On a balmy summer night about two months ago, Joe Cwiklinski climbed into his car, strapped on the seat belt, and began driving home from a friend's house in Virginia.
As he made the familiar turns — sweeping up onto George Washington Parkway, then the Southwest Freeway — the retired elementary school teacher, 75, wondered why he had felt nauseated during dinner.
Around the same time, miles away in Southeast D.C., 45-year-old Toni Pollard finally gave in to her friends' pleas. OK, fine, Pollard, a registered medical assistant, told the two women. She would walk with them to the neighborhood grocery store.
Cwiklinski is alive today because she did.
At a ceremony held last week at a Washington firehouse, firefighters, residents and members of the press gathered to hear D.C. officials recount the dramatic tale of neighborhood heroics: how Cwiklinski suffered a heart attack around 8 p.m. on Aug. 12, just blocks from his home, and crashed his car in the middle of the street. How concerned strangers spilled from their houses and porches, praying, crying and calling 911.
How Pollard spotted Cwiklinski, still sprawled in the driver's seat, looking as if he didn't have a pulse.
Pollard, who is CPR-certified, pulled Cwiklinski from the car, jumped atop his chest and started chest compressions, until paramedics arrived.
"Joe was actually turning colors in that car," Pollard said in an interview. "I was just like, 'Oh, my God, got to pump, got to pump.' … It was exhausting, but the neighbors encouraging me gave me strength to keep going."
A few minutes later, D.C. Fire and EMS personnel arrived and transported Cwiklinski to the nearest hospital, where doctors concluded that Pollard's quick work had saved his life. But Cwiklinski had no idea whom to thank — and anxious neighbors did not know the fate of the man they had worked so hard to save.
A few days after Cwiklinski got out of the hospital, his longtime partner, Tom Kai — who had been riding in the passenger seat that night — suggested a solution: Why not post a thank-you sign near the site of the accident? The couple decided to tie a single, laminated piece of white paper to a tree. "Good Samaritans of Potomac Ave — You saved My Life!" it read in part, before concluding: "Forever Grateful, Joe."
"I had no idea how to get the message out — I didn't know who these people were," Kai said. "And I'm not digitally savvy. So I thought, maybe a sign would work."
A stranger snapped a picture of the sign and posted it to Twitter, which led to social media speculation, then press coverage, then the involvement of D.C. Fire and EMS — and, finally, the award ceremony.
"I didn't really realize all of the things that had to be done to get me to this point right now," Cwiklinski said.
"I'm still absorbing it," he said, glancing at Pollard. "All I can really think of to say right now is thank you."
Once the applause died down, Cwiklinski handed out thick medallions — known as "cardiac arrest save coins" and granted only to those who have "returned a pulse to the pulse-less," D.C. Fire and EMS medical director Robert Holman said — to every person who participated in his rescue. When Pollard stepped forward to receive her coin, Cwiklinski traded the handshake for a hug.
"I've never saved a life before, and to see someone that you actually saved their life … it's like a miracle," Pollard said. "People are all saying, 'You're getting an award!' and, you know, my real reward is Joe."