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How Do You Thank the Stranger Who Saved Your Life?

07/17/2013 05:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2013

It's completely and utterly obvious that thanking someone for saving one's life is impossible; it's because the magnitude of a "thank you" can and will never equal the magnitude of having one's life saved. Even trying to write an analogy is a sheer impossibility. Everything comes up short. The closest I can get is the Visa commercial, "priceless."

I continue to be faced by this dilemma, myself. Though my story was not largely newsworthy, it remains newsworthy to me and, I would suspect my loved-ones.

In the aftermath of every major rescue event, what comes to light are the heroes, the Good Samaritans: from the plane crash in San Francisco, where first responders and airline attendants are being heralded as heroes for saving lives, to the two-train collision in Connecticut a few months ago, to the Newtown shootings and the Boston Marathon bombing, and unfortunately so many more tragedies both recent and long ago.

While we know definitively from news reports that lives are saved in these big events, it's important to remember that lives are saved daily in small events about which few may hear. But, a hero is a hero. And being saved is, well, that word again, "priceless." And further, no matter the "size" of a rescue, almost dying requires a recovery period. Depending on the trauma, some recoveries will be slow, both physically and emotionally. Fortunately for me, my emotional recovery was (on the surface) quite rapid. I may have almost died, but the events, as compared to well publicized verge-of-death-events, were quite mundane. That said, I am alive today and I could be dead.

And so, I guess, I continue to recover. And as I do I have realized that it's possible the enormity of what happened is mostly understood only by two people: me and my hero.

After all, had it not been for "My Good Samaritan," as I have come to call Andrew Dudgeon, I wouldn't be here to write this story. And, I wouldn't be here to ask the question that may all too often get lost in the recovery mix (in the aftermath of a rescue and the epiphany, celebration, shock -- the adjectives seem endless -- of survival): How does one "thank" the person who saved his/her life?

Since January 25th, 2013 I've been faced with that question - the dilemma, really. Other than buying Andrew and his family dinner, how can I how can I thank the man who saved my life?

My conclusion... there really just is no way.

But, what I can do is make his rescue efforts newsworthy; and, in so doing, perhaps I can open up, as well, a forum in which others -- you -- can lay their thank-you wreaths.

Let me tell you my story of the evening that could have innocently marked my last breath. And then, let me tell you my hero's story:

First, my perspective as written to My Good Samaritan, Andrew, in an email exchange with him in May:

• Having a lovely, fun meal with my 14-year-old son. We're laughing, having a good time, enjoying pizza, talking about the what's on tap for the evening (going to Sheer Madness at the Kennedy Center).

• I love the pizza which I've noticed, a little disappointed, is burned on the crusts. Two Amy's makes such good crust, that I think to myself, "what a shame."

• I start to take bite into a burned section of the crust. As I bite, I inhale. I have actually not even taken a bite of the crust, not one piece of food is in my mouth. But as I inhale, I can feel IT (and I can even remember seeing IT -- a tiny, size of a clipped pinky finger nail, piece of paper thin charcoal. It's not even dough. It's whatever is left over from burning a piece of dough. It's literally a piece of charcoal crust.

• I inhale, this sliver of black crust and immediately I realize it's lodged in the back of my throat. I cannot imagine that it's blocking my passageway. I know my throat isn't that small, but I can't breath through my mouth. I go for water, but the water does nothing to help me and I am confused. I don't understand how this tiny piece of charcoal is causing this problem. Seconds later I grow terrified when I realize I cannot breath my nose either. In my mind, I am well past that point we've all been when a piece of food goes down the wrong way and we're left with a cough and watery eyes and the inability to speak a coherent sentence. I cannot cough. I am more than worried about regaining my composure and speaking again; I am immediately worried only about being able to breathe. I realize I need help. Now.

• I look at my son and make hand gestures that I can't breathe. And for a second I am so happy I am with the child who doesn't ever get embarrassed and has never been shy a day in his life, because I know he'll help me. I know that he will be the heroic catalyst who has the force of character to lead me to safety.

• I hear him say, "Are you okay, Mom?" And I shake my head, "No." More hand gestures.

• I think I hear him say, "My mother is choking, my mother needs help," but, in response to his call for help, I don't remember seeing anyone do anything. And I wonder how is it possible that I can't breathe and no one is heeding my son's call. He stands up, pushing his chair back and yells it this time. I look around. I cannot, I can not breathe. I don't know how long I can last without an intake of oxygen.

• I make more hand gestures. I look at the two ladies and a young boy next to me. I make hand gestures. The women don't move, but I hear one say, "I think this woman needs help, I think she cannot breathe." She does not make this statement with declarative force. She doesn't stand and take command of the room. She merely makes an observation that appears only to spark interest from the woman with whom she is dining.

• The women know, but they do nothing. I look back at the women. I wonder questioningly, "Are these women who notice my situation not going to help me?" I look around to see if anyone has heard the woman's comment. The room echoes and I wonder if her words were loud enough to be heard over the chatter of the other diners. I look around again and I know definitively that if I don't get someone's attention immediately, it will be too late. So, I walk away from my table and directly into the middle of the room. And, I hear some one behind me. It's you. You have jumped up to help me.

• "Some one has noticed me," I think. "Someone has heard me, heard my son, seen me, understood the enormity of this, this confusing moment that shouldn't be happening."

• You grab me with great authority and I turn myself over to you completely, without question. I have no doubt this is it, that this will work, that you will get me breathing again, that you will save me. I feel as if I'm a rag doll in your arms. You pump your arms into my stomach and I see my feet flail under me. Nothing happens. You do it again, and I watch my feet dangle again and think, "I'm a Raggedy Ann in this man's arms." You sink your arms into me once again and I cough. And I breathe and I cough and I realize... I know... I'm going to be okay, that you have made me okay.

• I feel a second person next to me; he brings me a chair. It's your father I believe.

• I grab your arm and quite honestly, I don't want to let go. This arm (and the other one) has wholly and completely saved my life. When no one else was willing, you saved me. I sit there coughing and not letting go of your arm and I don't know what to do or say. It's not that I'm embarrassed (I really don't get embarrassed that easily) and it's not that it's awkward, it's the enormity of the fact that you, a man I do not know, has just saved my life. "Thank you," is just too mundane for the situation.

• Someone hands me a glass of water; your father I believe. Perhaps it's your brother. I'm told to keep coughing, that it's a good sign. And then it's over. Half the diners seem to think the "dinner show" is over, though they've hardly noticed there was a show at all.

• I hug you, say my mundane thank you with a very horse voice and try not to cry. I've already made enough of a scene.

In a recent e-mail exchange, I found out my hero's perspective:

On May 14, 2013, at 9:30 AM, Andrew wrote:

Hi Cari,

I'm glad you're well. It was certainly an interesting experience for me since cultural norms dictate that you leave strangers alone. On top of that, as a person visiting your country, there was an additional level of second-guessing in the split second before action... I distinctly remember wondering if they even do the Heimlich Maneuver in the US... (Silly, I know). I just find it odd that in a scenario where another person is in clear physical distress the mind still goes through the etiquette checklist before it considers doing something.

I hadn't realized that Andrew, My Good Samaritan, had experienced any doubt. As far as I was concerned, he'd taken complete command of the situation. So I asked if he could tell me more.

On Tue, May 14, 2013 at 10:09 AM, Cari Shane wrote:‬‬‬

... Where are you from? Can you tell me more about what went through your mind? You saved me and there seemed to me to be absolute authority in the way you took charge.

We have so many issues in the United States with people standing by while others are injured or hurt because too many people just don't want to get involved! Had you not been there ... Honestly I cannot imagine! My brain goes to: my three children wouldn't have a mother today!

Again, shockingly amazing!

He kindly responded later that day.

On May 14, 2013, at 9:56 PM, Andrew Dudgeon wrote:

I'm from Canada, near Toronto. I was in town visiting my brother and his wife for the weekend, just for fun...

What went through my mind? The whole scenario played out very mechanically, I can remember every bit of it. As I mentioned before, there were a lot of strange intruding thoughts and impulses that didn't belong in the scenario but that felt important at the time. I distinctly remember being embarrassed about the scene that I felt I was causing; I felt guilty for interrupting the other diners' meals. That sounds like nonsense when I write it out now, but it's amazing how thirty some odd years of not making a scene gets ingrained into you.

Moment by moment it went like this:

BEAT - The lady at the table behind me is making some strange noises and gestures - I think she's telling a story about choking or something, none of my business. I wonder what I should order?

BEAT - Her son is asking for help, this must be a real thing. That's alarming, I hope she's OK wonder who is going to step in and help? None of the staff are moving to assist, maybe there's a doctor or a medical professional at one of the tables? No? I wonder if there is anyone downstairs who can... well that's silly, they're too far away.

BEAT - OK, it seems that there is nobody here more qualified than I am, I sure hope I remember what they taught me in school.

So, it sounds like a lot, but it was all rather quick in retrospect - a quick check of potential participants in order of priority -- family, then restaurant staff (don't they train them for this?), healthcare professionals... me? I guess it's me then.

If it's any comfort, my brother and father were out of their chairs seconds after I stood up. If I wasn't there, they would have had your back. It's frankly inconceivable to me not to butt my nose into scenarios when I see something wrong that I can help with. What's the other option, letting bad things happen? I can't live with that.

Thank you Andrew. You saved a life. My life. You saved my children from being motherless. I just don't know what else to say, other than shouting what I now consider "our story," from the proverbial rooftops.

Thank you for not "letting bad things happen."

You are my hero.