Whenever I stray too far from humor in this column it feels a little cringey, like an episode of “Diff’rent Strokes” that mutes the laugh track and tackles a serious issue. But sometimes up against a deadline, it can be a little unavoidable, so please bear with me.
Last month, Margo and I were riding our bikes to Oakhurst Market when I saw a man standing over his bicycle. As I was passing him, he went down in a way that suggested he wasn’t just fainting from the mid-July heat. I shouted ahead for Margo to stop.
I spent a hard second thinking about what happens next. For months I have been in conscientious pandemic protocol – wearing a mask and maintaining healthy distances, even from good friends. Now, was I really about to perform CPR on a total stranger? My father used to say the right thing to do is always the right thing to do. Dad never lived through a pandemic but still, he was right. Right?
Another bystander called 911 and relayed instructions to me. Two breaths, thirty compressions, repeat. A couple from across the street jumped in to help with the CPR. Paramedics arrived in three minutes and we stepped back, desperate for a good outcome. But it wasn’t meant to be.
My parents both died of sudden heart failure at ages not much older than I am now, so this hit on some vulnerabilities like a hammer. My heart ached for his family knowing the phone call they were about to receive. Then my friend Julie (who works so hard battling for all our lives at the CDC) strongly advised I wear a mask at home until I could find out how the man tested for COVID-19. That Sunday afternoon felt like an exclamation point on a terrible year.
I couldn’t bear the thought of infecting anyone so in an abundance of caution I traded residences with my mother-in-law. Ever wise beyond her 10 years, Margo insisted the dog come with me and I am so grateful she did. That first night was almost surreal and entirely sleepless. Man, did I ever need the company of that dog.
HIPAA laws prevented me from obtaining the man’s test result, so the authorities said my best bet was to contact his next of kin. And I learned that the 911 operator gave us outdated instructions. Unless the paramedics cannot arrive imminently, they do not recommend breaths anymore. In the age of COVID-19, they don’t even want people doing compressions. I couldn’t imagine sitting idly by, but this was still salt in the unique wound that is 2020.
A friend found a number for the widow. Reaching out to her felt like one of those Raymond Carver stories where people’s problems and co-dependencies collide in the most difficult ways. But she was incredibly gracious, understanding and open. They had just returned from a great trip to Maine. Her husband liked to ride his bike around Oakhurst and visit friends. She brought flowers to my house and invited me to the Zoom funeral. I was a stew of grief and anxiety until she lifted me. People are amazing.
The man’s doctor even called me. Unfortunately, he was not tested for COVID-19 at the hospital so I would need to await my own results. She figured I was fine but since he had flown the day before probably best to err on the side of caution. She took a few minutes to relay how funny he was and what a reluctant patient he could be. He seemed like a great guy.
The pandemic has been a towering affront to physical and social norms for sure. But the events of this week (and a particularly moving Zoom funeral) reminded me there is still so much compassion and decency out there. And I feel fine – perhaps a bit of a Netflix sloth at this point but fine. Another day or so and I’ll have clearance to move back home. I can’t wait to hug my wife and kids with a renewed hope that better days really do lie ahead.
Editor’s Note: We are happy to report that since Tim wrote this column for our August print edition, he tested negative for COVID-19 and is now back at home with his family.
Tim Sullivan grew up in a large family in the Northeast and now lives with his small family in Oakhurst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.