The Angel of the Gap

The Gap

As my years of being a professional crisis interventionist came to a close, I checked back through my agency’s electronic database to see how many ‘crisis intervention’ notes I had written. Each note would represent one “event” or “interaction” with a person in crisis. Some of those notes would have been dispatch phone calls. Others would have been “follow up” visits to persons who had been in crisis. A few would be “repeat” customers, so to speak. However, the majority would be one-time events in the community with strangers in crisis – homicidal, suicidal, psychotic, addicted, or otherwise overwhelmed.

I had approximately 780 crisis notes recorded in the system.

Adding on three additional months of crisis intervention work I did later, and two years working for a suicide hotline, I have had a lot of interactions with persons in crisis. Now, many of those people thinking of ending their lives may not have gone through with it, or would have been unsuccessful, or could have sought help elsewhere, or somebody besides me might have intervened. How many did I actually “save?” Although I will never know the actual number, I could conservatively estimate that a bare minimum of ten people would be dead right now if it were not for my personal actions. Those were the very high risk ones, impulsive and with no will to live. It is for at least those few that I knew then and now beyond the shadow of a doubt that I had saved a life. The number could be significantly higher, but I just could not say with certainty.

Donald “Don” Richie was an Australian who came to be known as the ‘Angel of the Gap.’ He was a naval veteran and retired insurance salesman who happened to live across the street from a cliff in Sydney that is a notorious suicide hotspot. Don would watch from his window, and when he saw someone lingering near the cliff he would calmly approach them and ask if there was anything he could do to help them, often inviting them back to his house for a cup of tea.

Over forty-five years, Don was officially confirmed to have prevented 164 suicides, but perhaps as many as 400. For this service, this otherwise “ordinary man” was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006. Don reportedly did not seek fame, recognition, or reward for what was essentially a solo volunteer effort that stretched five decades and certainly involved a measure of personal risk.

I have frequently wondered what kind of impact I can make on the world. What change, what lasting mark can be my contribution? How will I go down in history? Or, if not that grandiose, how will I be remembered and by whom? Starting to do crisis intervention in a small corner of America did not seem to be the grand destiny I had in mind. However, I have come to realize that saving lives, even if nobody else ever knows or cares, is truly priceless. I could build a “body of work” over my lifetime that I would never regret, even if I were to die in obscurity.

Don Richie completed his masterpiece… his magnum opus. His great life’s work was sculpted with the rescued souls of men and women standing at the edge of the precipice. In the art of saving lives, he was one of the greats. He may have been an “angel” to many, but to me he is a muse.

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