Good Samaritan who tried to save man from train facing finger amputation
That’s how long Julie Callaghan had to try to save a man’s life.
“I ran forward, thinking, I’ve got this,” she told CTV News, breaking down. “I knew I didn’t have it alone. As soon as somebody else stepped up, I thought we had it.”
On May 26, 2018, Callaghan was on her way to an event in Chilliwack, when she came upon a gut-wrenching sight: a man in a wheelchair unable to move, trapped on the train tracks near Broadway and 1st Avenue, with a train speeding towards him.
She and another woman dashed from their vehicles to free him, instinctually each taking a side of the chair and wrenching it in desperation.
“We had 14 seconds from the time we left our car,” she said just over a year later.
“That’s 14 seconds to leave your car, look behind you, run, go under a railway arm, and get to work. I lost five seconds right there. I had 11 seconds to do something.”
It simply wasn't enough time.
Forty-year-old Matthew Jarvis was struck and killed by the train.
The other woman who helped was uninjured, but Callaghan held on to Jarvis a fraction too long. Her right hand was hit by the train, beginning her year-long journey of being in the public spotlight, coping with extreme physical pain, losing wages and experiencing the kindness and cruelty of her fellow humans. It has been an epic struggle to keep hope, and her hand, alive.
In June, Callaghan met Dr. Rod French, who is now her surgeon.
“When something hits the human body at that high a speed, the zone of injury is massive,“ said French. “The damage is everywhere.”
For the last year, Callaghan has been relentless in her attempt to save her fourth and fifth fingers on her injured hand. Her life has been a non-stop procession of specialists, therapists, doctors and surgeons. She has been unable to work, and her benefits are running out. In consultation with her medical team, she has decided those fingers must be amputated for her to get on with her life. Dr. French agrees.
“There’s a few people you meet, and Julie’s one of them, where you just know, she’s done everything humanly possible,” he said. “And it is not going to move.”
As well, the injury triggered CRPS, or complex regional pain syndrome, a debilitating reaction by the nervous system that brings with it acute pain, bizarre sensations, and sensitivity to hot and cold. Physically, Callaghan feels stuck, unable to move forward. She wants to go back to work. She wants her life back.
She also wants to be rid of the constant reminder of that day.
“I did a good thing,” she said. “I did a good thing, but I did it wrong, and that’s what haunts me.”
She’s also been impacted by the judgement and sometimes outright cruelty of strangers on the internet, and occasionally in person.
She said some people have second-guessed her actions that day, suggesting that maybe she just didn’t try hard enough to save Jarvis. She used to respond, inviting people to talk to her personally, trying to explain she had only seconds to dislodge an adult man and a wheelchair stuck in the grooves of a railway track. She tries not to read the comments online anymore.
Callaghan is hoping the surgery will be done in September. Dr French and the Cambie Surgical Centre are waiving all fees. He said he can’t help but be touched by Callaghan’s resilience and courage.
“There are some patients like Julie who are very inspiring,” he said. “This is what Julie would do if she were in our shoes, she would jump in and help someone like her and not expect anything in return.”
After her fingers are amputated, Callaghan is looking to get a prosthetic. Neither her nor her husband’s benefits cover what could be an $80,000 device. But it’s what she needs to get back to work. She’s hoping for community support to raise the money needed.
Recently Callaghan was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal given “to individuals in the United States and Canada who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.”
She’s also been recognized by the RCMP for her bravery. But she struggles to reconcile these acknowledgments with Jarvis's death. Through tears, she tried to explain the mixed emotions she feels.
“I don’t feel worthy, I guess is what it is,” she said. “I don’t think that I’ll ever wrap my head around it. I’m just still so sorry.”
She hopes one day to get to a place where she finally accepts that she did the best she could in those 14 seconds. She’s working on that, but first she must move past the injury she tried so hard to heal.
“Having it gone, I can change my story,” she said.