SMETHPORT — All that Don Catlin remembers during his 19 hours on the basement floor and steps of his home was immense pain in his freshly broken hip and the cold that engulfed his body. He also remembers hoping that someone would eventually stop by his Port Allegany home and help him.
Catlin, who celebrated his 95th birthday Friday, credits his very life to ATA bus driver Betsy Slade, who got out of her Call-A-Bus and searched the senior citizen’s home last week when he wasn’t seen waiting for his regular ride with her.
The two had a reunion this past week when Slade visited Catlin in Lakeview Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Smethport where he is recuperating from a fall down his basement steps to the concrete floor that broke his left hip and injured his left hand, wrist and shoulder.
In sharing the story of his near-tragedy, Catlin said the fall occurred at approximately 3:30 p.m. Aug. 26 after he had returned from the hospital following an appendicitis operation. His son and a cleaning lady had been at his home following the procedure, but left the World War II U.S. Navy veteran on his own as he had always been capable of caring for himself. He’s proud of the fact that during the war, his Naval submarine picked up the late President George Herbert Walker Bush after his airplane was shot down in battle in the Pacific Theater.
“Old George Bush senior was a gutsy guy,” Catlin said with admiration.
He acknowledged that he might also be a gutsy guy in the way he handled last week’s incident. It all began after everyone left his home and he noticed that a light with an on-off string in his basement had been left on. A self-described economist, Catlin decided he’d walk down the steps and turn it off.
“That was a mistake … it was a stupid thing to do,” he lamented in hindsight. “I don’t know what happened next — all I remember was flying through the air and landing on my left hip” at the bottom of the stairs. After he regained his senses, Catlin managed to pull himself up on one of the steps with his hands.
“I sat there and hollered occasionally, and no one answered, of course,” he said. “That was a long night — I was cold, miserable and in pain.”
When morning finally rolled around, Catlin continued to hope someone would find him — and soon.
In recounting her part of the story, Slade said that when she didn’t see Catlin waiting for her by the window in his home at 10 a.m. Aug. 27, she thought something must be wrong.
“I was very alarmed because he’s usually right on the spot, and right on time,” Slade remarked. She remembers that their friendship began about three years ago when her Call-A-Bus began picking him up every weekday morning at 10 a.m. to take him to the Port Allegany Senior Center, and return him home afterward. He gave up driving some time ago because of failing eyesight. In addition to the senior center, she also took him to his haircuts, doctor appointments and grocery shopping. Her friendship with Catlin was further cemented as he is longtime friends with her parents, who live in Port Allegany.
With those thoughts likely in her mind, she hurried into Catlin’s house that morning looking for the senior and heard his television set blaring and saw that all the lights were on. After walking farther through the house looking for him, she didn’t see anything until she looked in the open cellar door, and was shocked to see Catlin at the bottom of the steps.
When she rushed down to him, he wasn’t “real alert and was a little pale, but finally came around.” After calling the 9-1-1 emergency service, Slade put a jacket on him for warmth and gave him a drink of water.
“It was really cold, so that jacket felt pretty good,” Catlin recalled.
After the ambulance arrived, Catlin was taken to UPMC Cole Hospital for hip surgery, and was sent to Lakeview a few days later for rehabilitation services, with hopes of returning home. A retired electrician and widower, Catlin has a son, a daughter and several grandchildren.
As for Slade, she said what she did for Catlin was done out of caring for all the people on her route.
“This isn’t just a job for me, I enjoy helping people and being there for them,” she explained.
Along those lines, she recently helped another passenger who passed out, fell and was hurt while walking down concrete steps to her bus.
“I had to take care of him right there and get an ambulance,” she said. “We try to look after them, because a lot of (Call-A-Bus passengers) are without family. There are a lot of elderly who ride but have nobody around.”
Bill Keesler, ATA North Division Manager, said he is proud of Slade’s heroic work on the job.
“In rural areas like Eldred and Port Allegany, the ATA driver assigned to the route is more than just a bus driver,” Keesler said. “He or she is a friend, a helper and a lifeline for many individuals.
“Like the vast majority of our drivers Betsy goes above and beyond in caring for her passengers,” he continued. “Betsy is an excellent individual, a wonderful employee and we at ATA are proud to have her as one of our drivers.”
Slade, who resides with her husband, Richard, in Eldred, is a mother and grandmother.