Easter came unusually early in 2008, on March 23, and preparations for Easter dinner that year had been tough. My head was killing me as I rolled out the dough for my father’s pizza rustica recipe; miserable back pain accompanied mashing potatoes for my mother’s croquettes recipe. Really, the coconut cake decorated with jelly beans was the last straw, but in the end, everything was good, and no one but my husband, Thom, knew how bad I felt. Maybe the headaches and back pain were a result of stress I was feeling from serving as executor of my mother’s will, but not even Ativan made a difference.
A week and a half later, a Thursday morning, I was riding the Metro from Eastern Market to Friendship Heights to visit my beloved eye doctor for a glaucoma check. Maybe my eye pressure was out of control again, something that could have explained the persistent headaches. I’d find out when I got there. I had already seen a primary care provider who had ordered a CT scan of my head but found no problem.
On that crowded, rush-hour train, I was overcome with nausea. I told a woman that I was going to vomit and asked for part of her newspaper. She looked alarmed, and she rifled through her paper for a section she considered expendable. I remember thinking, “You better hurry up or you and your paper are both going to be very sorry.” Finally, she handed me a flimsy advertising insert. I rolled it into a cone.
But as the train approached Federal Triangle, I realized something far worse than an upset stomach was happening to me. I hurried off the train.
Do you remember the scene from “Doctor Zhivago” when Zhivago sees his Lara on the street, leaps off a Moscow trolley and tries to chase after her, all the time clutching his left arm? Zhivago suffers the heart attack that leaves him dead. That was me, trying desperately to reach one of the stone benches in the Federal Triangle station, clutching my left arm and feeling massive chest pain.
I heard a woman’s voice from down the platform call, “Do you need help?”
“I do,” I answered, sounding pitiful.
Next, I remember sitting down, this unknown savior at my side. I was able to call my Thom on my cellphone as this stranger shouted for help. The station manager arrived in what seemed to me like seconds. He produced a blood pressure cuff. The stranger, my advocate, admonished him to hurry up and to call an ambulance, and she rubbed my back, and whispered soothingly. I heard her say worriedly that she was on her way to the funeral of someone who had died in that very Metro station just a week before.
A train stopped. The doors opened, and my Thom’s voice called, “Here I am, Baba.” The stranger told an onlooker that my husband was here, and so was the EMS.
Soon, I was in an ambulance on the way to Washington Hospital Center, where they determined that the inner wall of my aorta had torn. Because I have a difficult history with this condition (this was my fourth aortic aneurysm), Thom and I were put on a medical transport plane for Houston, where a gifted young surgeon named Kapil Sharma at the Texas Heart Institute built me a new, artificial aorta during a 19-hour surgery. Complications kept me in a coma for 17 days.
When I finally woke, confused to be in Houston, confused to see my brother Ciro walking through the door, I was filled with thoughts about my Federal Triangle savior. I never saw her face or asked her name. I still think of her, remembering her only as a middle-aged, African American woman in business dress. I know for sure that if it weren’t for this stranger, I would be dead.
I can’t help but think about this as Easter, with its theme of rebirth and renewal, arrives anew, and I am once again rolling out dough and mashing potatoes. I also think about this: Would I have done for my mysterious savior what she did for me that day, if our roles were reversed?
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