Thursday, May 24, 2007

Garrett: the mechanic who tried to save Chris Poeung

Remember Garrett, the mechanic who went over to help 13 yr. old Chris Poeung after he got stabbed? Garrett Gustafson used his bare hands to apply pressure to the wound near Chris’ heart and kept the pressure on for at least ten minutes, until the paramedics arrived. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to save Chris.

I saw Garrett, a short, young looking 43 yr. old with green-brown eyes and light brown hair, this evening when I dropped into McDonalds at Terminal and Main for a coffee. Garrett was having a snack and a coffee before he did some mechanical work on a van in the parking lot that belongs to Tom, another guy who drops in regularly for coffee.

Garrett is a third generation mechanic. Both his father and his maternal grandfather were mechanics. He learned the trade in high school in Winnipeg.

Garrett told me that reporters from The Province newspaper had tracked him down today. I knew they were looking for him because a reporter had e-mailed me trying to locate him. She said she had seen Garrett's name on my blog posting about the Chris Poeung stabbing in the parking lot next door to McDonalds. I had revealed on the blog that Garrett worked at a local car repair shop, but I didn't mention the name. I didn't know the name. Province reporters went to garage after garage in the neighbourhood until they found him at "Nic's" over near Cambie. (Nic's stands for "Non-intimidating Car Service".) Garrett agreed to meet with a Province reporter at McDonald’s after work.

The Province reporter had asked Garrett if he would meet in the parking lot where flowers now lie on the spot where Chris lay bleeding. Garrett looked at me, shaking his head and grimacing, indicating that he had not wanted to go over there.

"Did The Province take a photograph of you?", I asked Garrett. "About a hundred", he responded. When the photos were being taken, he said, "I held my McDonald’s coffee cup in front of me the whole time". Maybe McDonalds will return the favor by giving me free coffee, he said, grinning.

I told Garrett that the Province reporter had called him “heroic” in her e-mail to me. He didn't respond much to that. But Ric, a crusty 75 year old who regularly drops into McDonalds for coffee and has a teenager son of his own, had earlier weighed in on this: “The kid died; Garrett would have been a hero if the kid had lived”. But then again Ric was still peeved with Garrett for being too tired last night to help him fix his car.

Don, who has had coffee with Garrett at McDonalds and sold him a mountain bike he no longer used, believes that what Garrett did was indeed heroic: "He helped save that kid long enough for the doctors to get to him. I bet we'll see him up for some kind of medal."

I had not run into Garrett since last Saturday when I saw him applying pressure to stem the flow of blood from Chris Poeung's chest in the parking lot. Garrett told me when I chatted with him this evening, that he had said a prayer for Chris as he pressed on his wound, but not out loud. He had said the prayer for Chris after seeing "a woman saying a prayer over him", out loud in Spanish. “Is that what that woman was doing?,” I asked. I had mentioned that woman on my blog; I had reported seeing her kneeling by Chris' head, one hand on each side of his head, talking to him "softly, continuously". She had dark hair. I didn’t realize at the time that she was saying a prayer. I didn’t even realize that she was speaking Spanish as I didn’t listen too closely.

Garrett has no children. But he says he would definitely like to have some.

Garrett, who grew up on Ukranian food in a family of six children in Winnipeg, was asked by The Province if he had a message for Chris Poeung’s parents. The only thing I could say, he told me, his face and voice turning sad, was “God Bless, I’m sorry for your loss.” And knowing Garrett, he meant it. "I was traumatized when my father died when I was eight," he told me. His father died of a brain tumor six months after a machine that he was using to drill through ice flew up and hit him on the head. As an adult, when Garrett got a call from his mother in Winnipeg saying she wasn't feeling well, he said, “I’m coming to see you." He got on a bus. She died a week and a half later. "I just loved her so much," he says.

When Chris was taken away in the ambulance, Garrett says, "I thought he had a 60-40 chance." "A 40% chance to live?", I asked. "A 60% chance", Garrett responded. I was surprised that he had been that optimistic. Earlier, when I had mentioned that in the parking lot I was afraid that Chris had died when, for a few moments, his entire body went absolutely still -- something I don't think I will ever forgot -- Garrett raised his eyebrows slightly and nodded, saying softly, "I saw that too." I felt relieved to hear him say that. I don't know why, but I needed to know that I wasn't the only one who had witnessed those few moments.

The thing that haunts me about seeing Chris Poeung lying in that parking lot is whether anything more could have done more to help him survive. There were so many people around Chris – several of us being adults -- but none of us, other than Garrett, seemed to know first aid. Don told me the other night that the first aid course Garrett, whose paternal grandfather was a general practitioner, had taken was probably one of those short ones that last a day, minus lunch and smoke breaks.

That’s exactly what Garrett had taken. He told me he had taken his first aid course at the Newton Advocacy Group Society. “It was an 8 hr. course, very extensive”, he said, “Class 3”. The Newton Advocacy Group, Garrett explained, is a government funded organization that gives free first aid courses and helps women find employment. "And they help homeless people get back on their feet", Garrett said. "And that's me." Garrett became homeless when the boat squatters in False Creek got evicted. But he has an apartment in Surrey now and comes in to work on the Sky Train, his bike in tow.

I mentioned to Don the other night that I had been puzzled by the fact that Chris had a gaping cut, about ¾” long and fairly deep, on the base of his chin – it could have been a stab wound -- but it wasn’t bleeding. The absence of bleeding could have been a sign, Don thought, that not enough blood was flowing upwards to his head. He would have elevated Chris’ feet, he said, to get blood flowing away from his feet and legs and towards the more vital areas of his body like his head. I could have put my pack sack under his feet, I thought.

Don also told me that it’s important to keep an injured person warm when they’re going into shock, and it sounded to him like Chris had been going into shock, as they can start getting hypothermia. When I told Garrett about Don’s suggestion, he responded, “It was warm out that day.” Garrett was right; it had been a sunny day. But Chris was lying on the pavement in the parking lot and I wish now that I had put my thick sweater over him, at least over the side of his chest that Garrett wasn't applying pressure to. “He was lying on that cold pavement for at least 10 minutes,” I reminded Garrett.

Mentioning the length of time Chris had been lying in the parking lot, prompted me to add that the paramedics seemed to take longer than usual to get there. “Yeah,” Garrett said solemnly. “It seemed like it took them at least 10 minutes to get there, maybe 12 minutes”, I said. Garrett shook his head in agreement. First the Fire Department paramedics had arrived and, about five minutes later, the ambulance. “I’ve seen ambulances called for junkies on the street that seem to arrive much faster”, I said. Garrett, who lived for some time in this neighbourhood, again shook his head in agreement. We didn’t criticize the paramedics though; we don’t know exactly what they were up against, except that they were traveling in a Saturday rush hour on a holiday long weekend. But anybody who has lived for years on the Downtown Eastside gets accustomed to seeing ambulances called and gets a sense of the usual response time.

Barry Miller, a pensioner who had been walking next to me on the sidewalk when the stabbing occurred, says he saw the ambulance initially stop at the opposite side of the parking lot where other, less seriously injured, teenagers were standing. “That ambulance went to the far corner of the parking lot first," he said. "I saw it stop where some of the other kids were; there were four kids stabbed, you know.”

After talking to The Province, Garrett was second guessing himself about one thing he had said. When the reporter asked him what he thought the boy accused of stabbing Chris should be charged with, Garrett responded, “Murder.” “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that”, he told me. He thought about it for a short time, though, and added, “But I was being honest”.

I told Garrett that Don also believes that second degree murder is the right charge. When I mentioned to Don that Chris had a deep open wound on his chin that looked like it had come from a knife, he had responded with surprise, “That kid was stabbed more than once? If you stab somebody more than once, it means you’re trying to kill them. And if you stab them in the chin, it means you were probably going for their throat.” On the other hand, people who know the accused boy say he was trying to defend himself in a situation in which he felt outnumbered and did not set out to kill anyone.

“So, do you think you’ll buy a Province paper tomorrow?", Garrett asked me. I'll probably just grab one of the free ones lying around in McDonalds when I drop in for coffee, I told him. I'll show it to Don if I see him.

I agree with Don's conclusion about what Garrett achieved with his first aid intervention on Chris Poeung: "He kept that kid alive long enough for his family to see him before he died."

[Update: The interview with Garrett wasn't in Friday's Province, although the reporter had told him that it would run Friday. "I guess they missed the deadline," Garrett said. Don, who worked as a journalist years back, believes The Province will still run that story: "They went to alot of expense to find Garrett. Those were well paid reporters they had out there looking for him."]