15 minutes to change a lifetime
Wednesday evening, after finishing his last final of the semester, my son picked up his two favorite 11-year olds. One was the younger brother of his college girlfriend, and they were all headed out for pizza. The overcast day had finally released some gentle rain, and as the sun set behind the trees, the roads turned a glassy black, the result of water mixing with the oils that had accumulated on the road over time.
He was the second to arrive on the scene of an accident. The first car was an older lady who was still in her car talking to 911. A single car had spun on the gentle curve of the country road, and after spinning had wrapped around a tree. The impact was at the driver’s door, and the passenger door had popped away from the latch to facilitate the bending. Ben didn’t realize until later how deeply he gashed his hand pulling the passenger door open enough to climb in. If some meaningful first aid was needed, he was ready.
The man was about 30, of Latin decent, and unconscious. Ben found a pulse in the man’s right wrist. A slow pulse. A weak one. “Can you wake up? Can you stay alert?” It was when the man opened his eyes that Ben could see the extent of the damage this man had suffered. Eyes were extended beyond their sockets, and were bleeding. Blood was draining from his mouth, and against the skin at the side of his throat the bones from his spine were pushing out. He was alive, but he wasn’t going to live.
Ben told me the hand he was holding was a strong hand, clean but with callouses from hard work. It was also lifeless. He desperately wanted to help this man, but there was nothing he could do to ameliorate the damage. Ben started talking. He told the man everything that Ben would have wanted to hear in the same situation. “You have been in an accident. No one else was hurt. Your injury includes a lung puncture, and significant head damage. I am here to help. More help will arrive soon. The hospital is close. As long as you are staying alert, you can know that your system is fighting.”
Then Ben realized there was more he would want to know. So, to the stranger on the seat beside him, Ben started to say more. “I will find your family. I will tell them what happened. I will tell them that you love them.” And because his family wasn’t there to say goodbye, he said: “I am sure your family loves you, too. I am sure they are proud of what you have done for them. You will be greatly missed if you don’t hang on.” Ben has heard it before from me, but I suppose you don’t focus on the priorities in life as sharply as when you are touched by death. When facing death no one is concerned with a watch, or a house, or a car. People are the only thing that matter. People are the only thing that matter. People are the only thing that matter.
After my son’s hand was bandaged by the medics, he called me. “Please don’t let my younger sister drive on bald tires. Tell her she should slow down on wet roads, even if she believes she has traction. Tell her to anticipate the dangers and behave accordingly. I know you have told her before because you have told those things to me. I just didn’t understand the way I understand now.”
Each of us believes we have already lost our innocence, that future events won’t teach us something significantly new. But the truth is that we still can have life altering experiences regardless of the ones behind us. Ben didn’t see the violent accident that killed this man. He didn’t hear the man’s voice or know his name. In 15 minutes, Ben learned very little about this dying man. But in this same 15 minutes, Benjamin learned a wealth about himself. His path will change. How it will change I don’t know, but it will change.