Eleven Minutes

19 09 2009

Wednesday starts ordinarily enough.  I turn off my alarm and drift back into the warm softness of my bed, listening to the soft breathing of my husband and my daughter’s rhythmic sucking on her fingers as they sleep.

As I start to go back to sleep, I force my eyes to open and sit up. There is a reason I want to wake up at the ridiculous hour of 5:30am! I quickly put on my running gear and head out to the car.

It is still dark as night as I drive to the track and I wonder if I’ll ever get used to getting up before the crack of dawn.  Orion is still very bright in the sky, even as the pre-dawn horizon lightens.

I don’t recognize the people running or walking together around in the darkness of the un-lit track. I see a woman walking by herself. Is that Marisa? She said yesterday she might not be up to coming today. I stretch my hamstrings waiting to get a closer look.

Nope, not her. Just a stranger wearing a navy windbreaker.

Walking onto the track, my leg feels pretty good today. I am up for some good running spurts today as soon as I warm up. I walk past the bleachers and off to my right on Cherry Avenue, I see Leanne and her running friends jog swiftly past. One day I’ll be able to keep up with them.

A runner passes me on the left. He looks like Leanne’s husband Todd. Does he come to the track while she runs, too? No, that wouldn’t make sense. I bet Todd is home with…


The runner collapses. Hard. His head hits the track with a sickening thud, like a bowling ball dropped on concrete.

“Oh!” exclaims the woman in the navy windbreaker, jumping back. She is a few feet away from him.

“Is he all right?” I call out. I’m about thirty yards away, and walk quickly to get to them.

The man on the track makes no sound. No screams of pain.

“Does anyone have a phone? Call 911!” says Navy Windbreaker.

I pull out my phone and dial 911. He’s breathing harshly. Ring. His eyes are open, but staring, his tongue sticking out. Ring. His legs are bent at an odd angle. Ring. I walk around him looking for a leg injury.

“Hello, what is your emergency?”

“A man just collapsed at the Willow Glen High School track on Cherry Avenue. Please send an ambulance.”

“Okay, one moment”

The rest of the folks at the track are starting to gather, murmuring quietly. No one touches him.

“Can you tell me what hurts? Are you okay!?” I ask loudly. I don’t understand why he isn’t talking. It still hasn’t hit me that his injuries aren’t visible. He looks fairly healthy and is probably in his mid-forties.

The dispatcher on the phone says, “Hello, what is your emergency?” I realize that the long pause was the call being transferred to the local San Jose 911 dispatcher.

“A man just collapsed at the Willow Glen High School track on Cherry Avenue. Please send an ambulance,” I repeat.

“Okay, one moment.”

We are all quiet, watching. Waiting for something. His breathing is slowly getting quieter and quieter. Less air now. Even less air. Now just a soft wheezing.

Oh…My…God!! He is dying right in front me! We all are frozen for a moment as we realize this.

“He’s not breathing!” I yell into the phone. “Does anyone know CPR?!” I blindly shout. It has been years since I was trained. I’m squeamish about giving mouth-to-mouth, but I remember how to do chest compressions so move in to get started.

I straighten his legs first and then kneel down next to his chest. I don’t adjust his head, I don’t check his pulse or listen for a heartbeat. I hold the phone against my face with my left shoulder and immediately start chest compressions.

“One and two and three and four and,” I count off and then pause.

“He’s not breathing, can someone give him mouth to mouth?!” I call out to no one in particular.

“One and two and three and four and,” I press down at each count on his chest, pumping his heart.

I touch his face, cup his cheek and look in his eyes. His skin is smooth and clammy. His eyes are open and unseeing. It looks like his tongue might be blocking his airway.

Barbara kneels down and her hands are shaking as she adjusts his head.

“Squeeze his nose,” someone suggests behind me.

“Put his head back,” another person calls out.

“One and two and three and four and…” I count and compress.

Barbara tries to move his tongue with her finger. He bites her in an unconscious response. “Ow!” she exclaims.

“One and two and three and four and…”

Barbara valiantly pinches his nose before giving him a breath. His chest rises and the air rushes out again.

The 911 dispatcher starts giving instructions for CPR.

Another big breath from Barbara. “Stay with us!” she yells at the man. “It is not your time yet!” Movie scenes flash in my head where a dis-embodied spirit is floating above us, watching us working on him. I wonder if that is happening now.

The dispatcher is telling me how to hold and place my hands, etc. I am frustrated hearing detailed instructions about things I’m already doing while trying to co-ordinate the compressions and check for his breathing.

“But I’ve been trained,” I interrupt the dispatcher irritably.

“Ma’am I just want to make sure you don’t do it wrong!” I get it. I shut up and let her talk.

“Now, you need to do six hundred compressions.”

“Six hundred?!” I’m confused.

“Yes, six hundred. Don’t stop. Count as you go. I want to hear you count.”

“One…two…three…” I’m counting out loud.

Barbara gives him another big breath, and  it looks like he is starting to breathe on his own.

“We’re not ready to have you go yet!” she continues to yell at him.


I get into a rhythm and almost drop the phone. My neck is starting to hurt holding it against my shoulder. I ask someone to hold the phone for me and put it on speakerphone.

“Nine …THIRTY…one …two …”

Barbara has stopped giving mouth-to-mouth as he is taking big shuddering breaths on his own. His tongue is still slack in his mouth and the exhale is a loud and welcome sound.

“He is breathing on his own now.” I tell the dispatcher.

“Eight …nine …ONE HUNDRED…one…two…”

“Wow” a man says behind me. “He has had a massive heart attack. Just massive.”

It finally occurs to me that that his injuries must all be internal.  I can not stop what I am doing.  I am pumping his heart for him! For the first time I think to check his pulse in his neck. I don’t feel anything. Maybe I’m feeling in the wrong spot? I keep my counting and compressions.

“TWO HUNDRED…one…two…”

It seems like forever since I first called 911. Where the hell are the paramedics?! There is only so much we can do.

“Eight…nine… TWO EIGHTY…one…two…”

“Do you need a break?” someone asks behind me. “Are you doing okay there?”

I don’t look up.  “No thanks, I’m okay.”

My lower back is starting to feel a little tight, but I am afraid to stop enough to let someone take over. I don’t want to stop. I can not stop. I am in the zone of counting and compressions. Counting and compressions. Counting and compressions.

“Eight…nine…THREE FIFTY…one…two…”

My anxiety settles a bit while I concentrate on counting, but then suddenly realize too much time has past already! The sun has come up and it is no longer dark.

“Where is the ambulance?!” I suddenly snap at the dispatcher, irritated.

“They are on their way” she assures us. “Keep going. You are doing a good job.”

“Nine…FOUR TWENTY…one…two…”

I can feel the growing anxiety of the crowd.

“They should be here by now!” Someone says in frustration.

“Eight…nine…” I lose track counting and guess “…FOUR EIGHTY”

We hear the sirens. They are on the high school’s main street behind us.

“They are on the wrong road!” someone exclaims, panicking.

“No, they know where they are going,” the dispatcher calmly explains. “Keep going, you are doing a good job.”

The sirens come closer and we see a fire truck stop on the street. Firemen in blue uniforms get out calmly and get their gear. They start walking to the track.

“Why aren’t they running? They need to go faster!” Someone to my left is upset.

“Eight…nine…FIVE HUNDRED AND TEN…one…two…”

The crowd backs up a bit for the firemen and one puts his bag down and starts putting on his latex gloves, unpacking his gear. Very calm. He assesses the two of us.

“Okay, you can stop now.” He tells me. His eyes look sad. “I’ll take over.”

I stand up and back away as he starts up the chest compressions again. Someone hands me my phone back.

“They are here now,” I tell the dispatcher.

“Okay, I see they are on site. You did a good job.” And with that, the dispatcher hangs up.

An ambulance arrives and more EMTs join the firemen. They put an air bag on him, and then have to clear the airway and put in an oxygen tube. CPR continues, and they each take turns. The chest compressions the EMT does are really hard… his limp legs move on each push and I am worried that my compressions didn’t do the job. Were mine too soft? Maybe they didn’t work.

The EMTs don’t find a pulse. They work efficiently and quietly together, cutting open his shirt to apply the pads of the AED. The entire team stands up and back as someone says “CLEAR!” and they defibrillate him. His arms and legs jerk as his torso tenses with the jolt.

Still no pulse. More chest compressions. No pulse.

They defibrillate him again. “CLEAR!” His body contorts stiffly and then relaxes.

There is a solemn silence as we all wait to hear the heart monitor.


Everyone lets out a collective sigh with relief as we hear the soft sound of his heart beating on its own.

“They got his pulse back!” someone shouts.

Others around me clap and cheer. They all seem relieved and surprised. Somehow, I don’t feel that surprise. It had never even occurred to me that he wasn’t going to be okay.  Am I in shock?

A fireman finds a house key in the runner’s shorts. There is no other ID. No wallet. No cell phone. No way to notify his family about where he is. He must live close by?! I’m horrified with the thought of someone waiting for him to return home from his run in a few minutes and not knowing what has happened.

The ambulance is driving off and a few firemen remain to clean up the trash on the track from the emergency supplies. One is the fireman with the sad eyes.

Sad Eyes walks over to me and says, “Wow. We usually don’t see that.”

“Yeah,” adds another fireman, “usually we don’t get them back.”

I’m stunned.

“What!? Why? People just stand around and watch?”

“No, it’s not usually witnessed. They were in another room and find someone on the floor. Maybe it has been too long since it happened or they don’t know how long it has been or they don’t know CPR.”

“How long was it after he fell that you started CPR?” asks Sad Eyes.

I have to think. “Umm. Less than a minute?”

“Well that was it then. One minute is really good. The sooner CPR starts, the better the chances are for recovery.” He continues to fill out his report on his clipboard.

Now I understand the sadness I first saw in his eyes. Arriving at the scene, I don’t think he had hope for a good outcome. His rescue experience and knowledge had taught him that, in cases like this, the story was not going to have a happy ending.

Navy Windbreaker is standing next to me and has recently started to get control of her emotions. I reach out to give her a hug around her shoulders; she is still really shaken up.

“What’s your name?” she asks me, wiping her tears.

“I’m Heather. What is yours?”

“Suzanne. Oh, I could have never done that. Heather, I will never forget you. You did a great job. I just keep thinking he could be my husband…” she trials off, still emotional.

Navy Windbreaker is now Suzanne.

I check the time on my phone still in my hand. 6:15am. I’m surprised it all happened just in less than thirty minutes! It felt so much longer. I don’t need to be home until 6:30am. Should I run now? I haven’t even walked once around the track. I look around and see others starting to run around the track and think it looks odd. To just go on with life…  I’m not ready for that yet. I want to go home. I say goodbye to the group and start to walk to my car.

“Ma’am!” Someone calls out behind me. I turn around and it is Sad Eyes the fireman again.

“Hey, I just want to say again that you did a great job. I’m going to go to the hospital to pick up my guys who rode with him in the ambulance. If I find out more information about his status, do you want me to call you?”

“Well sure. That would be great. I am really interested to find out how he does. And whether his family finds him.” I give him my name and cell phone number and he writes them on his clipboard.

“What’s your name?” I ask him. “Dave.” Sad Eyes is now Dave.

“You guys did a great job too, Dave. It is an honor to meet you,” I say with a smile.

I get in the car with this feeling that maybe I shouldn’t go home. That I should help more, but I don’t know what else to do. I wave absently to the policemen on the street and drive home on autopilot. I pass the first intersection and my eyes start to tear up when I realize the gravity of it all. That man could have died this morning! I hope he will make it through okay. I wish I could go tell his family, to not let them worry when he doesn’t come home this morning. I think of all the things I could have done sooner. I worry I didn’t do enough to help.

The house is quiet when I get home but for the water running in the shower.  I am definitely shaken now and consider having a glass of wine to settle my nerves. Since it is 6:20am and I need to drive the kids to school, I figure wine is not really a good option right now. Tempting, though.

There is a voicemail from Marisa letting me know that she wasn’t coming today. I realize how close I came to not being there to help today! If had I checked my voicemail or if I had gone back to sleep…I would have stayed home. If I wasn’t there today that someone would have surely stepped up, but I can’t be sure they would have been so close or had a cell phone with them.

I am again reminded that everything happens for a reason. I was there today for a reason. To help save a life. To learn my own inner strength and grace under pressure. To be reminded again that there is a higher source I can trust to give me opportunities to live my purpose. I walk back to my bedroom, in a bit of a daze.

“There is a reason I woke up today,” I tell my husband.

“Hold on, Babe. I can’t hear you. I’m almost out,” he calls out from the shower.

I wait in the doorway to the steamy bathroom, absorbing the warmth of the room. I take off my sweatshirt and start to put my phone on the dresser. I pause to check my last call, curious how long I was on the phone with 911.

Eleven minutes.

Eleven minutes for my life to briefly intersect with his. Enough time for me to be his heartbeat until help arrived. Enough time to save his life. Enough time to change mine.


Read Epilogue and Author’s Note for the story behind the story.


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