An Unlikely Hero

Rushing into the hospital, I came face to face with my soot-covered hero. That 58-year-old woman was everything we should all aspire to be. 

[Keywords: hero, heroism, rescue, baby, burning building, selflessness, responsibility]

Length: Medium, 1193 words

Not all heroes wear capes. Last spring I met a woman who rescued a baby from a burning building. Before I put her to sleep, I had tears in my eyes as I told her she was not only my hero but also the hero of the little girl sleeping beside her. Nothing I accomplish for the rest of my life will compare to being in the right place at the right time and intervening like she did. 

Here's what happened.

It had been a long week as the anesthesiologist-on-call at our local hospital. Lots of emergency cases. But the medical care didn't end when I got home - my wife and kids had come down sick. Influenza? Covid? Whatever it was, they all took turns fevering, puking, coughing, and sleeping. All week I would come home from a 13-hour day to put them each to bed and clean the house. Not complaining - these sort of weeks come with being a dad - but by the time I went to bed early on Sunday night, I was looking forward to handing over call duties the next morning. However, late that night, the phone call came. 

"Hello?" I groggily answered.

“Uh, hi there, sorry to wake you, Dr Ryen. I have a 58-year-old woman who needs intubation. She was in a house fire and I think her airway will probably swell closed soon if we don’t get a tube down her.”

I looked at the clock: 11:30 pm. I’d been asleep for nearly two hours. 

“Oh dear. Of course. I’ll be right there.”

After a brief explanation to my sleepy wife, I gathered my things and was out the door. Fresh snow and a sleepy brain can make for treacherous driving at night, so I made my way to the hospital cautiously. In the trauma bay, I found a middle-aged woman with grey skin. She was covered in soot, and the story I heard from the paramedics was heartbreaking.

Bethany “Bee” McMaster was the third cousin of a woman who had an 8-month-old baby. Unfortunately, the mother had been suffering from post-partum depression so severe that she was recently admitted to the Psych unit for homicidal ideation. She had intrusive and distressing thoughts about killing her own baby. After two weeks in hospital, she was discharged the day prior. Everyone in the family knew the mental health of this young mother still wasn’t normal, but Bee was the only one willing to stay with her. That’s how she found herself in a troubled home when disaster struck.

The mother lit her baby’s crib on fire. Thankfully, the baby wasn’t in it - Bee was holding her in another room. But after the fire was lit, the mother told Bee to get the baby away from her before taking off into the night. 

With the house on fire, Bee rushed the baby outside to her car. Then Bee made five more trips back into the house to rescue various animals from the flames. Before long, emergency services arrived on scene, finding the house ablaze and Bee huddled in her car with the baby, four cats, and a small dog. Hours later, the mother was apprehended by police.

That’s how I came to meet Bee. With her skin blackened from the flames, I knelt by her bed and explained how I needed to sedate her and put a breathing tube down her throat. The burns inside her lungs were starting to swell and could cut off her air supply if we didn’t secure her airway. This meant inducing a medical coma and putting her on a ventilator for a number of days. 

As I explained what would happen, Bee’s only thought was for the baby. “Just make sure she’s safe,” she told me as she wept softly. 

I held her hand and reassured her that the little girl would be well taken care of, and that her mother (Bee’s distant cousin) was in police custody. I couldn’t help but notice the singed hair on her head, eyelashes too, from getting too close to the flames. Listening to her lungs, they were clear… for now. Bee nodded as I prepared for the procedure.

When everything was ready, I told her to take deep breaths through her mask. I needed her to breathe in as much life-sustaining oxygen in case we ran into trouble with her burned airways. Within seconds of pushing medications into her intravenous line, Bee was asleep. I inserted the blade of the laryngoscope into her mouth and saw her vocal cords - specks of soot and early swelling were clearly visible. Intubation was definitely needed.

The tube went down into Bee’s trachea easily. I made sure she was adequately sedated before she was driven away to the Intensive Care Unit of the regional hospital down the highway. 

When I finally got home, my thoughts were racing. There were so many aspects of this story to process: the danger of post-pardum depression, the airway management of burn victims, the long term plan for the baby, the legal implications of the mother. I’ll never forget Bee’s worried face as she told me she needed to get better as soon as possible to care for that little girl. Complicated social situations sometimes go very, very badly. However, thanks to Bee and the unseen angels around her, she was able to rescue a baby from a terrible end. 

Bee was just a regular woman who was in the right place at the right time. She knew enough to stay with a troubled mother when all her other relatives were nowhere to be found. Looking at the sleeping baby in hospital after Bee was taken away, she barely had soot stains around her nose - she’ll know the extent of the danger she was in. God-willing, she’ll grow up in a safe home.

The hallmark of maturity is taking responsibility, first for ourselves and then for others who depend on us. Heroes are those who go beyond that and care for others when there’s no obligation to do so. A third cousin wouldn’t be expected to stay for days at a mentally-distressed woman’s house - there should be closer relatives to do that. But a hero takes responsibility for messes they didn’t make. Sometimes that involves simply being present, caring for a struggling mother. Sometimes that involves rescuing babies from burning buildings. Whether the actions are dramatic or not, heroes set aside their own self-interests for the good of others. This is selfless love, and it’s a quality we all innately respect and admire. Everyone aspires to be a hero, but very few are willing to put in the work and responsibility to be there - ready to respond -  when needed most.  

In the middle of a snowy night, a little girl’s life was saved by a 58-year-old woman named Bee. She was in the right place at the right time only because she was present in a messy situation she refused to ignore. She stepped up when others stayed home, and in doing so, a little girl owes her her life. 

Bee McMaster is my hero, the kind of person I want to be.  

© D. B. Ryen Incorporated, May 2024.