Two months ago, on a soothing summer night, Joe Cwiklinski climbed into his car, strapped on the seat belt, and began driving from a friend’s house in Virginia. While he was making familiar turns, sweeping up onto George Washington Parkway, then the Southwest Freeway, the 75-year-old elementary school teacher wondered why he had felt sickening during dinner. 

Near about the same time, in Southeast D.C., 45-year-old Toni Pollard finally gave in to her friend’s pleas. Pollard, a registered medical assistant, said to the two women, fine. She would walk with them to the neighborhood Harris Teeter grocery store. 

Today, Cwiklinski is alive as she did. On Thursday morning, at a Washington firehouse, at ceremony residents and members of the press gathered to hear D.C. officials recount the dramatic tale of the neighborhood her heroics, how Cwiklinski suffered a sudden heart attack around 8 p.m.

Pollard said in an interview Thursday, “Joe was actually turning colors in that car”. “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: harder, harder, harder,” he added.

Just a few minutes later, EMS personnel and D.C. Fire reached and transported Cwiklinski to the nearest hospital. The doctors immediately saved his life there. But Cwiklinski was confused whom to thank and anxious neighbors did not know the final fate of the man they had worked so hard to keep from dying. 

Later, when he came out of the hospital, his longtime partner, Tom Kai, who had been riding in the passenger seat that night who suggested,  Why not post a thank-you sign near the site of the accident? The couple then 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.”

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