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An ordinary hero

Tom Smith saves the life of Arlene Schnitzer, but it could have been anyone


by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Tom Smith, pictured here outside the Wilsonville Target where he works, recently saved the life of philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer using the Heimlich maneuver. Smith says he just acted out of instinct and does not feel like he did anything heroic. Sometimes a cold soda sounds more refreshing than a hot coffee.

But for Tom Smith, the last-minute decision to go with the former wound up putting him in the right place at the right time to save a life. And as it happened, the woman he rescued from choking at a Wilsonville Burger King — Arlene Schnitzer — happens to be one of the most recognizable figures in Oregon today.

“It was honestly the craziest thing,” said Smith, a Tigard resident who works at the Wilsonville Target store, where he is a team leader. “I was going to go to Starbucks, but at the last minute I decided to go to Burger King.”

Thus it was that Smith found himself on an otherwise ordinary January afternoon performing the Heimlich maneuver on Schnitzer in the middle of the Burger King in Argyle Square in north Wilsonville. His instinctive reaction saved Schnitzer from choking and led the renowned philanthropist to publicly call Smith a “guardian angel.” by: SUBMITTED - Arlene Schnitzer

The way Smith sees it, however, he forever would have regretted not taking action to help someone in distress.

“Just seeing her, I think if I had not acted I don’t think I could have ever forgiven myself,” he said. “If I had found it had gone the other way and finding that she, God forbid, but didn’t survive, and then found out it was Arlene Schnitzer it would be a tragic loss. I’m glad I stepped in, I was just being a good Samaritan, I just saw someone who was in need, who was in trouble and reacted.”

Totally silent

The incident took place Jan. 22, according to Smith’s recollection. It started when he went to retrieve his soda from the counter at Burger King. An unusual sounding cough came from behind him, catching his attention. Then it stopped.

“Suddenly the coughing stopped and it became … gasping … one of those where it’s totally silent,” Smith recounted. “And I was like, ‘Oh.' I’ve never seen anyone choke before, but I knew then that it was really someone choking.”

The strangest part, he said, was that no one around them seemed to be paying the slightest bit of attention to what was happening.

“There were probably 15 other people in the area, but people weren’t paying attention to the situation,” Smith said. “And that kind of frightened me. So, honestly, it was just a gut reaction and I ran over to her.”

As he approached, he could see in her eyes the desperation to take a breath. Smith described how her lips were turning blue and a gray pallor was coming over her face. With his adrenaline pumping, he asked if she could breathe. There was no response.

“So I kind of motioned to her I’m going to do the Heimlich, which I had never done that before,” Smith said.

Fortunately, his father, a physician with the Veterans Administration Hospital in Portland, had taught him the Heimlich maneuver as a child. Those lessons quickly returned when most needed.

“So it was something from when I was really young that popped into my memory,” he said.

A familiar name

At first, Smith had no idea the identity of the woman he had saved. He acted and quickly left the restaurant in the aftermath, hoping to preserve the dignity of a person who had just suffered through an extremely dramatic experience in public.

So he was surprised to find a business card had been left for him at work the following week in connection with the incident. He noticed it bore the title “executive vice president,” but didn’t give it too much more thought. He pocketed the card and headed home, still wondering about the woman he had prevented from choking to death.

“I knew I wanted to meet her and make sure she was OK,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got home and I saw the name and it was like, ‘What?’ It was too unreal, it was a very intense moment.”

Smith is a longtime musician and quite familiar with the Schnitzer name.

“Everyone knows her name,” he said. “As soon as I saw it I knew she’s very important to the arts and entertainment and finding out later she’s a philanthropist … just someone who is important to the community and who has given so much, that was a cool moment for me.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Arlene Schnitzer is of Portland's most active philanthropic donors and has given millions of dollars to numerous arts, science and education projects. Most famously, she is the namesake of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland. Schnitzer is of Portland’s most active philanthropic donors and has given millions of dollars to numerous arts, science and education projects. Most famously, she is the namesake of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland. When reached by news partner KOIN 6 television, she said she was determined not to die in a suburban restaurant because she knew the attention it would bring.

“All I could think,” she said, “Was the newspaper saying Mrs. Schnitzer died at the Burger King.”

Schnitzer was in New York last week and said she planned to meet with Smith when she returns in order to thank him.

When she does, it will probably be at Target, where Smith’s co-workers said they were not exactly surprised to hear of his lifesaving exploits.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t say surprised, I think everyone was just, ‘That’s so cool,’” said Target staffer Adrienne Scott. “He’d tell people about it, but he acted like he didn’t do anything. … He was so humble about it, he didn’t even want to tell us about it; he was like it was no big deal. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy too.”

Others noted that Smith is known for his quick reaction under pressure.

“Sometimes I guess he doesn’t think things through he just does it,” said Alex Safronchik a seven-year Target employee. “I think that’s what happened; he just did it.”

Smith said he’s helped a number of people in the past, but nothing that counts as life-and-death.

“Nothing extreme like this,” he said. “A few flat tires, maybe someone falls, but nothing where you realize it’s a do-or-die situation, where if you don’t do anything there’s no going back.”

Smith said he isn’t sure the term hero is appropriate in his case, although he admits it sounds nice.

“It’s an interesting word, I think,” he said. “Although it’s really flattering. But at the same time I was just being a good Samaritan. I was there to help her, to assist when somebody was in a time of need, and I feel like all of us, if we’re able to recognize the situations, can step in.”