by Jim Cowan from Toronto, ON
On a cold January evening three years ago, on a snowy street corner in North Toronto, I suffered what the medical professionals call a “sudden witnessed collapse”. I remember virtually nothing of the day itself, and certainly nothing of the next few, some of which I spent in a drug-induced coma packed on ice, “like a flounder,” as my wife would say. But, a double-bypass and three months recuperation later, and I was pretty much back to normal, twenty-five pounds lighter and on a much healthier diet and exercise regime.
The survival rate for such incidents is less than ten percent, and I wanted to meet and thank the people who had responded that day: the fire fighters and paramedics who brought me back from a “vital signs absent” state. And over the next few months, I did just that. A family connection in the fire department put me in touch with the crew, and my wife and I visited them at their fire hall. Getting to the paramedics was a bit more difficult, but eventually I met them too, and learned more about what had happened that day, and just how close I’d come to death. Their reaction was well summed up by one of the fire fighters, who said, “So often I go home and tell my wife about something like this, but we never know how it turns out. It’s great to see that this had a happy ending.”
But there was one big hole in the story. Who was the witness to my “sudden witnessed collapse”? All we knew was that a woman saw me fall into a snowbank, called 9-1-1 and stayed with me until the emergency crews arrived. However, as far as we could tell, no one had taken her name, and we couldn’t think of any practical way of finding her.
Last winter, we decided to take up ballroom dancing, which meant that once a week I would meet my wife at the children’s bookstore where she works, where in fact I was headed on the night of my episode. I don’t visit the store all that often, and usually stay for only a few minutes. I walked into the store wearing a coat very similar to the one from two years earlier, and the same hat. Just inside the door, a woman was looking at a book display, and she glanced up at me as I stepped past her.
“Excuse me,” she said, “but can I ask you a personal question?”
I stopped and looked at her, trying to figure out where we could have met.
Then she said, “Did you have a heart attack near here about two years ago?”
“Yes, I did,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “I’m the person who was there that night.”
My angel, as it turns out, is named Helen Healy. She had changed her plans that evening and was heading home when I passed her, looking, she said, “like a man in a big hurry.” She told me that when I was about fifty paces ahead of her, I staggered, grabbed at a bus stop pole, then collapsed. She quickly reached me, saw I was unconscious, and dialed 9-1-1. Incredibly, she said, although there was bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic just a few feet away, no one stopped. She pointed to my dark cap – the same one I was wearing that night – and said, “You have to get rid of that and get a red one. If I hadn’t been there, no one would have seen you.”
She started CPR but, as she notes, I am a big man and she is a small women, and after a while, she saw I was slipping away. The dispatcher told her that the ambulance was only a minute away, and at that point, she stopped the CPR and gave me a big hug. “Hang on,” she said, “don’t die on me.” Moments later, the emergency crews arrived and took over.
Both Helen and I had the same sense that while our first meeting was fortunate, our second one was miraculous. Even now I can’t accurately describe my feelings as we stood there talking, and I told her, hoping not to sound ungrateful, that I needed some time to sort out my reactions. Later, she told me that she found it “emotionally unsettling,” and we remain amazed at the coincidences that caused our paths to cross not once, but twice, on two snowy January evenings.