Helping a Fallen Neighbor – LITERALLY!

“If you live long enough you’ll see nearly everything.”

I’m sure this quote is true for average people. Today I came another step closer to realizing it as I was walking through my Madrid neighborhood this morning at 8am.

Only one block from my building was where the elderly 80-plus year old woman, no taller than 4 foot 10 inches, shouted in my direction in such a hushed voice I wasn’t sure she was even talking to me. Then I turned to see her looking my way, walking slowly and asking for something. I was sure she was panhandling.

But when the surrounding traffic noise passed, her slight voice was clearer. She was saying, “Please, Sir, my sister has fallen and can’t get up. Can you help us?” Her hands and eyes were trembling so I assumed it to be the truth, and followed her through the front door of a building – which had no doorknob and an empty foyer – and thought, “Hmmm… What am I getting myself into?”

I must admit that when she first approached me I was going to just keep walking on down the street and let someone else deal with whatever this woman wanted. But two steps later I thought better of it, realizing she was an old woman and surely had no bad intentions. But once I walked into her quiet house alone I did feel as if I was being trapped, entering the unknown. I wasn’t carrying anything of value, no watch, no cellphone, no wallet, nothing more than my house keys.

She didn’t shut the front door behind me which eased my nerves and lowered my adrenalin just a bit. But once she led me to her sister’s bedroom and I saw her sister’s skin-and-bone body lying on the floor, my nerves and adrenalin shot through my body twice as hard.

Oh – My – God,” I thought. “Surely she’s dead.” But she wasn’t. Having spent a surprising amount of time with elderly people in my life, both here and in the USA, in their houses, hospitals, and Alzheimer patient retirement homes, I’d seen just about everything with regards to the elderly.

But I’d never seen SUCH an old woman, 90-years old I’d learned, writhing and moaning gently on the floor in a small puddle of feces and urine, the latter of which soaking her nightgown front and back. I could see she had been bleeding from her left arm near the elbow and, upon my asking, complained of pain in her left hip, presumably from the fall. She was stretched out across the floor, half under the bed and a pillow under her head. Surely she was cold. She wasn’t covered with a blanket and was wearing only a thin, short nightgown which she constantly tugged down to cover her exposed “privates” as I spoke to her. According to the younger sister, she’d fallen out of bed the night before and there was no one in the building to help her.

She told me she’d called the emergency telephone number and they’d told her to give the fallen sister some strong pain relief medicine and with that she may be able to get up. If not, to call her local doctor’s office to see if a doctor there could make a house call (something still common in Spain). But SURELY she was mistaken with this information. I was certain that upon calling they’d have sent an ambulance immediately to – at the very least – check on her.

So I called myself, trembling with nerves, realizing I’d soon have to describe a medical condition, IN SPANISH, to a new ear BY TELEPHONE. Oh gawd. The attention was fast, only taking a few seconds after dialing 112 (the emergency telephone number) when a human took my call and the information of the situation. Whew! We’d have results soon. The operator asked the name and address and, with the help of the mobile sister, whom didn’t live there but was just staying briefly to take care of her elder sister, helped me with the details. NOW we’d be in business and an ambulance would be arriving soon. WRONG.

The emergency operator transferred me to a doctor and I again described the situation and visible injuries. The doctor told me just what the mobile sister had told me earlier, that she was to call the doctor’s office and ask them to prescribe some strong pain relief, that sometimes older folks have pains so strong that prevent them from being able to move. I asked the doctor to repeat this for the younger sister and, while listening, she was shaking her head, she’d been told the same information now twice and hung up the phone.

So she said to me, sadly, “Just put her on the bed.” So we walked to the bedroom, the fallen woman having twisted her legs around the bed’s legs, so I first attempted to untangle them, all the while speaking to the old woman in my Spanish which, it seemed, was understood. I got her untangled, got her sitting up, I squatted all the way down with my hips, wrapped my arms around the old woman, and lifted with my legs – NOT WITH MY BACK – picking her up and setting her gently on the bed. An audible sigh of relief escaped the woman’s mouth and a glow of comfort overcame her face. I asked, “How do you feel?” She then lightly chuckled when I added, “Better than on the floor, right?” I could see she was more comfortable. Now was the work of the younger sister to clean her up, change the sheets, and get her some medicine. I recommended she go first to the pharmacy next door when it opened to get some stronger pain relief and, at the very least, ask their advice.

Saying my goodbyes and good lucks to the elderly woman now comfortably in her bed, the younger sister said to me, “Wait. I want to give you something,” and started rummaging in the top drawer of the bedroom dresser. I asked what she meant and she said, “Something for you or for your children.” Realizing she was talking about paying me for my help I said, “No. No. No. Just give me a hug and a kiss. To me, that’s more valuable than money.” And with that, she turned to me as if it was scene in a Hollywood movie, tears in her eyes as she approached me slowly with her arms open and gave me a very gentle, but very long hug. I could hear her weeping on my shoulder and I told her it was okay, her sister was now in bed and comfortable. I nearly cried myself. She thanked me and said goodbye as I left.

I’m not sure if the half-dozen Red Cross CPR-First Aid courses I’d taken throughout my life actually helped me but I think it did. At least I remembered to ask where she hurt and considered other options before finally moving her. I was more afraid of hurting her further if she’d had broken bones, possibly a broken hip. But she didn’t wince much as I initially lifted her so I figured she was well enough.

The poor woman. I really felt bad seeing her cold and suffering on the floor. But when I saw her relaxed in her own bed I felt more at ease. And better yet, her sister, although also elderly, was staying with her. She told me she’d call the elder sister’s children to see what they’d say. With that I thought to myself, “WHAT?! This old woman has children and she’s living ALONE? Why isn’t she being taken care of (at least) in a “residencia” (retirement home)?!

So now, the event replays in my mind and surely will be replayed countless times more in the days and to come. Sure, I feel I did my duty as a citizen, helping the elderly. I did a good deed, etcetera etcetera. I think it’s more more and more rare that we’re called upon to do such things as people become more and more self-reliant (out of shame or stubbornness) and as social services take better care of our ailments and the elderly. Sadly, more and more often we can’t be bothered with the problems of others, not so much because we can’t help but that our apathy overpowers us, that any effort is too much.

These days nearly no one knows their neighbors. At one time neighbors relied on one another when a family member fell ill or died, when they went
on vacation or needed their mail collected, and when people looked out for one another.

When one neighbor helps another neighbor we become a stronger, richer, community.
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