I knelt over the limp, contorted body and reached for the wrist to take a pulse.
My hands were covered in blood.
Warm, sticky blood that belonged to the young man lying face down in a cold street. I had intended on getting to know the locals here on the West coast, but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.
[warning: it disturbed me to write this so it might disturb you to read it]
I arrived in Portland with a smile, part because of the excellent experience from Southwest Airlines, and part because I could feel the excitement of vagabonding – albeit domestic – coursing through my body. When I walked outside of the airport, the 50F air even smelled different. Despite traveling and flying all day to get here, I felt jolted with a surge of life.
I was met by Jessica, Brendan, and Amanda at the airport and we took the 45-minute lightrail into Portland and caught up on old times along the smooth ride. Within minutes, I found myself handing my rucksack to a friendly guy behind the counter of a microbrewery, and no one inside even batted an eye in my direction – they are quite used to travelers here.
I should have known with this Peace Corps crew – forget stopping home to drop my bag and splash water, we were going to the pub! 🙂
We left the microbrewery and hit their local favorite neighborhood dive, an Ethiopian pub/restaurant with low ceilings and dingy lighting. The place was homey and even surprisingly sported a DJ in the corner. The room was warm and smoky, you are still allowed to smoke indoors in some places – and it was my first time in an Ethiopian establishment. I was falling in love with Portland and I had only been on the ground for a couple of hours.
Then it happened.
As we walked home we rounded the corner to see a guy face down in the street. It was around 02:00am so my first thought was that the guy couldn’t handle his Ethiopian craic, but when I saw the stopped car with caved in window shield, a sense of dread chilled my spine.
We all stood dumbly for several minutes watching. The girl that had hit him had already called 911 but was doing absolutely nothing for the guy. A million thoughts were going through my brain and I dropped my bags and knelt over his limp form. I struggled to suppress the fear and to recall the battlefield first aid training I received in the army. She told me that she was a nurse, but she was as frozen with panic as I was.
The man’s legs were contorted at odd angles and his hoodie had risen up over his head so I couldn’t see his face. I watched his bare back rise and fall with raspy breathing, it was obvious that he was fighting for his life…
And then it stopped.
“We’ve got to start CPR now” I told her, but she wisely was afraid to roll him over because of neck and back injuries. I don’t blame her, she would be the one on the line for vehicular manslaughter, not me. I cursed my lack of training and not knowing what to do in this life or death situation….this man’s family, hopes, dreams, could have been depending on me – a random guy just off a plane from Kentucky. Fate can be strange.
I turned his wrist over and felt for a pulse, he apparently had been bleeding inside of his coat because warm blood poured out of his sleeve over my hands. The salty, metallic smell of it made my head swim. I knew how important it was to immobilize someone before trying a log roll, but at this point he was no longer breathing – wouldn’t that take priority? I felt idiotic and helpless as this young man’s life drained away.
To my great, great relief – the flashing lights of an ambulance roared to a stop beside of me. I backed off as the paramedics descended on the guy, cutting away his jaket. I tried to watch to see what decision they made, but a policeman stepped into my way and started asking questions. He wanted to know if we were witnesses.
In the last two years of vagabonding, this is the 3rd person I have either seen die or come damn close to it right at my feet. I even had an amazing spiritual woman in China last year tell me that I was a “deathwalker” – people chose to die in front of me and it was an honor.
Well, no thanks, its not a very nice burden to carry and the rewards (nightmares) suck. If you are reading this and plan to go down in front of me, please choose to do it somewhere else.
I don’t feel it has anything to do with myself, luck, or karma. I firmly believe that if you get away from the TV and walk the world this much, then you are going to see more action – some good, some bad. This stuff is going on all the time and I just never saw it before because I was in an office or comfortable at home.
Vagabonding isn’t always buckets and bikinis on some exotic island.
This whole scenario did make me feel a new burden to be better prepared for the next disaster – which will come at some point I’m sure. Erik McLaughlin – a good friend and travel doctor met in Chicago, runs an awesome travel medicine site over at http://adventurehealthclinic.com/ and I’ve been pumping his brain for info.
Thankfully we were close to home and I watched as the blood washed from my frozen hands and went down the drain. Amanda was kind enough to sit up long enough to talk and clear the negativity from my brain.
When I went to sleep on my futon, I said a prayer for the wounded stranger that fate put at my feet tonight and was instantly asleep. The nightmares never came. Tomorrow is a new day in a new place, and after having stood too close to death, life will taste that much more beautiful.