Point of View

The kindness of strangers: How a woman who just lost her husband gave comfort to a paramedic

When I met you, I was three months into my new career as a paramedic. At first, you were just a shadow in a dark hallway, limned by light pouring through the door where your husband lay

Do you have a story about the kindness of strangers? Get in touch with The Early Edition

Torsten Rothbart had been working as a paramedic for only a few months when he had to tell a woman her husband had died, the first time he'd delivered such a message. (Submitted by Torsten Rothbart)

CBC Radio One's The Early Edition asked listeners to share their stories of kindness from strangers. Torsten Rothbart's story is the second in a CBC series that airs from Dec. 10 - 14 about those moments of kindness.

Dear stranger,

When I met you, I was three months into my new career as a paramedic. 

At first, you were just a shadow in a dark hallway, lined by light pouring through the door where your husband lay. Over your shoulder, I could see another first responder bouncing in and out of view with the rhythm of chest compressions.

We worked hard. We did what we could, but he was gone.

When I turned back to you, the look on your face was clear — you knew what was coming. We're trained for this moment: the "death notification."

Trained to deliver it in clear language, with no uncertain terms and no euphemisms. Trained as if there's a correct way to tell someone that their partner of 50 years has been taken from them.

I knelt beside you, took a deep breath and began my scripted statement. But halfway through my first sentence, I stuttered to a halt. All that preparation for one of the most important moments in our job, and the words were gone.

I had to break eye contact, look away, try to recover my train of thought.

From your perspective, I must have seemed like a young man overcome with emotion. You reacted immediately, without thought. Instead of being disappointed, frustrated or overcome by your own grief — your first instinct was to reach out and embrace me.

"It's alright," you said, with your hand on my shoulder. "I understand that this is hard for you as well."

That moment has stayed with me, throughout my career. 

It is the difference that a small amount of humanity can make in an awful situation.

Separation and empathy

One of the main challenges about our job as first responders is being able to have some degree of separation from the events going on. But if you don't have a certain degree of empathy, you aren't going to be very good at the job.

Trying to strike that balance is part of the reason why there's such a high rate of burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder in the field.

I never followed up with you because of patient confidentiality issues but I wanted to thank you and tell you that moment has made a big impact on my career as a paramedic.

It's a reminder that the cold, straightforward delivery we're taught isn't always appropriate.  

People don't remember how skilled you are at delivering a scripted message. They remember kindness during a time of need.

And a bit of humanity — some empathy and compassion in those moments — shows you really care about the people you're trying to assist.

If you have a story about the kindness of strangers, email The Early Edition at earlyed@cbc.ca.

With files from The Early Edition

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