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A Wake-Up Call

I'm getting ready for my annual vacation to the beach with my family. This year it's going to be special.

I was at the Charlotte, North Carolina airport late the other night waiting for a connecting flight to take me home after a rather grueling day on the road. I was on the phone with my son, explaining that the crush of business had caused me to miss a flight and that I wouldn't be getting home until the middle of the night. Nothing extraordinary; these things happen all the time, unfortunately.

Just as I was hanging up I heard a dull "thud" somewhere and looked up to see the other bleary-eyed passengers come to life, their attention drawn to the boarding gate across the aisle. Following their gaze I saw the problem: An elderly gentleman had just collapsed and was lying prone on the ground. With the awful heat wave afflicting us all, the immediate read was that he'd simply fainted.

Within moments we realized it was more than that. Passengers converged around the victim. He was on his back, eyes closed, not breathing. A young man knelt by his head and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Over and over he tried. Nothing. A woman, presumably a doctor, broke through the small crowd and began a heart massage. Some twenty feet away I could hear her cadence - "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight!" - as she slammed her fist into the man's chest. Nothing. Security guards were on the scene in a moment, radioing for emergency medical help.

Four, five, maybe six minutes later - an eternity - the paramedics arrived. Several men were looking down, sadly shaking their heads thinking the man dead. By now there were three doctors, passengers all, quickly consulting with the paramedics busily hooking up the defibrillator machine. It was now eerily quiet in the terminal, the silence violated periodically by the intercom cheerfully blaring various departure and arrival announcements. Then we heard the crisp "Clear!" as the pads were applied, the juice shot through, and the body jumped. Still nothing.

Twice more the heart was shocked with electrical current. The third jolt did the trick. Someone said something and quiet, nervous laughter from the medical crew telegraphed their relief. A policeman standing over them was reporting into his shoulder microphone that "... the patient has been revived."

As the paramedics were preparing to lift the victim onto a stretcher for the trip to the hospital a woman came down the walkway. Dressed in a sharp business suit and pulling her carry-on bag behind her, she cut a swath through the crowd, calling out in crisp, formal tones, "Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me." She was utterly oblivious to what was happening in front of her, and came within maybe a foot of rolling her bag over the man's head. She never turned, just kept looking and moving forward until she was gone.

How symbolic of today's merciless rat race, I thought. Right before her eyes was a man one moment alive, the next technically (I suppose) dead, the next brought back to life. A miracle of sorts. But she had a flight to catch and had missed the whole thing.

Those of us who had watched the drama unfold went through the wringer of human emotions in that ten-minute span. From voyeuristic half-interest we'd slipped down to concern, from there to worry, to fear, to despondency... and then crawled back up to hope, to relief, and finally - joy! All over an absolute stranger who had come within a whisker of sudden, tragic death.

"There but for the grace of God go I" was surely on everyone's mind that night as the passengers made their diaspora from the airport in Charlotte. Whatever it was any of us was doing that day, no matter how important we thought it was to the future survival of Western Civilization, was suddenly trite, meaningless. My thoughts on the plane ride home were focused entirely on my wife, and my children. I doubt I was alone. God has a strange way of reminding you of the important things.

A few years ago a priest was explaining how he kept his vocation alive. "I celebrate every Mass like it was my first Mass, like it was my last Mass, like it was my only Mass." I thought long and hard about those words as I winged my way home late that night, wanting only to hug my family. Like it was my first day, my last day, my only day with them.

Yes, it's going to be a nice vacation.