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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

Far from home, new friends came to the rescue

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - You never know when life is going to slap you in the face, or who might come to your aid.

How many times had I driven by Flagler Hospital and thought about the beauty of the structure that matches the Spanish architecture of buildings that philantropist Henry Flagler endowed? What might St. Augustine look like had it not been for Mr. Flagler's decision to build grand hotels with tall steeples and turrets that give the city an impressive European-style skyline?

Much as I have always admired Mr. Flagler's life story and his contributions to Florida's East Coast, he was not on my mind the day I got a closer look at the hospital that bears his name.

The emergency room was my destination.

Who wouldn't rather have illness overtake them at home instead of 1,500 miles away? But some things we can't control. and know that I surely couldn't control what happened one day. Talk about a dizzy dame: I qualified fully.

I was in a grocery store, filling a cart with ingredients to make a snowball cake. At this point in the tri-states' snow-and-ice, sub-zero season, the coconut-covered cake is as close to snow as snowbirds who have escaped to the South want to be.

Suddenly, what to fix for Sunday dinner became unimportant. I was dizzy and I was scared.

A quick decision had to be made. The cart and its contents were abandoned and I walked directly to my car, where Digby gave his usual welcome by raising his left front paw.

From there it was about four miles to the beauty shop where I knew I would get help. With good fortune I landed here in a network of friendly, caring women. It was Tricia, the manicurist, who suggested that I call my doctor in Toledo to report my problem. I did.

The answer was, take an aspirin and get to the emergency room immediately. Cathi got an aspirin out of the shop's first-aid kit. Employees and customers volunteered to drive me, but I knew I could make it. Besides, what about Digby in the car? He had to be safe first and foremost. I drove about six miles to the kennel where he had stayed last year when I returned home because of the illness of a friend. The kennel staff welcomed him and had his medical records.

Then I headed for the emergency sign at Flagler Hospital less than a quarter mile away. The hospital being that close, friends, was Irish luck.

About 20 minutes into the emergency room experience, which could make another whole column, Berta came flying in. Berta is a real estate agent who found me the beach house. Our friendship has grown as she walks her pets Mary and Joseph, and I am with Digby on the beach.

Tricia had called Berta to tell her I was ill. She gave me a hug and stayed with me for four hours, flashing her contagious smile. She drove my car to her house and checked at the kennel to be certain Digby was OK.

She called often and visited during my two-day hospital stay. Since then, she and Mary and Joseph have stopped in every day to say hello.

After too many low-fat, low- salt meals that included dreadful diet gravy and gallons of iced tea, which Southerners believe is a year-round beverage, the St. Augustine doctor signed the release papers and declared accelerated blood pressure was the cause of my dizziness.

Now I am in the pill-taking league and shopping for a designer pill box; no plain plastic, thank you.

On that rainy Sunday afternoon another stranger came to my aid. When Phyllis delivered the newspaper I asked if rain gear is sold in the gift shop. The shop is closed, she explained, but not to worry, she would look around the hospital. In an hour she returned with an umbrella and a rain hat.

This is not intended as a sad vacation story. I share it to stress how important it is to act quickly when illness overtakes. We must not be embarrassed to ask for help, or to believe it's a quirk of aging that will go away. I had never had high blood pressure in my life, and thanks to medication, I don't now either.

We should believe there are Tricias and Bertas out there willing to help. Likewise, we should be willing to help others.

Just for the record, I never needed the rain hat or the umbrella. I walked from the hospital into bright sunshine. The air never smelled fresher. Digby was never more handsome. The red car I have disliked suddenly was a jewel. I was anxious to make a snowball cake. The rented beach house was a castle, and I just felt good all over after a bittersweet experience far from home that had a happy ending.



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