In which I am, once again, less helpful than I’d like to be.

While walking home from the movie theatre yesterday evening, I saw a crowd of people gathered in a parking lot next to the Ross Dress For Less store. A young woman was sitting next to a stroller, her back against the building, clutching her chest. Never one to mind my own business, I immediately went over and inquired whether she needed help. “Yes,” she was tearful and hyperventilating. “My chest, I have a pain.”

“Chest” and “Pain” are two words that should never be dismissed when they occur in a sentence together. “Has anyone called an ambulance?” I asked the man standing nearest. He shook his head, so I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911. I didn’t have a watch on, but I checked the woman’s pulse as I talked to the dispatcher; her heart was beating fast, but not out of control. She was able to talk, though not easily, and I wasn’t too worried. It looked like a panic attack to me, which is something that can make you feel like you’re dying, but won’t actually kill you. I stopped people from trying to give her water (never give someone having a medical emergency anything to eat or drink), patted her hand and stroked her back, and encouraged her to try to calm her breathing. The ambulance got there quickly, and the EMTs took her blood pressure, which was perfectly normal. She was worried about her baby, and asked me to call her husband.

“Hello,” I began when he answered the phone. “I’m with your wife, she’s having chest pain and the paramedics are here. She’s going to the hospital.”

“No English; Español,” he replied, sounding concerned. Over the course of my academic career I have studied French, Russian, and Hindi, with a little Yiddish and Italian on the side. God forbid though that I should learn the first language of 35% of people living in my state and more than 10% of people nationwide. Fortunately, a Latina woman was standing by with her young teenage daughter. I handed the phone to her and asked her to explain what was happening to the husband. Her daughter translated my request, and after a brief conversation, the woman hung up and handed the phone back to me.

“Her husband’s coming for the baby,” the daughter said.

“Coming here?”


I had asked the medics several times which hospital they were going to, and each time they told me in irritated tones, “we’ll let you know when we decide.” But now they were wheeling the patient away, and leaving her baby with Husband, me, the Latina woman and her daughter. What if the Spanish speakers left? What if the husband didn’t show up? I ran over to the ambulance. “I need to know where you’re taking her so I can tell her husband when he gets here to pick up the baby!”

The medic looked confused. “Aren’t you family?”


“Well, then we can’t leave the baby with you!” He seemed a little annoyed, as if he had caught me lying to him.

“I don’t want the baby!” I reassured him, “Please, take the baby!”

“The hospital will call her husband,” the medic said, as he wheeled the stroller back to the ambulance, muttering something about how I had “come off as being family.” (Where he’d gotten that idea I’m sure I don’t know.) Relieved that I wasn’t being left with a stranger’s child, I gathered my things and walked home with Husband. The Latina woman and her daughter went on their way as well. None of us remembered that the husband was coming here to get the baby.

Ten minutes later, my phone rang. The husband, of course, and now I was back home with no fluent Spanish speaker to help me.

Su esposa es en el hospital,” I hastily dredged the recesses of my brain for some Spanish words, using “ser” instead of “estar” and otherwise phrasing things all wrong. “el hospital . . . te llama.” Your wife is in hospital; the hospital calls to you.

¿Pero, dónde está el bebé?

el bebé es . . . con su madre.” The baby is with her mother.

Realizing he wasn’t going to get much else out of me, he thanked me and hung up.

I am adding to my New Year’s Resolutions forthwith: STUDY SPANISH ALREADY, DUMBASS.


12 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Annika said,

    Aww. You did more than enough. You are a good person. (But maybe some Spanish would be good.)

  2. 2

    firefly1818 said,

    yes, I have to repeat what Annika said – I also think that you did more than enough, and that you are a good person.

  3. 3

    elsewhere said,

    Good on you!

    Studying Spanish is not unpleasant…I did it for a while, but found I kept on answering back in French all the time.

  4. 4

    SilliGirl said,

    Okay, I studied Spanish for eight year (including doing a college theatre intensive in Puerto Rico where we performed in Spanish) and lived in Tucson, AZ for four years, and I still can’t speak really fluently.

    I think you did great.

  5. 5

    winegrrl said,

    You did pretty well…in an emergency, most people can’t even speak English!

  6. 6

    uccellina said,

    Thanks y’all. I’m not really having a crisis of self-esteem here, it was just one more encounter that reminded me of how much I really need to learn this language.

  7. 7

    Mom said,

    Think how badly things could have gone if you hadn’t been there.

  8. 8

    writer2 said,

    I think the ambulance EMT folks thought you “came off” as family because you actually showed care and regard. Big mistake. It must have confused them no end. See what happens when you get involved? That’ll teach you.

  9. 9

    Carolyn J. said,

    You certainly did a lot better than the other people standing around, scratching their heads and offering her water. Why didn’t THEY call 911? I wish they’d teach people about these situations in school.

  10. 10

    Liz said,

    You did great!!!

  11. 11

    Allison said,

    What a cool story. I relate. Being from the east coast and prep-school educated in French, I’ve often wanted to learn Spanish.

  12. 12

    MonkeyGurrl said,

    Sheeeyat. You actually got involved with a stranger?! IN LA?!?!?! You’re lucky they didn’t cut you or something. . .

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