11/18/2014 01:13 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Giving Thanks for the Second Nature of First Responders

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You never know when you're about to be called a hero. For me, it happened at an indoor waterpark with my wife and two daughters.

Most of the day had been predictable: we slid, we splashed, we repeated. Late in the day, however, we were on the stairs in line for a slide. About 20 people were in front of us, mostly kids. As we chatted and shivered, a young boy in a lifejacket cut through the line to the top of the stairs. He looked to be only about 4 years old, but given his self-assurance, I figured he was catching up to family members.

A minute later, it happened.

As I glanced up the stairs, the crowd of tweens suddenly parted and down rolled this jacket-clad snowball of a boy right at me. Luckily, I was standing in the middle of the stairs. By reflex, my body traveled back to high school and struck the pose of a third-baseman fielding a ground ball. And just like that, the boy rolled head-over-heels into my arms, which avoided his tumbling another dozen steps to the concrete landing.

After we silently untangled, the boy continued happily down the stairs before I could even ask about his condition. When I collected my wits, my older daughter exclaimed: "Dad! You saved that boy! You're a hero!" I grinned sheepishly, feeling proud even though my action had not been premeditated. Others looked on favorably, and I heard another dad yell: "Good catch!"

My moment in the indoor sun ceased, however, when I thought again about the boy. Where were his parents? Seconds later, I saw them approaching with their son; they had obviously witnessed my catch. The father gave me a huge grin but did not speak English. So, he looked me in the eyes and offered the best he could in the universal language of fatherhood: a hearty handshake.

In hindsight, it seems fitting the father had no words to express his gratitude. From my perspective, the act was not heroism so much as mere instinct. I'm sure he would have done the same for my child.

The incident reminded me of another, more genuine act of heroism that also left onlookers tongue-tied. It was years ago at a restaurant. My wife was a medical student at the time. Before finishing dessert, she noticed a baby at the next table who seemed to be choking on a mini-pretzel. Suddenly, the father took the baby on his lap and patted her back, but nothing changed. Panicking, he stood up and yelled: "Is there a doctor here?"

Her first response? In one swift motion, my wife slid from her seat, took the baby, and held her belly-down in the palm of her hand. With her other open palm, she firmly thumped the baby's back several times. Suddenly, a pretzel piece flew from the baby's mouth.

Fortunately, the baby's breathing recovered, the father retrieved the baby and my wife sat back down to finish dessert. As the parents recovered from their shock, it was as if they did not speak English. They sat quietly until the father could look at us and whisper simply, "Thank you."

In both stories, our bodies took over by instinct, but only my wife's actions were truly heroic. Her medical training provided a kind of second nature that relied on both physical and mental reflexes to rescue a human.

Such a heroic second nature brings to mind the trained instincts of first responders everywhere, and I silently realize there is no handshake hearty enough to convey the appropriate gratitude.