After My Son Fell Down a Waterfall, a Stranger Stepped in to Help Us

The incredible story of how a stranger's quick actions helped a mother through one of the most terrifying moments of her life.

I don’t know how to say it except to say it. It sounds like the paranoid nightmare of an overprotective ­parent, but it is what happened. I saw my eight-year-old son go over a waterfall.

At this point, I need to tell you that he’s fine. Because when I tell this story, I can see people’s faces contort as they conjure up horrible outcomes. It wasn’t a huge fall, but in many other ways it was huge.

It was last August. We were on vacation, having driven from our home in Washington, DC, to New Hampshire. We wouldn’t see friends or family—it would be just me, my husband, and our two kids out for a nice, safe, socially distanced week away. We had hiked about half a mile to a popular spot called Diana’s Baths, near the town of North Conway, where the water falls off a series of flat boulders layered up the mountain­side like an M. C. Escher drawing. The baths were full of families, so we made our way to one of the upper levels of rock to keep our distance.

Both where we sat and down below, the water cascaded and fell into small pools, where kids in swimsuits were splashing around. I watched as some younger parents nervously corralled their toddlers away from the rocks’ edges, feeling grateful that my husband and I were out of that stage—that our kids, at six and eight, could navigate their physical space with more confidence. Don’t get me wrong: I was still terrified as I saw my two boys jump between the slippery rocks.

“No running,” I said again and again. “Stay away from all those edges.”

But I soon relaxed, and we were all having fun, splashing in the pools, my kids laughing as my husband dunked his head under the cold running water. Then, seconds later, every fear I’d ever had rose to the surface.

I turned and saw my son Wyatt sitting down between two boulders in a fast-moving stream. I yelled at him to get out. He yelled back something that I couldn’t hear, and then he disappeared over the edge.

All I remember from the moments after is screaming, over and over, like a prayer, “Somebody help my son!” I didn’t even know what help he needed, because I couldn’t force myself to look.

Lisa went toward the unthinkable instead of turning away.

My husband was already sprinting down the rocks. I finally looked. ­Wyatt was sitting up—he was alive. My biggest fear was erased. As I held my younger son, Jed, close, I heard another woman scream. “That child just went over the waterfall!” she shouted at her husband. “We are leaving!” They walked away, never even looking back to see whether our child was OK.

It was about 12 feet from the top of the waterfall to the pool below, which was studded with huge rocks. Wyatt had fallen on his back, straight onto the rocks. That’s what Lisa told us.

We didn’t know her name was Lisa at that point. All we knew was that while everyone else looked on from a distance, too afraid or unbothered to help, this petite brunette with a mask didn’t hesitate. In fact, by the time I had climbed down the rocks and my husband had pulled Wyatt out of the water, she had already called 911. She told me that she was a nurse. She gave Wyatt a red, white, and blue striped towel to put under his head. She implored us to keep him still and on his back in case he had injured his spinal cord. I finally had the wherewithal to ask her name. “Lisa,” she said. “And I’m not leaving you.”

I knew she was a mother. I saw her kids standing a few feet back. I couldn’t see her face. Just her eyes. But she looked at me so deeply, as if she were trying to take every bit of energy, love, and strength in her body and push it out through the only part of her face I could see. I held on to that energy like a rope that could pull us to safety—to some other place and time where my son wasn’t writhing in pain.

The rescue team came. They took Wyatt out of the park on a stretcher. An ambulance took us to the small local hospital. From there, Wyatt was transferred to a larger trauma hospital in Portland, Maine, where they could better assess him. There were tests and scans. A sleepless night in the hospital. But by morning, we got the all-clear. Wyatt had three broken ribs and a punctured lung—injuries that sound horrific but heal on their own.

As soon as I knew that Wyatt was going to be OK, my thoughts fell to Lisa. If she had not stepped up, would someone else have done so? Perhaps. But it was her. She was the one who went toward the unthinkable instead of turning away.

And something else had happened that I hadn’t realized right away. I felt so drawn to her, so strengthened by her, because she stepped into what had been a void in my life during the pandemic. I missed strangers.

Meeting Lisa reminded me how I long for connections with people I do not know: a random shared joke with someone in an elevator. A quip that turns into a conversation with a store clerk. The banter with a chatty restaurant server. Even the most casual interactions with strangers make me feel less strange. I need to feel as if we aren’t all floating around in our own bubbles. If we stop connecting with those we don’t know, if we stop being able to see ourselves in them, where are we as people? As a society? What are we left with?

On that mountainside in New Hampshire, the circumstances were anything but casual, and as a result the moment had even more intimacy and power. All of that has sustained me since.

Lisa and I have exchanged several text messages. She sent gifts for our kids—individually wrapped Lego sets with a handmade card. We told each other how nervous we were about our kids going to school in person. It’s not the drama of two mothers on the side of a waterfall, one holding the other through her worst fear. But every inter­action that now follows, no matter how mundane, will be built on that. And in this world that has violently shaken all of us, that has dizzied and bruised us in our own isolation, we are two strangers who are less strange.

Next, read the incredible story of this 18-year-old who helped a hiker that fell off a mountain cliff.

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