On the beauty of simple things around our foothills town

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 9, 2013

Don Sylvestre

Don Sylvestre, proprietor of HQ Coffee Co. & Pie Emporium formerly located in downtown Cochrane, is alive today because a total stranger on a Calgary CTrain suspected Don was having a heart attack and immediately began CPR.
Photo by Warren Harbeck

I’ve written a lot lately about the listening heart. But is there such a thing as a “seeing heart”? And if so, just what do seeing hearts have to do with cataract surgery and near-fatal cardiac arrest?

A lot, in fact, as you’ll soon see when I share with you the inspiring story of our delightful coffee companion, Don Sylvestre. You may even join in with a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus in singing for joy about it.

But first, about the cataract surgery.

A cataract is a clouding of the eye’s lens resulting in obscured vision and even blindness.

Several of our readers have struggled with cataracts and are so grateful for modern medical techniques that can restore full sight – often by replacing the cloudy natural lens with a crystal-clear artificial lens. And it really works!

I know personally about this. I underwent cataract surgery last October, and I can’t believe how well I’ve been able to see ever since! (As I delight in saying to my friends, “I never realized just how great you really look!”)

Upon reflection, however, it seems clear that just being able to see well physically is only half the battle. We can still have “cataracts of the heart.” Such “cardiocataracts” blind us to responding to the needs around us, even when our eyes are seeing those needs perfectly well.

Here’s where my friend Don Sylvestre, almost 70 now, enters the field of vision.

Cochrane folks will remember Don fondly as the genial proprietor of the HQ Coffee Co. & Pie Emporium which he operated in historic downtown Cochrane from 2003 till its closing in 2010. Don is a man who not only appreciates good pie and coffee. He’s also a fine artist and not a bad baritone, too, with a special love for performing in Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

Thus it was, as a member of the Chorus of Villagers, that he was already several performances into Calgary’s Morpheus Theatre winter 2011 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta, “The Sorcerer,” when he personally came to realize just how life-and-death important a seeing heart truly is.

He was on his way home from his day job and had just boarded the CTrain in downtown Calgary. No sooner had he taken his seat, than it happened.

He went into cardiac arrest and passed out – right there in his seat in an LRT car crowded with equally tired and very anonymous other passengers.

Enter on the scene a total stranger who not only had seeing eyes to see Don’s distress, but also had a seeing heart to respond immediately and administer CPR.

Thanks to that stranger’s “cataract-free” heart, Don lived through those critical few minutes till an equally caring EMS team arrived and rushed him off to Emergency.

Don recounted the story of the stranger for me over brunch this past weekend. He never has been able to find out the identity of his caring angel, however, for he exited the scene as quietly as he entered. But as Don says, “If it weren’t for that stranger’s quick response, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

I mentioned that Don, at the time of his cardiac arrest, was in the midst of performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, “The Sorcerer.” Don recalls well those words from the Act I opening chorus, a classic of the songwriters’ optimistic genius:

Ring forth, ye bells,
With clarion sound –
Forget your knells,
For joys abound.

Well, that cardiac arrest that could have been the death knell for Don turned out, instead, to be an invitation for a stranger with a seeing heart to intervene – and all the rest is joyful history for Don and for all of his admiring fans.


© 2012 Warren Harbeck

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