Over the holidays last year, I had a chance to spend a couple weeks driving around an Italian island called Sardinia. On a pit-stop on my way back to the US, I witnessed a chain of events that I had a really hard time getting out of my mind. Aside from a few rounds of pre-publish editing/formatting, I wrote this on my phone during the hour-long bus ride to the city.
While walking along the taxi lane in front of the Verona airport, I turned back to look for a transit sign or possible directions. Instead, my gaze locked on to a young woman lying on the ground — motionless, limbs flung out like a used puppet on the wet concrete. As soon as I noticed the light brown splotches of skin covering her face, my stomach sank into my knees.
Am I looking at a woman who just died?
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything but stare, my heart practically hyperventilating as my brain tried to make sense of what I was seeing. I wanted desperately to do something, but I didn’t know what, nor did I know how to speak Italian to ask someone else what happened.
Should I check for a pulse?
Will I be violating some law or custom for doing so?
How could I let that stop me if this person is seriously injured?
I was paralyzed by an unfamiliar and truly uncomfortable mix of uncertainty, fear, and guilt.
Her eyes fluttered open. She didn’t say anything, nor flinch any part of her body, but her glossed-over eyes darted from side to side. Suddenly, as if stuck with an adrenaline needle, she began to breathe heavily and uncontrollably — heavier than I think I’ve ever seen. It was as if every gasp for oxygen staved off unconsciousness just a second or two longer.
Besides the heaving and hawing of her stomach and a general tremor that followed, though, not an inch of her body moved. The anxiety in her eyes was gut-wrenching as we both began to come to the same conclusion:
I might be witnessing someone lose their ability to move.
Absorbed in my own bullshit, eyes fixated on overhead transit signs, I (and almost everyone else) walked right by it happening in total ignorance. I could have even rolled over her with my bag. For all I know, I may have even caused it.
“Mi scusi,” I squeaked out, unable to hold it in any longer. “Has anyone, uh, ambulance? Ambuloso? Call?” I made more sweeping hand gestures in an attempt to charade: ‘has someone called an ambulance?’
“Si, si,” the stranger nodded, going on in Italian and pointing down the road.
Out of nowhere, a shrill, panicked language began to pour from her mouth — still without movement below her neck. Not a single bystander moved, let alone responded to whatever she was saying. She was speaking into the sky.
Feeling the need yet again to do something, I bent down to rest her neck on her purse. I figured that at the very least it might be more comfortable than wet concrete, but perhaps it might also help in case she threw up.
“No! No!” someone yelled before continuing in Italian.
I put up my hand and protested, “Uh, sorry, no Italiano. Americano.”
“Neck!” He shot back. “No move the neck!”
So I waited. I don’t know why. An ambulance had been called, I clearly wasn’t helping, and I couldn’t even communicate with the people who were. Still, I felt an immense amount of guilt for just walking by. I couldn’t shake the image that I could have rolled over someone who had just become paralyzed.
(I highly doubt I did, as I would have felt it with my luggage with a broken wheel, but I wasn’t being rational).
Slowly, she began to raise her left arm. My heart leapt. She at least wasn’t fully paralyzed — she had some movement. With her arm extended perpendicular to her body, she continued in an anxious, foreign tongue. Maybe it was Italian. Maybe it was Russian. Maybe it was Spanish. All I know was that she looked European and that it wasn’t English.
Finally, a couple of airport staff arrived at the scene. They mixed between Italian, English, and other languages trying to figure out what she was saying, and eventually they determined that it was some dialect of Italian uncommon in the area. I asked again if there was anything they could use help with, and they reassured in a heavy Italian accent that the ambulance was coming.
As the sound of Italian, rain, and sirens blended together in the background, different thoughts to compete for my attention.
Why aren’t more people trying to talk to her, to comfort her? Are they afraid of screwing up her neck?
Well, at least she won’t end up medically bankrupt, like she might in the US.
This was, after all, a topic of discussion any time someone found out I was American. In fact, when I visited (just after the San Bernadino shooting), Italians seemed to unilaterally agree that it would be downright foolish to visit the US right now given the simultaneous prevalence of gun violence and lack of socialized health care.
What led to her fall? Was it just the wet concrete? Could/should she sue the airport?
Would she ever be able to walk again? What will her recovery look like, if any? I can only hope she has a desk job.
The sirens grew louder as a pair of middle aged men rushed to her side. It was at this moment that I noticed she had moved her left leg a bit — from the limp, puppet-like position I first saw to a bent and meekly planted one. She seemed to have moved it on her own, which inspired hope that she wasn’t paralyzed from the waist down either.
The medics strapped a head stabilizer around her neck, and I began to walk away to try to get out of their way. I kept looking back hoping to see any further sign of conscious movement. Standing on her own was unlikely, but I waited for even weak limb movement of any sort, as it would have allowed me to walk away with something resembling comfort.
It never came. The medics lifted her like a dead body onto the stretcher, her arms and legs dangling off the side until they were strapped down.
This isn’t a reminder to “seize the day,” because you never know what might happen. But that is important.
Nor is it one to look where I’m walking and be more careful. But I probably should.
Nor even as a call to think more about the suffering of the world. After I left the airport, I went on with my day and didn’t rush to donate to charity. I’m pretty sure the other bystanders did the same.
I wrote this to remind myself to simply be aware of what’s going on around me. If I could roll right past her, and the only reason I saw her was because I turned around looking for a bus sign, how often do things like this happen that we don’t even notice?
Or possibly even worse: how often do we encounter moments so rich with beauty and happiness that they could totally upend our perspective, yet we walk right by because we’re too wrapped up in our music or book or thinking about what to say to some girl or guy on a bus?
2016 resolution: just be fucking present.