A Lesson in Compassion

I thought of him again today.  This happens from time to time.  He randomly pops into my mind, and once I start thinking about him, I cannot stop.  He’s made a huge impact on my life; I will never forget him.

And I don’t even know his name.

It was a typical hum-drum day at the office, as I sat looking at yet another unpaid claim from an insurance company.  I worked in medical billing at this time, and my job was to appeal (a.k.a. fight) the insurance companies on behalf of our patients.  Glamorous, it was not.  But, I liked my job.  I always felt like I was helping the everyday working man.  (Cue super hero music and patriotic flag/sunrise/eagle scene.)

Oh yeah, that's me. Saving the country, one claim at a time.

On this typical day, about 8 years ago, one of my co-workers burst into the office, saying she needed help in the parking lot.  Not even knowing what was going on, myself and 2 other women ran out to help her.  We get out to the parking lot to find our co-worker and an elderly woman standing outside of a car in the parking lot, the passenger side door wide open and an empty wheelchair sitting on the sidewalk.  I was more than just a little confused.

As I slowly walked up to the car, I saw what the problem was.  The elderly woman’s husband, probably in his early 70’s, was sitting on the floor of the front passenger seat.  He had both legs amputated at the knee, and one of his arms was amputated at the elbow.  Apparently, his wife had tried to get him into his wheelchair, and he had fallen to the floor of the car.

The couple was going to the plastic surgeon’s office, which was next door to ours.  The wife had already gone into that office to see if someone could come out and help her.  No one would.  I guess it was too much of a liability for them to get involved.  Or, at least that’s what I tell myself.  Hopefully, the people weren’t so callous as to not even care about their own patient who desperately needed help.

So, the wife tried the office next door.  Our office.

At seeing the man, I was instantly uncomfortable.  He looked so odd, missing three limbs.  I truly felt pity for him, but what were we supposed to do?  I wanted to walk away.  Actually, I wanted to run away.  I wanted to desperately get back to my office; I suddenly wished that I had been on the phone when we were summoned, or with a customer or out to lunch.  I wanted to be anywhere but there.

But there we were.  The plan was for all of us to lift the man into the wheelchair.  He didn’t look very big, and we were able to get the chair close to the car.  The lift wouldn’t have been but about 12-18 inches.

My job was to hold the wheelchair firmly in place, to lift him from the back as much as I could, and quickly scoot the chair under him once he was lifted high enough.  My three co-workers grabbed him tightly and began to lift him out of the car.  I don’t know exactly how it happened, but one of the girls lost her grip.  He began to fall.  Knowing they had been defeated, the women slowly and gently placed him on the sidewalk.  The mission was unsuccessful.

Now I really wanted to leave.  We tried, we failed.  Time to throw in the towel.  I was immensely uncomfortable.  One of the girls went into the office to call an ambulance.  Another girl went back to the plastic surgeon’s office to appeal for help.  Neither one came back.  The ambulance would be about 30-45 minutes, and no one came out of the surgeon’s office.

I looked around, trying to think of an excuse to leave.  It was now just myself, one co-worker, the man, and his wife.  I couldn’t think of any good excuse.  Then, a thought occurred to me…”Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”

"The Golden Rule" by Norman Rockwell

Crap.  I couldn’t leave now.  The situation had just become a moral dilemma.  I cursed my parents for teaching me right from wrong.  How dare they instill a sense of morals within me?  I was not happy.

At that moment, the man reached up, grabbed my hand, and said, “Thanks for trying.”  I just looked down at him.  He was smiling.  I was completely dumbfounded, and for once, I couldn’t think of anything to say.  I just nodded and weakly smiled as he released my hand.  It was such an act of innocence, and it instantly pulled at my heartstrings.  I no longer wanted to leave.

After about 20 minutes of waiting for the ambulance, the wife began to sob. You could see the exhaustion on her face, this emotional ordeal seemed to be too much.  Then, it began to rain.  I kid you not.  I looked up at the sky, full of disbelief, and I thought, “Really?!?  Really?  Hasn’t this poor man been through enough?”  My co-worker ran inside to grab an umbrella.  I told the wife to sit in the car.  There was no use in her getting wet.

I looked down at the man, still sitting on the sidewalk, and I was filled with immense pity.  The water was starting to pool on the cement, and it was beginning to run down the sidewalk towards him.  The gauze covering his amputated legs was getting wet, as was his bottom.  I wanted to cry.  I swallowed hard, trying to ignore the lump that was growing in my throat.

Then it happened.  This stranger taught me yet another lesson that day.  He smiled up at me and made a joke.  In the midst of all of this chaos…him falling once, being denied help by a trusted professional, falling twice, seeing the helplessness on the face of his wife, sitting on the hot concrete for a long time, and now getting soaking wet…he was laughing.  And not a cynical “What the hell?” laugh, either.  I can still see his sparkling eyes and bright smile.  I really could not believe what I was seeing.

My co-worker came back with 2 umbrellas, and we opened them over our new friend.  We stood in the rain, while trying to keep him as dry as possible.  I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.  I looked away and began to cry.  How could this poor soul be so jovial while he was sitting in the rain, probably in pain and getting wetter by the minute?  How could he look on the bright side when things were literally so dark?

He was pitiful.  He was helpless.  Yet, he smiled.  I can learn so much from that.

The ambulance came shortly after, and he was whisked away.  To where, I know not.  I don’t know anything about the man I met that day.  I don’t know his name, I don’t know why his limbs were amputated, I don’t know what he was doing at the doctor’s office that day.  I know nothing about him.

But he haunts me.

I think of this stranger.  I think of him often.  I think of how he taught me compassion for someone I didn’t know.  I think of how he taught me to be positive, even in the midst of a negative situation.  I think of his poor wife, standing by her husband, helpless to relieve him of his pain.

I wonder if he was okay after the ambulance took him.  I wonder if his wife was okay.  I wonder if he’s still living.  I wonder who he was.

I know nothing about him.  But, whenever I hear this,

“Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”  (Matthew 25:40)

I think of him.  Not because I did anything for the man (because I really didn’t), but because if we really do see Christ in those less fortunate, then maybe I got a glimpse of something heavenly that day.

I owe that man a huge “Thank You.”  He taught me compassion.  He taught me true love of neighbor.  He taught me that we are all connected.

He made me better.  And I still don’t know his name…

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9 thoughts on “A Lesson in Compassion

  1. Pingback: A “Catching” Attitude | Faithfully Flawed

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