A Different Kind of Rescue

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 New York City Lifeguards keep our city’s beaches safe all summer. But the job isn’t just about pulling people out of the water when they need help. Sometimes they’re there for those who need a little help getting in.

For at least seven years, NYC Lifeguard Brian Gillen of 117 Shack has been the helping hand that 91-year-old Carol Rappaport needs. It’s not every day that the Fresh Meadows resident can get down to the beach. But when she can, with the help of one of her daughters and her aide, Elsie McBean, she makes sure Gillen is going to be there. That was the case when she made her second trip down to the beach this summer on Wednesday, July 27, and Gillen awaited her arrival on Beach 117th.

Gillen says for about 30 years, Rappaport has been coming down to his beach. “She’s been coming here for probably as long as I’ve been a lifeguard, since I was a kid. She used to drive and would park on 119th and walk to 117th and we’d chat about the water. This has been going on for years. Eventually it got to a point where she wasn’t comfortable getting in the water, and she’d say, ‘Can you help me get in, and then I’ll wave, and you can me get out?’ So that’s what me and Mike Geraghty did for about five or six years. She’s a strong swimmer and she’d swim half a mile or so and come back and wave and we’d help her get out. But as time progressed, she started coming down with her daughter or granddaughter as she couldn’t drive anymore and was having more difficulty walking,” Gillen explained. “Her daughter and granddaughter were always surprised that we knew her name. I told them I’ve known Carol for years, we help her get in the water. Now we’re at a point where it’s just a few times a summer, so this is the second time she’s coming down. Sometimes she comes in a wheelchair with her daughter and nurse, and I help get her in the water. I stand in front of her and walk her to the shoreline and I’ll let all the waves break over my back as she holds on to me and I get her out past the breaking waves, and same thing getting her out. She loves it.”

As Carol arrived on Wednesday afternoon, she happily greeted Gillen, as her daughter, Esther Gluck, warned her she could only spend about 25 minutes in the water. “She’s used to being on the beach the whole day. My grandmother lived on Beach 123rd Street and we used to come here every summer,” Gluck explained. And those beach trips never stopped, even after Carol’s mother passed away. “She lives in Fresh Meadows. She’s been asking to come to the beach here for about a month and a half now, since Brian went on duty Memorial Day weekend. He’s really wonderful, he’s a righteous person. He’s been helping her since she stopped being able to get out into the water on her own about seven years ago,” Gluck said.

As she sat in her beach chair, readying for her time in the ocean, Rappaport, who turned 91 in March, continued to sing Gillen’s praises. “I look forward to coming here all year and when Brian is here, I come. He’s wonderful. He’s so caring and holds on to me and takes me into the water and out of the water and once he sees I can swim on my own, he lets me go,” she said. “But I don’t know if I can go today by myself.”

On this particular beautiful afternoon, while his partners kept a close watch on other beachgoers, Gillen held on to Rappaport every step of the way. Down to the shoreline, past the breaking waves, and even as she took a few strokes on the deep water, before he assisted her on their way back in, 25 minutes later.

Asked about her swim, with a big smile, Rappaport said, “I loved it. It was so special. The ocean is very refreshing, and I love to swim. It’s wonderful to be here. We’re surrounded by people that all love the beach and I love the beach and I’m so happy when I get in the water,” she said. But if it were not for Gillen taking time during his shift to give Rappaport a helping hand, her time in the water wouldn’t be possible.  “If not for him, I couldn’t come here. It’s a great, big, good deed what he does helping me and I’m so appreciative. I love Brian.”

For Gillen, helping his senior friend continue to enjoy the water is just another part of the job. “I’m a civil servant. I come here to serve and not be served. We’re not here to be a bigshot sitting on the throne. We’re guardians of the Atlantic, not a king of the Atlantic. I just love to do it,” he said. “I’ve known Carol for 30 years, she’s like an aunt. It’s my pleasure to be able to help her out. She has such an affinity for the water and so do I. She tells me this is the highlight of her year and things like that puts things in perspective in this job. It’s easy to get hung up on the long days but this is a good thing. Even when we rescue someone, it reminds you we’re dealing with life and death situations, but when you do something like this, it reminds you that it’s all about helping someone. People need help, whether they’re drowning, trying to dig in an umbrella or they’re an older person needing help getting in the water. We’re here to assist. We’re civil servants and we serve in the best way we can.”

It’s also rewarding. “I feel good about it. I don’t get paid anything extra, but it feels good to help people,” Gillen said. “It’s the same thing when you find a lost kid and return them to their mother. You get the joy of helping someone. The passion of rescue is one of the highest dimensions of the human soul.”

Asked if she’ll bring Carol out for another swim later this summer, Gluck said, “Possibly. But only if Brian is here.”

For more information on becoming a New York City lifeguard next summer, see: www.nycgovparks.org/opportunities/jobs/lifeguards

 By Katie McFadden

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