We Thought He Was Drunk — Our Mistake May Have Cost Him His Life

Photo: Getty Images
On summer weekend mornings, commercial vans pull up outside the Lorimer subway stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and pick up groups of twentysomethings for $6 rides out to Far Rockaway and Fort Tilden Beach.

On a recent June morning, I took one of those vans with my fiancé, Illich, and a group of friends. We spent a perfect day in the sun, drinking beers and spiked fruit smoothies; then, we gathered up our things to catch the last buses home at 7 p.m.

Because the van our friend had reserved had been overcrowded on the way up, Illich and I split off from the group and hopped in another van with extra seats run by the same company. I only briefly glanced at the driver, a portly black man in his late 30s, before climbing in. At Far Rockaway, he climbed out to find the next two passengers he was supposed to pick up; then, he disappeared. As the minutes ticked by, the other passengers started to crack jokes about his absence, and then began to get testy, threatening to leave and take the subway. Finally, the driver reappeared, weaving and stumbling toward the van like a 21-year-old on spring break.

He tried to climb in the front seat, but Illich stopped him. “Whoa, brother, you can’t drive like that,” he said. The driver shook his head slowly, fumbling with the keys. “Seriously, you okay? Why don’t you let me drive us all back?” Illich said.

I hopped out of the van and ran around to the driver’s side, taking the driver by the hand. “Let him drive,” I said, pulling him gently. “We promise you won’t get in trouble. We’ll drive back to Williamsburg and your boss will never know.”

I was operating according to my internal Belligerent Drunk Handbook, written over years of dealing with drunk frat boys, crying girlfriends, and a couple of not-quite-functioning alcoholics. The central tenet: Be sweet but firm, and be non-judgmental. I just wanted to get back home. And despite the fact that I thought this guy was showing exceptionally poor judgment, I didn’t want to get him in trouble. I knew he probably couldn’t afford to lose this job.

The driver let me walk him around to the front passenger seat, and slowly climbed inside. Two girls who’d been planning to get in the van backed away, shaking their heads. The rest of the passengers thanked us for taking charge. Illich took the wheel, and I navigated using Google maps. As we pulled out into traffic, the driver slurred directions. “Turn here,” he managed to get out. We told him to relax; we would handle it.

“What did you drink, or take?” Illich asked him. The driver shook his head. “No alcohol no drugs,” he mumbled. Clue one.

“He was sober when we got in at Fort Tilden,” the woman next to me whispered. She had been sitting up front with him. “I speak Patois [a Caribbean dialect] and was talking to him. He was completely coherent when we were driving here. Now he’s slurring.”

“What did he take to get so drunk so fast?” I asked.

Clue two.

The other passengers, still hazily happy from their day at the beach, started singing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” practically shouting it. I shushed them. I didn’t know what the driver was on, and I didn’t want him to get riled up and do something to distract Illich. But he just slumped in his seat, his left arm dangling. Clue three.

His phone rang, and he answered, mumbling and then hanging up. This happened over and over. I imagined it might be his boss, yelling at him. I thought about taking the phone and explaining what was going on, but I’m a New Yorker. I’ve learned the hard way not to get involved in people’s business.

It took us 40 minutes to get to Williamsburg. By then, the driver was drooling. As we approached the highway exit, he vomited, and his eyes rolled back in his head. Something was seriously wrong. “Call 911!” Illich yelled. He cut off all the cars waiting at the exit, and I laid my hand on the driver’s shoulder. “Help is on the way. It’s going to be okay.” I still thought he was overdosing on something, some nasty drug I had never experienced before.

I was just trying to help. I didn’t know.

An ambulance met us on the corner right off the highway. The paramedics gathered around the driver. "Squeeze my hand," a paramedic said. "He's weak in the left arm," he told another paramedic. "Do me a favor, can you smile for me?" The driver couldn't.

It wasn’t alcohol or an overdose; it was a stroke. They loaded him into the ambulance with oxygen, to take him to the hospital. I had gotten his boss' number from his phone when it became clear he was sick, and we called him. The boss told us the driver’s name was Andre. And then, he told us what had really happened.

As Illich pulled away from the curb in Rockaway, one of the girls our driver was supposed to pick up called the company to complain about his intoxication. The boss, knowing Andre didn’t drink or do drugs, and that he had been in the hospital the week before for high blood pressure, knew exactly what was happening. He frantically called the driver’s phone, over and over, as we worked our way through beach traffic. If he could get us to pull over and say where we were, he could send an ambulance.

“Give the man who is driving the phone!” he said. Andre would only mumble, “I’m good,” and then drop the phone to his side without hanging up. This is the part that pains me the most. It’s like a nightmare — when you’re trying to convince someone to help, and they look at you impassively, no matter how much you yell and scream. Except this time, we were the nightmare — the clueless observers. At one point, I even reached over and pressed the red hang-up button for him.

I was just trying to help. I didn’t know.

I think I also thought, somewhere in the back of my mind, that if I took the phone, the boss would demand we stop the van and climb out because we weren’t covered under the insurance, or something. I felt entitled to our plan of action. Our driver, I thought, was drunk. We would get everyone home in one piece, plus maybe leave some room for the driver to talk his way out of trouble when he was coherent again. We were being responsible. Taking charge. Minimizing inconvenience for everyone.

Is it a valid excuse to say that we are not the only ones to mistake a stroke victim for a drunk? A video of an Indian police officer having a stroke went viral when bystanders thought he was drunk. Even doctors and paramedics have been known to misdiagnose a stroke as alcohol poisoning, and police have jailed and tried to give DUIs to drivers having strokes.

According to the CDC, 113,100 people died in 2014 from stroke, making it the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S. It’s not as common as seeing someone stumbling out of a bar and falling over, especially when you are in your 20s and spend time on the Lower East Side, but it happens. And it might happen in front of you. Would you recognize it?

Andre had a hemorrhagic stroke, which is when a blood vessel ruptures in the brain. It’s the more rare of the two kinds of strokes, but more deadly. If we had known the signs (a slack face, weakness in the arms, slurred speech, the fact that he went from sober to practically catatonic in 10 minutes), we might have saved him. Fast treatment is essential to saving the life of a stroke victim. Instead, he bled into his brain during those 40 minutes we blithely drove our merry van of tipsy beachgoers home. I still can’t wrap my head around this bleak fact: If it weren't for our ignorance, he might have lived.

The boss called us the next morning to tell us that Andre was being taken off life support. We said we were sorry, over and over, but his boss said it wasn’t our fault, that he was grateful for what we did, and his widow didn’t blame us.

Perhaps it is accurate to say that we were the last fork in a long road toward that tragic moment. Andre wasn't even 40, but Black men have a statistically high risk of stroke. Other risk factors include being overweight, physical inactivity (like driving a car all day for your job), high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, among other things. Andre may not have been a drinker or drug user, but he loved food, his boss said. He was also a stubborn man, and apparently, always had been. Maybe that’s why he wouldn’t give Illich the phone. Anyway, this “what if” game will not serve anyone. I don’t want to play it.

I’m not proud of this story. But I wanted to tell it, because I think everyone should know. If someone gets suddenly inexplicably drunk around you, ask that person to squeeze your hands. Ask him or her to smile for you. If that person can’t do those things, get help.

More from Mind