My doubts were compounded by the racial and generational differences between us. And then I thought, This is an opportunity to practice what I preach about crossing artificial boundaries. I stopped and turned back around. She watched me walk towards her.
I tentatively asked, “Do you need help?”
“I feel like my chest is going to explode,” she stammered out.
“Take some deep breaths.” I’m a firm believer that deep breathing can solve many problems. We inhaled together a few times.
“Can I take your pulse?” I asked, more as a way to offer physical contact than to offer medical advice.
She offered her arm. I reached for her outstretched hand with both of mine. She squeezed my left hand as I rested my right fingers on her wrist.
“Maybe I’m having a panic attack?” she wondered.
“Have you had them before?”
She shook her head.
“Did you hear something or see something upsetting before this started?”
“I just met with my professor about my grade.” She closed her eyes tight.
“That would do it,” I agreed.
We stood there for a few minutes, holding hands and breathing together. Eventually she nodded, “It’s getting better.”
I asked, “Have you eaten anything today?”
She shook her head.
“Have you had anything to drink?”
“Do you have money to buy yourself something to eat and drink?”
“Do you have more classes or are you going home now?”
“How do you go home?”
“Will you be okay going on BART by yourself after you’ve had something to eat and drink?”
“Can I give you hug?”
Her body visibly relaxed even more, “Yes.”
We hugged for much longer than most strangers would. As a doula I got used to a lot of physical contact with virtual strangers. I was willing to stay with her as long as she wanted.
When she broke away, I squeezed her hand, let her know that I’ve been there too after talking to professors.
“Thank you,” she said softly before I walked away.
I don’t know her name, how to be in touch, or the end of this particular story. I assume she got home. I’ve thought of her often over the days since. I wish her well and I’m grateful she was open to letting a stranger comfort her, however limited that comfort might have been. I hope she remembers it as tenderly as I do.