hands with pink nailpolish practice chest compressions on a CPR dummy on the floor
Practicing CPR on a dummy (Wikimedia-Truckee Meadows Community College CC BY 2.0)

As my son watched, a stranger’s life was in my hands

I have a recurring dream where I’m running from danger. Someone is chasing me, or I’m trying to escape from a tight space. I look around for help, and when I don’t see anyone, I open my mouth to cry out. But it’s always the same: In that crucial moment, my voice fails me. I can’t make a sound.

Earlier this spring, a man collapsed on the sidewalk in front of my next-door neighbor’s house. My neighbor had hired the man to do landscaping work while she was on vacation, and I had seen him working outside while I was home with my baby during the day. I waved to him when I got into my car in the midafternoon to pick up my son from school. When we got home a half-hour later, I was busy with the kids and didn’t notice anything unusual. But a few minutes after that, my afternoon babysitter came into my house and told me there was a man lying on the sidewalk and she couldn’t tell if he was OK.

I went outside to take a look, baby in my arms. The man was lying flat on his back, body on the grass, head on the sidewalk. (I would later find out his name was Marty and he was in his early 60s.) His eyes stared up at the sky and his skin was gray, starting to turn blue. I told Amanda, the sitter, to call 911 right away and ran with the baby to pound on another neighbor’s door. When she didn’t answer, I handed the baby off to Amanda and knelt down beside Marty.

I was last trained in CPR three years ago, when my husband and I pooled our resources with a few other parents to hire a trainer to bring her props and dummies to one of our homes and teach us how to react in an emergency. Our entire focus that day had been on our own children. By spending three hours of our weekend memorizing how to hold and treat a choking infant or an unconscious toddler, we hoped we could inoculate ourselves against every parent’s worst fear. We didn’t want to be terrified and impotent if tragedy were to strike. We wanted to feel that we were doing all we could to keep our children safe.

I’d called upon those CPR skills once in the intervening years, when my oldest son, Nate, swallowed a toy and it lodged in his throat. But that situation had never been life-threatening, and my husband had been by my side. Now, I looked up and down the block and saw no one who could help, no one more qualified than me to whom I could hand over responsibility. And I could barely recall the details of that CPR training three years ago. But I remembered two things: It’s better to do something than nothing. And performing chest compressions is considered the priority (in many cases, rescue breaths are no longer recommended).

So I shook Marty, and when he didn’t respond, I placed my hands on his chest. It felt odd to touch a stranger’s unresponsive body. His body moved as I pressed down over and over, but he never reacted in any way, although I had the eerie sensation that his hands might fly up suddenly at any moment. I heard Amanda give the 911 operator our address, and the minutes continued to pass as I pushed and pushed on Marty’s chest in what I hoped was the right spot, the street still empty. I opened my mouth. “Help,” I whispered.

I was a wreck by the time the EMTs came, though it took them only a few minutes. As they took over, I turned back to my house, where I saw that Nate, who’s 4, had been standing silently in the front yard the whole time, watching everything unfold, watching me fall to pieces when the fire engine finally arrived on our block. Our street quickly filled with emergency vehicles and neighbors gathered while the EMTs tried to resuscitate Marty and police officers interviewed Amanda and me. I kept trying to get Nate to go inside, but he was captivated by the police cars, ambulances and fire engines, and my attention, too, kept being diverted elsewhere. The EMTs worked on Marty on the sidewalk for a good 45 minutes, using a defibrillator and other treatments to try to save his life. But finally, a firefighter informed me that he had been pronounced dead. He may have had a cardiac condition, he said.

I was shocked and broken up over the loss of Marty, who I would learn had children, a family and dear friends. I worried about how the incident would affect Nate, who had seen so much. But later he only talked about how there had been an emergency and how the police and firefighters had come to help. Even though Nate is curious about death and often asks questions about it, he never asked what happened to Marty, and I elected not to volunteer the information. A few days later, Nate and I baked cookies and brought them to the fire station that had responded to our emergency.

I learned CPR to protect my children. I now realize what a narrow perspective that is. At any time, any one of us may be called upon to lay our hands in aid on another human being. As inadequate as I felt, I’m proud that Nate saw me do that. I’ll be taking a CPR refresher course soon, so that if the time comes again, I’ll feel prepared to play my role.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.