Right place, right time
Sometimes a person is forced into a situation that will shape the life of another forever. And the thought may nag forever just how that other person turned out. Doctors, nurses, cops and firefighters must have these feelings all the time. Life and death events occur daily thoughout the world yet most folks never get caught up in one. One day I did.
I was never a fan of bicycles, particularly the ones in the movie “Breaking Away.” Hard to control, most were heavy and had a hiked-up seat with curved-down handle bars that were set so far up front a rider had to lean well over them. Those bikes seemed to be everywhere in the early ‘80s. I was never comfortable on any bike and certainly not one of these. I knew others weren’t either.
As a long-distance runner living in Chicago, I witnessed my share of frightful cycling accidents and near-misses along the the lake front, particularly on beautiful days when the pathways would be crowded with bikers, skaters, walkers, runners, dogs, Frisbee tossers, football throwers, picnickers, swimmers, sun bathers, cops. Everybody seemed to be there and somebody was always in the way.
To crack down on the speedier and perhaps more reckless cyclers, the city installed speedbumps along the lakefront bikepaths. I didn’t think it was a very good idea. I found out first-hand just why.
A beautiful late-morning sun beckoned me to hit the path for another long run. I lived inland along Montrose Avenue and it was two miles before reaching the lake. Turning south as I reached the path, I was feeling fast and was clipping along past Irving Park and Addison before reaching a Y in the path at Belmont Harbor, asphalt going left for those on wheels, and a packed-dirt trail for the runners and everybody else. The speedbumps began just where the asphalt did.
Hardly anyone had been around as I approached the Y. Just one woman tweedling along on her Breaking Away bike, as she took the Y left. She was going too slow, I thought, and seemed wobbly as she approached the bump. I lost sight of her as I veered onto the cinder path, but then I instantly heard this thud and recognized the sound of a bike hitting the ground. I had brushed off many a spilled rider the past year so I stopped again, annoyed that a good-feeling run had been spoiled, turned back to grab the bike and lean it against a tree and returned to see if that woman was all right.
Her body had become rigid, her arms pinned to her sides. Her body flopped like a huge fish. Her waist became a fulcrum. As her feet came up, her head was whipped onto the pavement, and so rapidly, three or four times before I could reach her. I cradled her head and braced with all my strength but still her head would crash down again and again. The knuckles of my left hand bled as the flesh was ground away, taking the force of the impact. But the convulsing stopped. I looked around and spotted two park workers. I raced toward them, pleading through their reluctance, crying that if they didn’t get help in two minutes that woman over there would be dead in five.
I sprinted back, trying to remember exactly what my EMT father had taught me about CPR. We practiced on plastic dummies during a 4-H training session my dad had conducted. I knew what to do on a dummy. God, how I prayed I could get this right now when it was real. I knew there were pressure points near the back of the jaw. But do I press up, in, down, what? I tried everything. Seconds seemed like minutes, minutes she didn’t have. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon!” Her jaw wouldn’t open. She had swallowed her tongue. Her lips were turning that horrible bluish purple and little bubbles of saliva dribbled down her chin. She was drowning.
“C’MON!!” I screamed at her. At last her jaw popped open, I tipped back her head, cleared her passageway and she began to breathe. A man leaned over my shoulder and placed a plastic coated steel bike cable between her teeth. She was unconscious but breathing more normally.
We could relax a little. A crowd of 10 or so had gathered by now. None of us knew what would happen next. I implored those around not to do or say anything she might hear that would add to what had to be an unsure state of mind. Suddenly she sprang to her feet like a newborn colt. Someone in the group recognized her, comforting her and explaining that she had fallen but that she was all right and that her baby would be all right, too.
The woman had been six perhaps seventh months pregnant. It explained why her hands had been down by her sides, trying to protect her baby and not break her own fall. I hadn’t even noticed.
An ambulance never came. A paddy wagon arrived. A cop tried to disperse the group and send the wagon on its way. I approached to give details of the accident, thinking that it might help in ER to know what happened. He must have thought I was some gawker for he cut me off before I could really start.
“Hey,” one woman said. “He helped … A LOT!”
Still pumped with adrenaline, I finished my run, probably in record time. After I got home, I met up with my dad, and went over every detail. He said I did just about all I could, but should have taken off my shoes and used them to cushion the women’s head, which in her state was impossible to stop from banging into the ground.
Over the years I’ve wondered about how that day turned out, and whether by now there was a 35-year-old man or woman born a couple of months after that day who now had a family of their own. And whether I could have or even should have made my case stronger for accompanying that woman to the hospital. Part of me wishes that if all went well I could have played a role in their lives or at least known something about them over all these years. But another part of me feels I have no right. It’s their lives. We owe each other nothing. She was a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was in the right place at the right time. I’ve left it at that.