Light in a Dark Place

Sometimes God gives us opportunities above and beyond our everyday choices, chances to shine as a bright light in a dark place. Yesterday I took one of those opportunities, and I’m still reeling from it.

Thursday, February 21, we pushed out our first release of 2019 at work. With President’s Day on Monday and all the snow the previous weeks, I didn’t feel as comfortable as usual. Every working day that week I put in 10-hour days and still felt less well prepared than I like. But that evening I left work at about 6:25 PM relieved and ready to enjoy a slow, dry, “warm” bike commute home before really nasty weather pummeled us again.

I almost didn’t ride. I’d ridden Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, including a 50-mile ride on Monday. By Wednesday evening’s commute of misery (a different story) my legs had plenty to say about doing more miles, and I’d nearly decided to take the bus home. But at the last minute I checked the weather and decided to take advantage of the one last nice day, fatigue be darned.

I’d ridden nary 15 minutes, and had just gotten on the bike trail near Gasworks Park, when I noticed several bikes laid on the ground around the sides of the trail. Then I noticed a cluster of people standing around together off to the side, and one person sitting down.

“Are you okay?” I called.

Nobody answered. That’s when I noticed the face of the lady sitting down. Blood streaked all over her nose, cheeks, and chin.

I stopped.

The bloody lady, named Teresa, had collided with another cyclist, Ben. Ben seemed completely unharmed. Teresa, however, looked terrible. The blood stopped me, but then hearing her talking worried me deeply. Her words came slow and confused.

“Has anyone called 911?” I asked.

Nobody answered.

I remembered from my First Aid classes that in emergencies, you need someone to take charge and start making decisions.

So I called. I explained to the dispatcher that two bikes had collided, and she asked if anyone needed to go to the hospital. At first it seemed uncertain, so the dispatcher asked to talk to Teresa.

“What day is it?” the dispatcher asked. Teresa had no idea.

“How old are you?” To this puzzler, Teresa answered, “What year is it?”

The dispatcher sent first responders and an ambulance.

Burke Bike Crash 2

Burke Bike Crash 1
Firefighters evaluating Teresa. Teresa’s bike, visible leaning in the background, had a tacoed front wheel. The other person in the collision is the cyclist in the blue jacket on the left.

While the firefighters evaluated Teresa, I started talking to the other cyclists standing around. A couple had stopped to help, but two of them had actually witnessed the collision, and the other person in the collision had stayed around, too. I gathered up their names and phone numbers so Teresa could decide what to do, once her brain started working better again.

After having talked with Teresa a little bit while we waited for the firefighters and ambulance, I gathered that she’d just moved from Philadelphia to Seattle in January. Her parents lived in California. She had no roommates or significant others with her. She was completely alone except for one cat.

Completely alone except for me.

Teresa couldn’t process anything at that point. She could barely see; she knew who she was, but couldn’t remember anything about the crash, what was going on, where she was, or anything pertaining to the date.

I couldn’t leave her alone to go to Harborview in that condition. You need an advocate in a hospital, someone to make sure you get blankets and water and to help answer questions various doctors have asked a million times before. I didn’t know anything about her, and I couldn’t help with questions about insurance, home address, or family. But I could make sure she didn’t spend the night confused, uncomfortable, and alone in the hospital.

As a parent, I can imagine how it would feel if my child was alone and injured in a strange place. I’d want someone to take care of my child until I arrived.

Honestly, I didn’t even debate what to do. I gave my bike to the firefighters, who housed it and Teresa’s bike until we could reclaim them, and I went in the ambulance with Teresa to Harborview.

Bike Crash 3
In the ambulance, Teresa really wanted reassurance that someone had taken care of her bike. Naturally.

We arrived there at about 7:00 PM, I think. At that point we passed through a portal into Hospital Time, some kind of strange spaghettification zone where everything takes 10 times longer than you ever imagined possible.

Bike Crash 4
Arriving at Harborview.

I’ll summarize about eight hours in the hospital by saying that, after x-rays, a head and neck CAT scan, and a careful evaluation by a oral/maxillofacial specialist, the doctors concluded that Teresa had a concussion, a fractured nose, fractured sinuses, and a really nasty hole in her lip where her teeth had poked all the way through.

The bearded doctor in the picture above sewed Teresa up quite expertly–he turned out to be a facial surgeon who’d also gone to dental school, really the perfect person for the job. He found a piece of Teresa’s tooth in her lip. Ew.

In the infinitely long interludes between doctor visits, Teresa and I chatted. At first she kept forgetting what we’d talked about, but within a few hours, she started getting much more lucid.

After an embarrassingly long time, I remembered I had an entire change of clothes in my bag. I felt much better after I’d changed out of my bike shorts. Then I remembered I also had a sandwich, brought as dinner for the release, but that I didn’t feel like eating before I left. With these two realizations, the stay became so much more bearable for me.

Throughout the night, I made sure Teresa had blankets and, later, water and the painkillers she felt comfortable taking (Tylenol only, please). I advocated for Teresa with the doctors and nurses, asking when the next step would happen and making sure we didn’t get forgotten. I also kept all her belongings with her (except the shirt they had to cut off her — sorry, shirt), facilitated a phone call with her mom in California, and sent messages for her until she recovered enough to use her phone herself.

Her mom bought tickets to fly to Seattle arriving at noon today, and I promised her I’d take care of Teresa until she arrived. I worried that Teresa shouldn’t go home to her empty apartment in Ballard all by herself after Harborview discharged her. Who would get her painkillers and water if she needed them? What if she got worse — who would monitor her?

We brought her home to our house.

Easier said than done, of course; we had a logistical nightmare, arranging for Deborah to come and stay at our house at 2 AM while Ian drove to Seattle to retrieve us. But by the kindness and grace of our family, we did it. At about 3:15 AM I installed Teresa in our guest bedroom with extra pillows (using our oldest pillow cases and a large towel; her facial road rash continued oozing for some time, plus the hospital equipped her with lots of ointment for her face) and Ian and I put ourselves to bed.

I found it hard to sleep, having spent the last 22 hours not only awake, but under extreme pressure. Eventually I must have drifted off, only to awaken again when Benji got up at 5:20 AM to go potty.

In the morning we had a car logistical shuffle; I needed a car to go get my bike from the fire station in Fremont, while Ian and Benji needed to drive to Redmond. Mom and Dad loaned us a car, possible because Dad had gotten a cold and decided to work from home.

During the day I “worked” from home, but “working” on what could only generously be described as two hours of sleep didn’t go real well. Fortunately, my boss understood when I explained the situation. I also rescued my bike from the fire station and made sure Teresa got plenty of water in the times she felt like being up. We chatted a bit more, and I learned more about Teresa. She’s a lovely person, a Christian who’s looking for a church home having just moved here (I recommended Bethany in Ballard) and a postdoc doing chemical engineering research at the UW.

Teresa’s mom arrived from the airport at our house about 1:15 PM and swept Teresa back off to Ballard for some family care.

Teresa and I had a long, sincere hug before she left. She has my phone number, and I’m pretty sure that’s not the last I’ll see of her. You can’t go through this without some connection. I certainly feel like I’ve got a special place in my heart for Teresa, and I know I won’t ever forget the last 24 hours.

Why’d I do it? So many reasons. Jesus calls us to care for the widows and orphans, and until her mom got here, Teresa was basically an orphan. She was my neighbor. She needed that care so desperately, care we could give. Then, too, I mentioned before that I knew she’s someone’s daughter. I wouldn’t want someone to leave my child hurt in that situation, and I couldn’t do that to her, either. And of course there’s the Golden Rule: Next time I could be the one on the pavement having no memory of what just happened. Who would take care of me?

Why’d I spend the night in the hospital and house a total stranger?

‘I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

Matthew 25:36 (MSG)

Why do I share all this? Not to toot my own horn or try to show what a great person I am, but to show that every single one of us has these opportunities. The question is what we do when they arise.