Heinen: The kindness of strangers

I am writing this Nov. 7, a day after the election

I think sometimes that foreign travel provides those “kindness of strangers” experiences that make us appreciate the connection we have to one another in this world despite differences of language and culture. It’s easy to feel the absence of those connections in the disharmony of our own country. Maybe that’s why they feel so meaningful wherever they occur.

A couple of months ago my wife Nancy and I arrived in Zurich after an overnight flight from Chicago, confirmed the expected unavailability of our hotel room at 8 a.m., checked our bags and hopped on the train downtown from the airport to walk along the lake and take in the city.

We always enjoy Zurich. We had a leisurely cup of coffee to begin the jet-lag reversal process and walked through the arboretum. It was a beautiful if brisk fall morning. We crossed over the bridge at the head of the lake and decided to grab a bottle of water before walking along the promenade. Too tired and not paying attention to what I was doing, I caught my foot in a trolley track, had no chance to break my fall, and planted my noggin in the street.

As frightened as she was, Nancy coolly helped me to my feet, guided me to a concrete barrier on which to sit and went about stopping the bleeding. And then help arrived. Within a minute a man who spoke English offered to help. He said he was a doctor. Bonus. Then a taxi driver, who did not speak English, came over ready to help, a mom with her young child offered assistance and a manager from the restaurant across the street came over with a clean napkin and then went to get a bag of ice.

There was a debate over pressure versus stitches, and hospital versus pharmacy (the taxi driver apparently knew there was a physician’s assistant on duty at the pharmacy down the street) and what seemed like a lot of people just determined to make sure I was OK. I was. But the restaurant manager insisted on walking us to the pharmacy (I won the no hospital argument, and lost the no-stitch argument), saying basically this is what people do for each other. He’d been similarly helped once, he said, and was essentially returning the favor. He refused compensation for his now-bloodied napkin. We literally could not thank him enough. The health care professional at the pharmacy directed us to an urgent care facility two blocks away. We walked in and the doctor, a young woman (the entire staff of physicians were young women), did a thorough check-up, had her assistant apply four stitches above my eye and made me promise I’d show up at 7:30 a.m. the next day to be checked again before our flight to Croatia. No one even asked for my credit card before the end of that next morning’s appointment. A few weeks later after we returned home, the bill came – $288 for the works: two visits, four stitches, a shot of anesthetic, bandages, a few taps from one of those little hammers on my feet and knees and some encouragement to watch out for the trolley tracks.

I am writing this on Nov. 7, the day after the election. Some folks around me are pretty upbeat. Some are a little disappointed. But the anxiety level across the board has diminished a little. There seems to be a little break in the angst. After so many months of gloom, if not fear for so many on both sides of the aisle, I think I’m hearing an admittedly uncertain (but unmistakable) sigh of relief. And I suddenly feel confident that if someone we didn’t know tripped and fell in the street, a half dozen or more of us – oh, let’s just say one Democrat and one Republican, one Evangelical Christian and one Muslim, one transgender teenager and one veteran – would, together, help.

Twenty years of stem cell research
It’s hard to overestimate the impact University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist James Thomson’s first successful derivation and cultivation of human stem cells has had on the health sciences world. Among other things, it put him on the cover of TIME magazine. That discovery was announced in November 1998, and in addition to putting UW-Madison and Thomson on the biomedical map, it raised hope for numerous medical miracles. Twenty years later, we’re not there yet. No disease has been eradicated by stem cell science yet. But hope has not dimmed, nor has Thomson’s star status. It’s still one of the best things to happen at UW-Madison.

Market news
Madison’s dream of a public market, a long time in the making, is showing signs of progress. The physical plant at East Washington Avenue and First Street has been made over again (with further modifications always a possibility), and the component parts of the project have a clearer definition. In the meantime, donors to the nonprofit Madison Public Market Foundation have contributed nearly $1 million of the $4 million in private gifts that are part of a larger $13.2 million fundraising campaign. The city hopes to begin construction of the project next fall, with a grand opening planned for late 2020.