Unexpected

The framing of our lives can change so quickly. Sometimes you know it’s coming, like when you’re flying into West Africa. One moment you’re at the door of your comfy, climate-controlled pampering euro-styled Delta Airlines 767, the next you’re confronting the teeming mass of Liberia’s harsh poverty, cracked concrete, rust-colored and searing hot.

Sometimes you know it’s coming, and sometimes you don’t.

One minute, you’re joking with your kids about when the pizza will arrive. Katie and her mom are there too. The next moment you’re on your knees at the center of a crowd. Chairs are overturned at the table behind you. The mother’s calling 911, and the father’s thrusting his limp, unconscious little girl into your arms, asking, begging if you know the Heimlich maneuver.

Some part of your mind tries to reconstruct how you got from Point A to Point B so quickly. There was noise at the table behind you. Not surprising – it’s Friday night at Applewood Pizza, and place is teeming with loud unruly offspring scantly under the control of their parents. There’s plenty of yelling, but this sounds different. Someone stands up quickly, in a way that suggests they don’t care that they’ve just knocked over a few chairs. If you were in a bar, you’d be moving out of the way of a fight.

But he’s not yelling at anyone – he’s yelling for help. Is there a doctor? Do you know the Heimlich maneuver? My little girl. Anyone?

He’s yelling for help, and the circle around him widens, staring down at the spectacle, trying to make it real. A man on his knees, holding a ragdoll sleeping child. Yelling, trying to hold down his rising panic. Somehow, you’re the only person who’s stepped forward. You Are Terrified.

He fixates on you: You know the Heimlich maneuver? You nod. And you think you know the Heimlich maneuver for toddlers. But no one else has moved from the circle. You decide to drop the “think” part. You did this in First Aid class. On a plastic dummy. Crap Crap Crap Crap This is For Real.

Suddenly, the child is in your hands. She feels just like a small child, like a sleeping baby gone down for a nap, limp and warm and pink with bows and crinoline. Amid the overturned chairs and yelling, she looks lovely and peaceful as you kneel with her in your arms. Except that, unless you do the Right Thing Right Now, she may die. Right Here. Right Now.

Your mind separates from the action as you watch yourself turn her on your arm. This is why we practice, this is why we practice. Oh-God-I-wish-I’d-practiced-this. Chest against your forearm, head cradled in the same hand. Raise her vertically to check for breathing while trying to remember where on the back you’re supposed to whack. Shoulder blades, right? How hard? You think “I’m going to be whacking this man’s kid.” How do you both feel about that?

But first things first: raise her head to check for breathing. A very young man in a flannel shirt and jeans is now on his knees facing you. He asks if he can help.

“Are you a physician?”

“Yes.”

You realize that it’s been a while since you’ve drawn a breath.

“All yours.”

You take one and hold the girl up while he puts his ear to her mouth.  “She’s pulling air – that’s a very good thing.” He says this calmly, with a hand on the father’s shouldler. Together, you lay her on her back, on the carpet, while he listens and repeats, in a louder, but still Jedi-like voice of serenity: “She’s breathing. It’s a good thing.”

You step back to make room for the mother and stand – you’re not needed here anymore. The young doctor turns back to the girl and gently kneads her tiny hand between his thumb and forefinger, speaking to her in sweet, quiet voice: “Can you hear us, sweetie? Are you feeling okay?” She gags for a second, then takes a deep breath and starts crying, quietly at first, then loudly. Her mother scoops her up and the crowd erupts into soft murmuring.

The doctor’s asking the parents questions: “Was she visibly choking?” “Has she ever had seizures?” as the police car pulls up 30 seconds later. You catch the eye of the first responder as he comes through the door and point him to the nativity-like gathering at your feet. The doctor looks up and says “Breathing and conscious.” The policeman repeats the phrase into his microphone, and somehow, everything’s back to normal. You’re done here.

Father cradles the child, talking with the doctor and paramedics while the Applewood staff help the mother assemble their older child – also in a high chair – and the miscellaneous boxes of pizza for an impromptu visit to Stanford hospital. Everything’s good, but it’s going to be a long night for this family.

At the back of the restaurant, doctor makes his apologies to the friends he was sitting with, kisses his own wife and baby, and heads for the front door; he’s going to the hospital with the family. You watch his wife shrug her shoulders and smile at the evening’s unexpected turn. She’s talking to the friends, saying something like “Well, what do you expect when you marry a doctor? These things happen.”

These things do happen. And sometimes, when you’re lucky, there’s a doctor around. You make a note to look up local first aid refresher classes as soon as you get home – in case there isn’t a doctor around next time things take an unexpected turn.

[Honestly, I’d already started a post about how hard it is to keep writing when you transition from the intensity of a place like Liberia to the humdrum existence of family life in Silicon Valley. Gonna leave that one untouched for a while, I think.]

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