or six hands surround the body of the man and tenderly, maybe even lovingly, saturate this stranger with bottled water. I’m struck by the surreal image of these gentle hands attending to this bearded stranger. The man now begins to stir and groan a little more audibly. I continue praying silently.

Another restaurant employee arrives with a bag of ice and some linen table cloths. The nurse repeats, “we need to lower his body temperature.” All the while she has been on the phone. She tells me that she is on the phone with someone from 9-1-1 and they discuss his condition.

About eight to ten people are now at the scene, continuing to pour water on the man. Another nurse decides to ask the man if he can drink some water. He doesn’t respond. A straw is miraculously found and the nurse starts helping him drink water through the straw.

An umbrella appears and I am asked if I want to hold it to shade the man from the pressing sun as the now eight to ten of us are slowly but surely doing our best to cool off this poor man. Someone says, “let’s cool off his legs and feet.” Another suggests “let’s take off his clothes.” That second suggestion doesn’t gain support but I take off his shoes with my free hand, while someone takes the umbrella from my other hand. I now pour water on both of his feet as the other nine to eleven people continue attending to him.

A siren is heard in the near distance coming closer. A fire truck and then eventually, an ambulance arrive.

All ten to twelve of us who have been attending to this man stand off to the side at silent attention watching the professionals assess and attend to the man. Our collective gaze remains on the man. Questions are asked of us by the emergency professionals and our nurse responds. “He had a two to three minute seizure and then vomited” I remind her.

For the first time, I look around to the assembled group that has been involved in attending to this stranger and I see a diverse collection of people from the community, who have stopped their day and are standing in the sun on the sidewalk. Some are wearing restaurant server uniforms, some are wearing touristy shorts, some have casual wear, and I stand there with my suit and tie. I see a young African American man with long dreadlocks squatting, his eyes closed, obviously praying.

I could feel my heart smile at that moment realizing that God has brought us together. One reason was to let this man know that he is not alone. That he is cared for – even if times are tough for him now. Even if he faces an uncertain future, we, the folks who God has placed here in his path care.

We were also brought together to remind each other that we are better than what we are sometimes led to believe. We are told how cold and uncaring our communities, especially in the larger cities, can be. But here in Houston, Texas in mid July 2015, a group of strangers became fully alive in their caring for a fellow human being, a stranger.

What I was blessed to encounter on that mid-summer day in Houston, Texas was not unusual. It is not rare. I know that it happens every day in communities around the world.

We don’t often write or hear about the wonderful gifts that we are given in this life. On this July day, this stranger received the gift of caring. Those of us blessed to witness our community caring for a stranger on this day also received a gift. We received the blessing of knowing that to be truly human is to care – to love one another.

As the stranger was loaded onto the stretcher and then into the ambulance, the group that had gathered on the sidewalk began to slowly disperse.

“Que Dios les bendiga…God bless you” someone said.

“The Glory of God is man fully alive.”

St. Irenaeus

2nd Century, A.D.

An edited version of this reflection was published in the September 13, 2015 edition of The Monitor.


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