It was still dark when I turned the corner and saw the woman lying on the ground. It was outside the transit station, and a few other early-morning commuters had slowed to see what was going on. Shared glances communicated our mutual concern for the young woman spread-eagled on the sidewalk. One man leaned over, peering down into her face.
“Miss? Can you hear me? Are you all right?”
I pulled out my phone but heard a man nearby relaying specifics of our location. I pointed my phone at him–“911?”–and he nodded. I returned my attention to the young woman.
I knelt at her side. My first guess had been that she was drunk and passed out–the bushes lining the walk near the transit station are a habitual crash-point for Seattle’s homeless–but a closer look told me my first guess was wrong.
Young, Asian, her straight black hair cropped to shoulder length, she wore a University of Washington hoodie and had a purse strapped across her body. Her eyes were closed, her cheeks were shiny with tears, and her mouth was flecked with spittle, but she was breathing and her hand, when I held it, was warm.
“Should we turn her on her side?” someone asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “unless she starts coughing.”
The man on the phone with 911 said, “Medic One is on its way. Will someone stay with her until they arrive?”
There was no way I was going to leave her, so I raised my hand. A few others did likewise.
Then she opened her eyes.
She stared, looked around, tried to sit up, and began to cry.
I reached forward and put my arm around her to steady her.
“It’s all right,” I said. “You’re all right. We have help on the way. It’s okay.”
A woman squatted down and joined us. Blonde, middle-aged, she asked a few pertinent questions. “Do you feel all right? Are you on any medication?”
Between ragged breaths she said yes, she was on medication. She looked around and her tears stopped as she asked, “Where am I?”
“You’re at Convention Place,” I said, still holding her hand, still propping her up. “At the transit station.”
As she put the pieces together, her tears returned, borne by deep sobs that throttled me with their raw emotion. My reassurances, my weak and puny words did nothing to assuage her fear, her confusion. I felt helpless before such anguish. In tearful fragments, she told us that she had epilepsy, that this was the fifth seizure she’d had in two months. Then another wave of panic hit her as she began checking her person.
“Your purse is right here,” I told her, and pulled it around to where she could reach it.
“I want to call my boyfriend,” she said, and the blonde woman with us knelt down, phone in hand.
“What’s his number?” She gave it, the blonde woman tapped it in, and handed her the phone. It rang, but no answer–“He probably doesn’t recognize the number.”–so she handed it back and began hunting through her purse for her own phone. Bright red prescription bottles rattled and gleamed in the streetlamps but no phone emerged; panic tightened her body as she searched but couldn’t find it.
Sirens keened in the distance, echoing down the dark streets. I turned to look and felt something beneath my shin. Reaching down, I saw it was her phone. “Here, honey,” I said. “Here’s you phone.” She took it in hand and I felt her body relax against me. “Thank you,” she said, her first words that were not tinged with distress.
The medics arrived and took charge of the situation. The small knot of passers-by loosened. I stood up and stepped back out of the circle of concern, no longer a participant, once again a mere observer. Reluctantly, I began to turn away, but was stopped by a hand on my shoulder. A tall woman, black skin and braided hair piled high, faced me. “Thank you for staying with her,” she said. I smiled. “Of course,” was all I could think of to say.
As I walked the two remaining blocks to work, I was suffused by conflicting emotions. Surprisingly, I was angry, white-hot angry at a natural world that would afflict such a young, vibrant person with a debilitating and unpredictable burden that she could neither control nor counter. On the other hand, I felt proud of the city in which I live. Strangers on the Seattle street had seen someone in need and acted. We coordinated our efforts, we discussed options, we took responsibility, and we saw it through until experts arrived.
I like to think that most people around the country would act as we did, kneeling down to help a stranger, forming a circle of protection and care, but I’m not sure it would happen that way. Our society seems less willing to extend a hand these days, and our elected representatives even less so, but as people, we know what is right. We know how to act. We know how to treat each other.
We fail when we lose sight of the individual and just see the label.
This morning, a young woman fell down but, with help, she got up again. May it always be so, for everyone who stumbles and falls.