“Matt! Stop!”

When Matt pulled the car over on the side of the freeway in Oakland beside the unconscious man with blood gushing from his face, his teeth knocked out, a massive hematoma on his forehead, his knee broken in half, and his ankle stripped of skin and askew, I noticed that he was still breathing, but his chest was rising and falling the way people with severe head trauma breathe – not normally. He still had a pulse, but it was fast and thready.

The woman standing next to him, who had pulled off with me said, “I saw it. He just fell – or jumped – off that freeway overpass and landed right here.”

The cops were there but there were no paramedics yet. Someone threw me a pair of blue latex gloves and I knelt down on the bloody pavement in my white lace dress.

With no neck brace to stabilize his neck, no back brace to lift him onto, no IV to bolus him with saline, no suction catheter to suck out the blood that was choking him, no endotracheal tube with which to intubate him, no oxygen to help his labored breathing, no blood transfusion to replace what was pouring out of him, and no pain medication to ease his pain, I felt helpless.  As it turns out, a doctor without her tools has little to offer other than love, so that’s what I did.

Practicing Love

Two off-duty paramedics without any more equipment than I had pulled over and ran over to help me. Together, we held the man’s head steady. We wiped his bloody face with the baby wipes in our cars. We checked his vitals as best we could.  We did what we could to clear his airway. We removed the broken teeth from his mouth. We applied pressure to his bleeding wounds. We prepared to give CPR if he stopped breathing or lost his pulse.

And then we just held him and prayed. I closed my eyes and wondered if the man’s spirit could hear me, if he might be in some in-between place, deciding whether to check out or stay in this world, the way Anita Moorjani described her in-between experience, over breakfast at the Hay House conference and in her NY Times bestselling book Dying To Be Me.

Just in case he could hear me, I told him to be at peace, that if he had jumped, to forgive himself, and if he decided to stay, that there is always hope. In case he couldn’t hear me, I prayed that whatever was in the highest good for all beings be so.

Loving Touch

Because the off-duty paramedics know more about dealing with a trauma patient than an OB/GYN does, I let them take over and instead, I just sat on the ground beside him and held my hand over his chest. Sometimes we forget when people are sick or hurt that what they most need is to feel connected, to be loved, to be touched. With no equipment to get into high tech rescue mode, all I had was low tech love.

I’ll never forget a patient I cared for when I was a medical student. When I rounded on him, he took my hand and said, “I’ve been here for three weeks and nobody has touched me with anything but a needle or a stethoscope. Will you please hold my hand?” And because it was a slow day, I spent an hour with him like that.

Help Arrives

My hand was on the man’s chest, feeling his heart beat, when I heard sirens and saw the blaze of ambulance lights. By this point, the cops had closed the freeway and a circle of bystanders was watching. The ambulance sped to a stop and a team of paramedics with all the right gear sprang to action. The neck brace went on, they rolled him onto the blue back brace, someone suctioned his nose and mouth, another cut off his clothes to reveal the full gore of his injuries, a third-placed an oxygen mask over his face, while one pressed on the hematoma on his forehead.

The woman who had seen it happen said, “Yeah, I think that’s where he landed.”

How Do You Explain It To A 6 Year Old?

Because I was in the way with my hand on his chest, I stepped aside, and feeling shaken and unsteady, I returned to my car, where I realized that my husband and 6 year old were watching the whole thing. Matt said he had been talking about it with Siena and answering her questions. When I asked him why he hadn’t protected her from this bloody scene, he said, “I thought it was important she see what it is her Mommy does.”

When I asked her how she was doing, she said, “Don’t worry Mama. Whatever God wants to happen will happen.”

I figured she had more answers than me, so we drove away in silence.

Dealing With The Trauma

We had been on our way to my business partner and friend Amy Ahler’s house, and when we arrived late and I explained what had happened, Amy said, “Honey, what do you need to do to process this? Cry?”

But I couldn’t. I felt numb. I realized this was an old pattern, one I had learned in medical school and residency and eight years of medical practice. You buck up. You do what it takes. You steel yourself. You never let ‘em see you cry for so long that when it’s finally safe to do so, you feel nothing.

Not until hours later did I feel a rush of sadness, grief, anxiety, fear, and loss rush over me. I searched the news to find out what happened, but I couldn’t find anything. Finally giving myself permission to feel what I felt, I started crying. The floodgates unleashed.

The Illusion of Control

Part of what I felt was unbearably helpless. I did nothing medically to help this guy. With all the knowledge and experience I have, without my equipment, I feel useless, and that feels shitty. I wonder sometimes if this is why we doctors go to medical school, to reduce the number of times we feel completely helpless in the face of tragedy, to earn the illusion of control in an uncontrollable world, to convince ourselves that people won’t die on our watch, not if we have anything to do with it.

And then a man falls from the sky and splats on the pavement, and you suddenly realize it’s all a bunch of bullshit.

Technology Vs. Love

I hope there were a bunch of skilled doctors at the local hospital trying to save this guy’s life. I hope he survived if that’s what’s in the highest good, and if not, I hope he died peacefully. In the end, all I could do was love this stranger I wouldn’t even recognize if I met him one day and wished him well on his journey. And in the end, I have to forgive myself and realize that that alone is enough.

I am not God. I am not a superhero. I am just a doctor who doesn’t travel with medical equipment in my car, but who always stops at accidents if there’s no paramedic there. And that’s the best I can do.

It makes me realize that perhaps we use our technology as a crutch. If I had had my equipment, I would have hustled into action. I might have done more good, but would I really have? Is it possible that my healing touch, loving prayers, and appreciation for the human whose life might be on the way out did more good than anything the ER doctors did with their CT scanners and blood transfusions and drugs and ventilators?

I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe an unconscious man has no awareness of the fact that someone was there, holding space for his spiritual journey and touching his bloody skin. But what if he does?

What do you think?

Share your thoughts.

Trying desperately to let go of my savior complex,




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  1. Leona deVinne


    What a beautiful post, my background is originally as a health and safety educator and often we teach that there sometimes isn’t alot we can do for people at the scenes of accidents besides be with the casualty and provide them with TLC…You did just that-the right thing in such a wrong situation. You were ‘there’ for him in his time of need. A good reminder for us that we aren’t always able to rescue/save others, but being present is really the greatest gift…be blessed knowing that.

  2. Christine Williams

    the power of the human touch is something we all should remember. whatever the circumstances of this poor man’s situation, he is still a fellow human being in need of help and in this fast paced world today we don’t take the time to stop and smile and give eye contact with people. I am glad you stopped and tried to help and gave him the power of touch, caring. sometimes that is all people need, maybe he wouldn’t have jumped.

  3. Ann Peckham

    A beautiful story where you demonstrate how important the human touch is and the fact that you felt drawn to do that even with all the blood and your white lace dress as a demonstration of unconditional love and acceptance in action for Sienna to see is so right.
    love and hugs
    Ann xx

  4. Melissa Harnish


    I had goosebumps throughout reading this post. You did what you naturally knew, deep within you, as a healer that the technology and equipment, “tools” are not the only thing another human needs, rather you intuitively did what technology couldn’t – provided that man some connection, some real love, some peace at a time that was crucial.

    It’s those human things, a smile, a touch, a kind word that often heals when nothing else can.

    Many blessings to you and your family. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Lissa Rankin, MD

    Thank you all. I was just passing by this overpass the other day, wondering what ever happened to this young man. I sent prayers and blessings for the healing of his soul and his body, if it survived.

    Thank you for reading and for being here in this new space.
    Much love

  6. Karla Maree

    His soul knew your soul was there for him and that is worth all the trauma care in the world.

  7. Elizabeth Kipp

    Dear Lissa,

    As a patient for many years, I’ve been at the receiving end of many health professionals care. I love this story you shared for several reasons, some of which are beautifully addressed by your Readers above. My husband was a Medic in the Army, so I am used to seeing him stop on the road to see if he can be of any help. The way you & your husband talked to your daughter was great…plus she seems to have picked up some wisdom along the way for somewhere…!

    I think the part of your story where you talk about your training and how you had to toughen up to be able to DO your work as a doctor is worth a few remarks. As a patient, I’ve chosen the same path in order to stay out of being victimized by my own circumstance. Instead, I’ve tried to empower myself to help heal myself, especially when my doctors had no more answers, but the quality of my life was still not as good as I thought I could achieve. But, as part of staying empowered, I kept a wrap around my feelings. Of course, the result of this was anxiety from NOT allowing myself to feel my feelings.

    I applaud your ability to take care of yourself and take the time and energy to feel your feelings, especially after all of the years of medical training where you had to endure and basically stuff your feelings to get the work done. Are we both learning that these feelings must come out eventually for our own health? I see this all as a part of self-care, self-nurturing and self-love, so that we are as balanced emotionally as we try to be physically; in this way, we can be there not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones, and be perhaps even more compassionate to others as we become more emotionally balanced within ourselves.

    I appreciate the time you’ve taken to write your stories. This story covers a LOT!
    Much Love & Gratitude,

  8. Lissa Rankin, MD

    Thank you Karla and Elizabeth, for honoring and appreciating my story.

    And Elizabeth, I hear you on the patient end as well. In the end, the only answer is to feel what we feel, to let it pass through us, and to move through the feelings. Surprisingly, when I do, they never fester the way they do when I suppress them!

    Much love to you all

  9. Susan James

    Dearest Lissa:

    I wept reading your post. Bless you, and everyone else who stopped.

    And thank you for your courage to write about this event, laying all your emotions and reactions on the table. Your gesture will help countless people, not just the young man on the highway.

    Never second guess your instincts. Everything happens for a reason, and you cannot know what that is. Perhaps the very reason you didn’t have any equipment with you is that young man’s soul needed your unconditional love and guidance at that moment.

    As someone who has gone splat too (hit by a car while riding a bike, I went through a windshield with my head; thank god I had a helmet on), I can say how much more reassuring it would have been when I came to, momentarily on the roadside before reviving an hour later in ER, to hear that paramedic say something comforting.

    In that instant, I knew I was being managed, that she didn’t know my outcome. She did the best she could by telling me the truth: “You’ve been hit by a car. You’re going to the hospital”. But what I wanted in that instant was not a promise, but love. Love heals and assists and makes everything bearable.

    @Susan_SwanJames, Canada

  10. Lissa Rankin, MD

    Dearest Susan,
    I’m so glad you’re okay after going splat!

    Thank you for sharing your story- and for your sweet words.
    Much love

  11. Connie Lauridsen

    Dear Lissa,
    Thank you for sharing your touching story. I feel in my own heart that the injured man could feel your healing touch. You gave him so much even without your medical equipment. If it happened to me I would hope for someone just like you to be there. You can be proud of the job that you did on that day!
    Also wanted to make a comment about your little Siena. She is so very bright and so very brillant in her words! You can be so proud of the job that you and your husband are doing in raising a kind child witha beautiful heart and mind.

    Thank you for all the good works that you do in your every day life!


  12. Jennifer Margulis

    This post makes me cry. I am so glad you were there to give him the love he needed in that moment. What you wrote about the patient who said no one had touched him really resonates. He, too, was lucky you have you hold his hand.


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