An unlikely group gathered at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad on Thursday for lunch: a rector, an adventure writer, a restaurant manager, and 12 medics and firefighters.
A life-saving effort and some coincidences brought them together.
The rector, Sari Ateek of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood, and the adventure writer, John Ross, met 11 years earlier at Mon Ami Gabi, a French restaurant in Bethesda.
In December 2019, Ross was picking up food to celebrate Ateek earning his doctorate when a truck hit Ross’ car, putting him in the hospital for a month.
The church deacon happened to drive by the scene of the crash. Given the extent of the damage, she thought the car’s occupant could not possibly have lived. Not knowing who the driver was, the deacon offered the first prayer for Ross.
The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad responded and pulled him out of the wreck.
At a chance encounter in September 2020, Ross got to meet B-CC squad members who saved him.
After surviving the crash, which broke six of his ribs, collapsed his left ventricle, and crushed his leg and pelvis, Ross wanted to help people in the community. In August, he started a food distribution for Montgomery County residents experiencing food insecurity.
He randomly decided on the B-CC Rescue Squad as the distribution site for Nourishing Bethesda, the food drive effort. One day while he was there, he mentioned the crash to a member of the squad and found out that the people who used the Jaws of Life and pulled him from his car were inside. He decided to organize a lunch to thank them.
The rescue squad members had witnessed the trauma in his life, he said. Now, he wanted to show them what he had done with the new period of life they gave him.
“I wanted to be able to say to them, ‘I’m alive, I’m changed, I’m different,’” Ross said. “Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to see what was in me, to help people.”
On Thursday, flanked by firetrucks, the group sat down to a celebratory three-course meal donated by Mon Ami Gabi.
The two-hour lunch was alternatively poignant and lighthearted. Rescue squad members teased each other over who would get the extra plates of dessert and whether they would start cooking French cuisine during their shifts.
But throughout the meal, when calls came over the loudspeaker, the team snapped into focus and members dashed off in ambulances with sirens and flashing lights.
“It is no ordinary thing to willingly place oneself in harm’s way so that others might have life and safety,” Ateek said at a prayer at the start of the meal. “Today, we give thanks for the B-CC Rescue Squad. For the gift that this institution is to our local community. For all the occasions — past, present, and future — on which these brave first responders guard and restore the precious and sacred gift of life.”
Ateek presented Ned Sherburne, the rescue squad’s chief, with a $10,000 donation on behalf of members of St. John’s.
Ross decided to raise money to thank rescue squad members for helping the community and for offering up the parking lot for Nourishing Bethesda’s weekly distribution. Additionally, he wanted to help the nonprofit recoup from pandemic-related losses.
Ross asked Ateek to present the check to thank the rescue squad on behalf of the members of St. John’s.
At the lunch, Ross shared the story of his crash and his reflections on it in the aftermath, particularly why he might have survived — “either dumb luck or just some purpose,” he said.
He spoke of the number of people Nourishing Bethesda has served.
Since August, the organization has distributed 281,000 pounds of food to 46,000 people. Each family receives about 10 meals’ worth of food.
“When you have something traumatic that happens in your life that comes out of the blue like this, you need to weave it into your own narrative of what your life is,” Ross said in a follow-up interview.
Ross finished his story by thanking the crew. “You guys saved my sorry ass,” he said with a laugh.
Though his pelvis still hurts and he can’t breathe as well as he used to, he’s about 95 percent healed.
Matthew Bowles, who drove the ambulance to Ross’ crash, said that about one in 20 people the team rescues come to the firehouse to say thank you. “One out of 1,000 do this,” he added.
Adam Murphy, Mon Ami Gabi’s general manager, donated the meal after Ross called him and shared his story.
Murphy knew he wanted to be a part of it, he said. His wife has worked as a nurse at Shady Grove Medical Center during the pandemic, and he wanted to give back to all the first responders.
“I think so often they help people, they get them to the hospital, and then they never hear from them again,” Murphy said. “This time, we kind of bring it full circle.”
Executive Chef Andrew Fleischauer prepared Caesar salad, prime steak frites with a maître d’hôtel compound butter and pommes purees, and bread pudding with Chantilly cream and bourbon caramel sauce.
He made the food in the cramped firehouse kitchen, cooking the steak on the charcoal grill outside.
During the meal, Fleischauer came out to speak to the group. Murphy explained that Fleischauer rarely gets to see how happy his food makes diners, just like first responders don’t often see the people they save.
After the lunch finished, paramedic Hannah Putt spoke one on one with Ross.
Putt, the paramedic on the scene of the crash, crawled into the wrecked car to stabilize his cervical spine and put him on a backboard. She covered the two of them in a sheet to block out the noise of the crew tearing apart the car to free him.
It’s a fairly standard procedure, Bowles said. The goal is to “give you some kind of peace of mind in a situation that—”
“—changes in a second,” Ross finished for him.
Putt asked Ross about his recovery and how long he had been in the hospital. He told her that he had coded a few times, referring to cardiopulmonary arrest, and he was hallucinating creatures from books because of the painkillers.
She filled in the holes in his memory. Ross only remembered waking up in the hospital after the crash. Putt told him he was awake and asking what happened while he was trapped in the car, but confused.
On the ambulance ride to the hospital, she gave him oxygen and started an IV.
Ross said the lunch was emotionally challenging, but he had prepared for it. He threw himself into the details of planning and wrote out what he wanted to say, so he stayed calm while speaking about the crash.
Two days earlier, he was sorting through a stack of recipes he had clipped out and found the menu he planned for Ateek’s celebratory dinner, the one he was driving to when he was hit. That moment was much harder, he said.
“The specificity, those are the things that catch your breath,” Ross said.