I was driving home and was less than 15 minutes from my destination. I was excited to see my family and to also say good-bye to some family members that were in town. I was driving in the passing lane of a two-lane highway with a wide median, when I saw something that shook me to my core. I was crossing a bridge and saw a man laying on top of the safety railing, with half of his body dangling over the edge.
Immediately, my brain went into full overload. What was going on? Is he doing what I think he is doing? What should I do? In an instant, I decided to stop and help. I found the safest spot for me to turn around in the median and drove back around to meet up with the person. When I arrived on the scene, he was no longer laying on the railing of the bridge. He was now sitting on the curb of the overpass, no more than 5 feet away from the traffic flying past him. I then began to make my approach...
As I walked towards him, I yelled over, "Brother, what's going on?" He looked up at me and then quickly hung his head again. Once I was closer, I noticed there were fresh cuts and blood all over his arms, located dangerously close to the radial artery. I looked a little closer and saw that he had a hospital bracelet on his right wrist. These signs told me that this situation required specific interventions. Luckily for myself and this man, I have extensive training and experience in crisis-management and working with individuals dealing with issues.
I asked him what he was doing out here and he told me, very calmly, that he "wanted to die". I continued to slowly approach him and told him that I wanted to talk with him and asked him to follow me. His response to my plea was the same as before, "I want to die". At this point, I was several feet from where he was sitting with cars speeding by us. I knelt and asked him what he was feeling (the first question in my approach to understanding) and he told me that his wife didn't love him anymore. I told him that I cared about him and wanted to hear about everything, but that we were not safe where we were and I asked him to follow me. He agreed and we began a slow, cautious walk on the narrow highway shoulder off the bridge to the median.
Once we were in a safer spot, I had to ask more questions to assess my safety level in this situation. The cuts on his arms were fresh, so I asked him what he used to do that. He told me that he used a knife and that he threw it over the bridge. He then provided me with a handful of papers, that were his hospital discharge paperwork.
There were several things on these papers that provided me with crucial information for handling the situation. First, the paperwork was entirely in Spanish. After speaking with the man and seeing this, I knew that English was not his native language. Second, the discharge date on the paperwork was for that day. This man was literally just released from the hospital. Third, the diagnosis on the paperwork read schizoaffective disorder. As I am familiar with this condition, I knew that I had to handle things very delicately.
At this point, he crouched down again with his head in his hands. I took this opportunity to continue our conversation. He told me that his wife didn't love him anymore and that this was the reason he wanted to die. I asked if he had any children. His face lit up as he said yes and he began telling me about his 8-year-old daughter. He showed me the bracelet that she made for him that he was wearing. We talked about how much he loved his daughter and how much she loved him. Together, we identified his daughter as a reason for living.
I told him that I wanted to help him and asked if he felt that he needed help. He looked up at me, with visible pain and tears in his eyes, and said yes. I asked him again if he wanted help, and his response was the same. I informed that I would get him help by calling the police and an ambulance. I asked him if he was okay with that, and he told me that he was. At that point, I finally made the call to 911.
You may think that I am crazy for not calling 911 until now. While I am an educator and a principal, I have a certain amount of ability in mental health, crisis management, and emergency response that not many people have. I needed to get this man to trust me. That was the single most important thing I could do to make that situation better. This situation required specific steps and I needed to make sure that I handled it in a way that I knew would be effective. Once he trusted me, I was able to call for reinforcements to get him the help that he needed.
New Jersey State Police and EMT's arrived on the scene within minutes of the call. I introduced myself to the officers, explained my background in mental health, and the situation at hand. I asked them if it was acceptable for me to stay on scene until he was in the ambulance and stabilized. They were completely fine with that. I have been in situations like this before and I know how unpredictable they are. It was an absolute necessity for me to see this through so that I could offer my knowledge and help, if needed. I was honored that the officers were amenable to me staying and helping. On a side note, I am incredibly grateful to the New Jersey State Police and the EMT's for their professionalism, patience, understanding, and genuine care to get this man the help that he needed. It is a fantastic example of our police officers serving, protecting, and providing compassion to our citizens.
Once my new friend situated himself, he started to walk to the back of the ambulance. Before he began that journey, he stopped and we talked. He reached his hand out to shake my hand and I grabbed and held his hand with both of mine. I urged him to remember his daughter and the love that they had for each other. I reminded him that I care about him, people care about him, and that he cares about himself. He grabbed my hands, with both of his, and thanked me profusely for stopping and talking to him and for helping him. We said our good-byes, I wished him luck, and he walked off to the ambulance.
I have no clue how long this man was on that bridge before I stopped. I couldn't have been the first person to see him laying on top of that guard rail, could I? I know why I stopped. I was meant to stop and help. This man was my responsibility. It was my job to make sure that he made it through this crisis safe, without any further harm. I was in the right place at the right time to do exactly what I did. I was the right person in the right place at the right time for this individual.
I am not special nor am I unique for doing this. I am not sharing this story for accolades or congratulations; rather, my goal is to show that ordinary people do extraordinary things all the time. We all have situations where we have been the right person in the right place at the right time. I would like to encourage everyone to keep this in mind when you find yourself in any type of predicament. Everything that happens does happen for a reason. You have the power and ability to impact this world. In order to do that, you have to acknowledge that you could be called upon at any time to help. You being the right person in the right place at the right time could happen at any point and can occur anywhere. Will you be ready for it when it does? Will you answer the call to serve others, regardless of the level of crisis, and use your powers to better and help others?
How will you respond to life's most important questions?