Friday, October 03, 2008

The kindness of strangers

I would imagine that most people reading this have encountered the story of the good Samaritan (the link will take you to come school kids' work around the topic, which I think reveals more about the significance of the fact the neighbourly man was a Samaritan).

Dave Snowden's account of his daughter's recent car accident put me in mind of my own good Samaritans and I thought I would relate the story here.

Many years ago, I was driving home from a holiday. In order to defray costs, I was ferrying two paying passengers who were unknown to me: a New Zealand couple who were travelling around southern Africa on a shoestring.

We were driving on a national road through rural Transkei, at that time an independent homeland within the South African borders.

As we crested a rise, I noticed a Toyota 4X4 creeping along the road shoulder some way ahead with his right indicator on. I thought he'd either stopped to relieve himself or to switch drivers and was getting back onto the road. If he'd seen me, he would wait until I had passed before pulling out. If he hadn't, he would pull out in front of me and I could pass him since there was nothing coming from the other direction (you could drive for hours without seeing another car).

I was wrong. He had decided to do a U turn, which effectively put him horizontally across my path. I was travelling at 110km/h (a little under 70mph), so I had very little time to make a choice. If I tried to pass him to the right, I might get wedged between him and the cliff face (bearing in mind we drive on the left in South Africa). If I tried to pass him to the left, I might go over the cliff edge. I made a conscious decision and drove straight into him, aiming behind the cab, so as not to hit the driver.

It was the days before airbags and, in spite of my seatbelt, I smashed my face into the steering wheel, which fractured my skull in five places and cut my face open to the bone on my cheek and the top of my eye socket. I also sustained several other injuries and the car was a complete write off. My two passengers were entirely unhurt. They decided to continue their journey forthwith and set off with their thumbs out.

Within minutes, there was another car on the scene. The driver's wife tried to force sweet tea down my throat, which caused me to gag painfully. I kept insisting that I was about to die and could I please take my sweater off?

I had heard women screaming as I had smashed into the pickup and was worried about their safety. I thought they had been in the back (a common practice in that part of the world). It turned out that the driver was alone, and the "women" I heard was me. I didn't know that really happened.

Another car pulled up. A very swanky Mercedes Benz. The driver and his wife were taking their daughter home to the same city I had been headed to. The daughter had been South Africa's top diver until a car accident had caused her a neck injury that had ended her career. On that occasion, her life had been saved by a stranger. One look at the carnage and she decided this was her moment to pay it forward.

At her insistence, her parents stopped. They drove me to a local hospital which was exactly like those that you see in movies set in rural Africa. The doctor was fetched by a man on bicycle. There were no telephones.

The family in the Mercedes Benz parked under a tree and listened to the Wimbledon men's final on the radio while they waited for me to be declared fit enough for them to drive me home.

The doctor was an absolute sweetie. He protected my modesty during the x-ray process (at least they had one of those - although it was antiquated). Then he stitched up my face. He told me that even a plastic surgeon couldn't do a better job, since he spent his entire Saturday and Sunday mornings stitching up the wounds of alcohol fuelled fights (a plastic surgeon examined me on my return to the city and again 6 months later and concurred).

He found me a bed even though there were patients lining the walls of the passage. A nurse checked on me every few minutes even thought they were horribly understaffed.

It was some hours before the doctor was prepared to let me go. He felt that I was still in no fit state to travel, but that I could get better treatment in a city hospital, and since there was a kind family waiting to take me there, he released me into their care. There were no ambulances.

They drove me home to my (by now very anxious) mother. I won't go into detail about that journey - it would turn your stomach - but let me assure you, their swanky Mercedes probably needed to be valeted (detailed) after that!

I don't know their names. But their primary concern was for me. Nothing was too much trouble. What a world it would be if we were all like that!

Like the daughter, my own reactions were changed forever as a result of the family's kindness. Finding yourself in a position of utter dependency on the good will of others... and finding those 'others' to be entirely up to the task (and more) has a way of staying with you.

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

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