On a balmy summer night about two months ago, Joe Cwiklinski climbed into his car, strapped on the seat belt, and began driving home from a friend’s house in Virginia.

As he made the familiar turns — sweeping up onto George Washington Parkway, then the Southwest Freeway — the retired elementary school teacher, 75, wondered why he had felt nauseated during dinner.

Around the same time, miles away in Southeast D.C., 45-year-old Toni Pollard finally gave in to her friends’ pleas. Okay, fine, Pollard, a registered medical assistant, told the two women. She would walk with them to the neighborhood Harris Teeter grocery store.

Cwiklinski is alive today because she did.

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At a ceremony held Thursday morning at the Engine Co. 8 firehouse in Southeast, Cwiklinski met his rescuers for the first time. Firefighters, residents and members of the press gathered to hear D.C. officials recount the dramatic tale of neighborhood heroics: how Cwiklinski suffered a sudden heart attack around 8 p.m. on Aug. 12, just blocks from his home, and crashed his car in the middle of the street. How concerned strangers spilled from their houses and porches, praying, crying and calling 911.

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How Pollard — midway to the Harris Teeter — spotted Cwiklinski, still sprawled in the driver’s seat, looking as if he didn’t have a pulse. Drawing on her medical training, Pollard, who is CPR-certified, pulled Cwiklinski from the car, jumped atop his chest and started madly pumping, up-and-down-and-up-and-down, until paramedics arrived.

“Joe was actually turning colors in that car,” Pollard said in an interview Thursday. “I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, got to pump, got to pump.’ … It was exhausting, but the neighbors encouraging me gave me strength to keep going: harder, harder, harder.”

A few minutes later, D.C. Fire and EMS personnel arrived and transported Cwiklinski to the nearest hospital, where doctors concluded Pollard’s quick work had saved his life. But Cwiklinski had no idea whom to thank — and anxious neighbors did not know the final fate of the man they had worked so hard to keep from death.

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A few days after Cwiklinski got out of the hospital, his longtime partner, Tom Kai — who had been riding in the passenger seat that night — suggested a solution: Why not post a thank-you sign near the site of the accident? The couple decided to tie a single, laminated piece of white paper to a tree. “Good Samaritans of Potomac Ave — You saved My Life!” it read in part, before concluding: “Forever Grateful, Joe.”

“I had no idea how to get the message out — I didn’t know who these people were,” Kai said. “And I’m not digitally savvy. So I thought, maybe a sign would work.”

It did.

A stranger snapped a picture of the sign and posted it to Twitter, which led to social media speculation, then press coverage, then the involvement of D.C. Fire and EMS — and, finally, the award ceremony Thursday. After a brief speech by D.C. Fire and EMS medical director Robert Holman, Cwiklinski listened — head bowed and hands clasped — as D.C. Council staffer Nichole Opkins recounted how medical personnel had to administer two rounds of electric shocks to keep his heart going.

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Then he took the podium.

“I didn’t really realize all of the things that had to be done to get me to this point right now,” Cwiklinski said.

He glanced sideways to where Pollard stood, a few feet away, in purplish-blue medical scrubs and shiny clogs. They had met formally for the first time that morning.

“I’m still absorbing it,” he added. “All I can really think of to say right now is thank you.”

Once the applause died down, Cwiklinski reached into a blue plastic box and handed thick medallions — known as “Cardiac Arrest Save Coins” and granted only to those who’ve “returned a pulse to the pulse-less,” Holman said — to every person who participated in his rescue. One by one, he shook hands with and murmured his thanks to Sgt. Jason Lerch, EMS Capt. Jason Sadler, and firefighters Joshua Bazara, George Hayden, Laurie Parrish, John Anderson and Brandon Cober.

When Pollard stepped forward to receive her coin, Cwiklinski traded the handshake for a hug.

Later, Pollard said meeting the man whose life she saved felt surreal. It was hard, almost impossible, to believe her hands — “these hands,” she said, holding them up — kept Cwiklinski from the lip of the grave.

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“I’ve never saved a life before, and to see someone that you actually saved their life … it’s like a miracle, and it’s still a shock to me,” Pollard said. “People are all saying, ‘You’re getting an award!’ and, you know, my real reward is Joe.”

After the ceremony, Pollard sat beside Cwiklinski in the firehouse munching on kruchen — a Hungarian version of coffee cake, stuffed with peaches and apples. Cwiklinski baked the pastry the night before as a special treat for his saviors.

Cwiklinski loves to cook all kinds of things, he said, especially “the unusual recipes.” Kruchen has been a favorite since childhood, though he prefers to make the cake with seeded grapes, not apples and peaches. (Harris Teeter only had the seedless variety when he went shopping this week, Cwiklinski explained.)

Pollard looked at the former teacher, white-haired and grinning slightly in a floral shirt.

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“This ain’t the dead guy I was doing all that to on that day — this is not the guy!” she said, putting down her pastry. “And to see that you are that guy is amazing.”

Cwiklinski said he finds Pollard a little startling, too.

“This is the person, this is it,” he said. “There is somebody who really did this, and this is the person.”

They both shook their heads. Firefighters and neighbors filed by, snagging slices of kruchen. The question hung unspoken: What if Pollard hadn’t agreed to walk to the grocery store that Monday?

“You don’t know what to expect,” Cwiklinski said.

Almost at the same time, Pollard chimed in: “You just don’t know what to expect.”

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