July 24, 2014

Please See My Pain: Finding Empathy in the Eyes of Strangers. ~ Shelby Parks

Angela Marie Henriette/Flickr Creative Commons

It was as if the life was literally pouring out of him, like a red-hot snake slithering out of his body, enveloping the gravel and dust around him.

His baby-blue eyes that I had stared at for hours at a time had been replaced by lifeless, glazed over black holes and all I could do was scream, a cold shrilling scream.

Koh Phangan, Thailand.

The Thai man threw me like a sack of grain onto the back of an unsanitary brown pick-up truck.

I cemented my blood-stained hand onto my injured companion’s foot in attempt to slow down the blood from the torn artery while my left hand mercilessly held onto the edge of the truck’s burning hot metal to keep my frail body from being thrown off into the dust storm cultivated by the tires.

Dust stung my eyes until the moment I blacked out.

When I awoke, the commotion of the clinic fell to a silent buzz, and all I could hear was the grueling sounds of pain as the distressed medics prodded their latex covered fingers into the opening of his exposed artery and bones, picking through the bits of gravel while his body writhed and struggled in anguish.

I placed my bandaged hand onto the stark white curtain and moved it just enough to connect with my companion’s eyes.

In that moment, I was on sensory overload from the Thai language, the machines, the ravenous hands upon him, the look of despair in his eyes, the stinging pain of sterilization on my cuts and the stream of salty warm tears streaming down my face.

It was all too much.

It had only been an hour since my companion and I were riding on a motorbike, giddy with excitement about exploring the foreign land when I realized I was flying through the air before I skidded to a stop on the gravel.

I had a few scratches and was in a state of shock before I realized my companion was seriously injured—a torn artery in his foot, gashes on his palms and knees and a pool of blood around him.

And there I was, with just a few scratches even though I had been the one that told him to go faster.

So, there I sat. No money. No passports. No proof of insurance. I felt defeated, but I knew I was all he had.

He needed surgery, but the nearest hospital was on another island. I remained in the stark-white clinic as a hostage for payment while they wheeled him off to a ferry, .

Despite the language barrier, I managed to remember the layout of the foreign land. I returned to the scene of the accident, collected his bloodied shoes, our battered helmets and beaten up bike, only to retrieve the number of the bike rental shop so I could read off our passport numbers and ultimately confirm payment for the health clinic.

In that moment, had I had a million dollars with me, I would have handed it over so they would let me go free and be with him. But without payment, I would remain hostage to the clinic on Koh Phangan, forcing me to leave my companion helpless on Koh Samui.

Money, the culprit of all evil in this world was winning once again. But, I had to remind myself they were just doing their jobs and that was the problem—their jobs took precedence over true humanity.

When the clinic had what they needed, they tossed me out like a dead fish to roast in the hot sun while the truck driver who had driven us to the clinic badgered me for baht.

I handed him everything in my wallet.

It wasn’t much, and I don’t believe it was the proper payment, but through the combination of dirt and blood, torn clothes and watery eyes, he backed off and left me alone.

The pang of guilt that I should have done more to help my companion grew bigger and bigger as it pulsated through my body like a knife, each stab feeling deeper than the previous. But the feeling was cut short as one of the four London 20-somethings in the clinic’s waiting room embraced me, not timidly as a stranger would, but protectively as if to say “the worst is over.”

My body began shaking uncontrollably, releasing yet another stream of tears.

Instead of talking, they put me on the back of one of their motorcycles and drove me back into town. One of the men with the fire red hair just took my hands in his and stared at me with his piercing blue eyes and in that moment we connected on the most intimate level.

Hardwig H K D/Flickr Creative Commons

At a time where I felt helpless, this stranger became not only my confidant, but a friend I would trust a thousand times over.

As they drove off, I realized I never got any of their names, but it didn’t matter. From that short time we were in each other’s lives, they became an integral part of my heart; four beautiful men I would never forget, and could only thank by retelling this story of their generosity and love for another stranger.

I walked into the hotel we were staying at. I must have been quite the sight with my bandaged hands, tear struck face and ripped dirty clothes. I stood in the middle and felt paralyzed.

Within seconds the staff found someone to translate. She was a beautiful woman. I could tell by her hands she was a working woman. They were calloused and worn, but they were also strong and nurturing. Her English was broken, to say the least, but somehow she understood me.

All I said was “Koh Samui.”

And like that she was on the phone—dialing and talking.

I could hear whispers all around me, but couldn’t make out a word. They were all native Thai people and they were all transfixed on me like an insect being inspected under a microscope.

After what felt like hours later, I retrieved our passports and found the name of the hospital. My heart sunk when I found out I wouldn’t be there for his surgery.

“He has no one,” I thought, “why couldn’t it have been me?”

And then my body began convulsing again. The tears poured down my face. I felt lifeless, yet I couldn’t get rid of the pain in my heart.

My eyes were blurred from the tears when I realized what was happening. The Thai people formed a circle. Two people grabbed my hands and they began a prayer. Quite honestly, with all of the things I have seen in my life, and with all of the places I have explored, I have never experienced anything so beautiful.

I couldn’t understand them, but it didn’t matter.

I felt the prayers and thoughts and love run through me easing (if only for a brief moment) the pain of which I could not rid myself. I could see it in their eyes. I could hear it in their voices. And, I felt it in their touch.

Here they were, pausing their own lives to help me—a stranger.

In these moments of prayer I have never felt such closeness to humanity. They cared for me in a way a father cares for his daughter. In a way a wife loves her husband. In a way a child shows companionship for his dog.

Human compassion had never felt more real than it did at this time.

These people together became my family. They gave me a sense of strength that they knew was in me, when I felt completely lost. They showed me, in the purest form, what empathy is. And that is a lesson I will carry on with me for eternity.

Through that night, I sat awake in my hotel room as staff entered every hour, on the hour, with food, water or even tissues, as they delivered me updates about his condition. I was told there was an 80 percent chance the doctor would have to amputate his foot; this percentage varied throughout the night with the most hopeful prediction at 50 percent.

I spent the whole night reciting what I would say to him and practicing my reaction to the surgery. I didn’t want to make things worse than they already were. Yet, when I reached the hospital the next morning, everything I had practiced left my thoughts and was replaced by sheer joy when I realized the doctors saved his foot.

On that day I wrote what I felt in my heart and what continues to be true:

Today reconfirmed there is more good in the world than evil. In what felt like a day of pure desolation, strangers continued to not only aid but also share genuine compassion, teaching me that empathy is the only universal language we share.

It’s a shame to realize that as a society we have become so cold and stoic that we repress our instinct to comfort the emotionally wounded. Instead we back off—we wait until we are called upon and can no longer ignore the hurt they exude so clearly but struggle to put into words in the hopes that someone may understand.

But the downfall is this, and the undeniable truth is that we already do understand.

I postulate that today there are few people in this world that understand empathy—that understand that words and a shared linguistics are unnecessary.

Hurt is transparent. hurt does not require words to be understood but the machines we have become no longer understand how to be human without being asked first.

The people I interacted with changed my life forever. Their genuine compassion is something I will always hold onto and try to bring into my every day life. While this event was a test of character, it is by far the most beautiful and intimate moment in my life.

They showed me that life is about humanity. It is about understanding one another on the most intimate level and genuinely caring for each and every individual we come in contact with.

It is a simple truth we have forgotten as our life continues to press forward at a suffocating rapid pace.



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Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Travis May

Photos: Angela Marie Henriette/Flickr Creative Commons, Hardwig H K D/Flickr Creative Commons



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