Wednesdays were hill days. Well, practically speaking, South Florida doesn’t have hills, so my college coach and I would improvise with a highway overpass. I would start on campus, run to the overpass, and run up and down until I reached 10 miles. It was a monotonous task, dulled with time and sandwiched in the middle of training weeks with no days off. I grew to like hill days, though. We didn’t care about how fast I ran on hill day; all I needed to do was run up and down.
I saw the man for the first time on my way down. A cursory glance revealed a disheveled man, wearing a raggedy white t-shirt, shuffling up the overpass. ‘He must be homeless,’ I thought to myself. I ran past him, reached my turn-around point, and then started making my way back up. This repeated itself; the man slowly making his way up the overpass, me running back and forth. Something felt off. Instinctively, my mind considered the worst possible outcome: the man jumping down into the traffic on I-95.
Yet, I pushed the thought aside. You can’t stop a suicide attempt that only plays out in your mind. I turned around and headed back up the overpass for what would be the last time.
He was gone. Nowhere to be seen. I stopped at the top and paused my watch. Maybe he ran down or crossed the street. As I approached the edge to peer over, I attempted to soothe myself. ‘It is all in your head. There is no way you were right.’
I peered over the ledge. There he was. Lying in the gutter hidden from view from traffic. Cars were whizzing by, and yet nobody had stopped. He was still alive, his arm meagerly waving up and down. His body, contorted in a grotesque position, could do little more than crawl. I had been right, and yet I felt so powerless.
I was taught that there are two types of people in a crisis. The ones who take charge and remain levelheaded, and the ones who panic. I fell into the latter category. I dialed my girlfriend, who upon picking up and hearing the distress in my voice told me to call 911. An obvious next step, yet one that hadn’t dawned on me in my state of shock.
“911, what is your emergency and location?”
“Hi, umm, someone just jumped off an overpass. I am on Northwest 11th and I-95.”
“Could you confirm, you are on the Northwest 11th overpass and just saw someone jump?”
“No, no, well, I didn’t see him jump but he’s lying in the gutter…”
“Do you need paramedics? And what is your location? I-95 or Northwest 11st?”
“I’m on Northwest 11th, but you need to send paramedics to the I-95 area below Northwest 11th.”
“What are his injuries? What exit do paramedics need to take? North or Southbound? I’ll start the dispatch, please stay on the line…”
I watched from above, as a firetruck and ambulance arrived and pulled to the side of the highway. He was loaded up on a stretcher and driven off. A couple minutes later, the police arrived to take my statement.
“Hi, I’m Sergeant Cooper. Are you the person who called about the jumper?”
“You will not believe this, but we had another person jump from an overpass today as well…I wonder if these are related…anyways, we are here for a statement.”
Sergeant Cooper produced a pen and paper, and within 5 minutes I had recollected my version of the events. Since I did not see him jump, Sergeant Cooper had me write that I found it highly unlikely someone pushed him. This was true; after all, nobody else was in the area. I completed my statement, and he drove me back to campus. The night was still young, and yet all I wanted to do was sleep. The feeling of dread remained unshakable.
Four years later, I found myself inside the USF Medical School attempting some last-minute studying for course 7. I was in a rhythm, no longer overtly stressed by the long hours spent trying to understand the pathophysiology of hundreds of different conditions. My phone screen lit up, and I looked down.
‘Hey guys, don’t go outside now. Major, major tragedy…’
I got out of my seat and stepped out of my study room and into the 5th floor atrium. Noticing the flashing police lights, I made my way to the window and crept down. Across the street laid a man, unmoving, surrounded by police officers sectioning off the area. People clustered together on the street and on balconies overlooking the sidewalk, gawking at the man who had just taken his own life. I went down to the first floor to make sure our reception staff were okay.
After making sure they were okay, I took the elevator back up to the 5th floor. Students were still clustered around the window, and before I could stop myself, I opened my mouth and said, “Please stop looking…people die every day.” One of my friends, taken aback by my response, looked in my direction, “No, Lachlan, you can’t say that right now. A man just died.”
I went back to my room. I needed to keep studying.
In America, every 11 minutes someone decides they would be better off dead. The psychopharmacology revolution in major depressive disorder, marked by the introduction of iproniazid in the 1950s and Fluoxetine (Prozac) in the 1980s, has done little to impact suicidal mortality rates in the United States. Drugs can only do so much, and the reported US suicide rate was higher in 2018 than it was in 1950.
I still have faith that we can make a difference. Our future profession, with all its flaws, still allows us to care for others. It still lets us save lives. Looking back, I think this was why I reacted the way I did. Suicide will always be tragic, and to diminish one’s demise and make the conscious decision to return to studying may seem coldhearted. Perhaps it is. Yet, I know the more I study and the more I can focus, the fewer mistakes I will make, and the fewer people will die in my care. Acknowledging a tragedy and reflecting on it is important, this is what has allowed me to grow. Dwelling on one, letting the pain course through my veins, did the opposite.
I no longer feel so powerless. I know I can save lives. I can make a difference. We all can.
“Life is really fragile. Please take care of yourselve and others. We are here for you.” – Dr. DeWaay
Shirley Smith – 617-970-3784
Amy Phillips – 863-286-2027
USF Counseling Center – 813-974-2831
Suicide Hotline – 800-273-8255