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A father needed to get to his daughter in the ICU. A stranger helped him get there

Daniel Willingham and his daughter, Esprit.
Daniel Willingham
Daniel Willingham and his daughter, Esprit.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.


In 2010, Daniel Willingham was on his way back home to Central Virginia. He'd just given a talk for work in Maryland and was still a few hours out from home when he got a call from his wife.

"The first thing she said was 'Pull over.' So I knew this couldn't be good," Willingham recalled.

His wife was visiting family in Canada with their kids and was calling from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Their daughter, Esprit, was in the pediatric intensive care unit.

Esprit had a chromosome disorder that made any kind of illness, even a common cold, life-threatening.

"When my wife called, Esprit was on a ventilator. So there was real reason to think she might not survive this," Willingham said.

Willingham needed to get to his wife and daughter as soon as possible. He drove the two hours home and booked a flight to Toronto. But when he pulled out his passport, he realized it had expired.

The only way to get it renewed immediately was with confirmation from a doctor that it was a matter of life or death. So Willingham's pediatrician made an emergency call to the State Department.

"But I had to do the paperwork at a State Department office in downtown Washington."

Downtown Washington was several hours away. And at this point, it was already 4 p.m. There was no chance he'd get there before it closed.

"This is where my unsung hero enters," Willingham said. "Because somebody in that Washington office was willing to wait for me."

When he arrived around 8 p.m., the building was dark.

"I walk up to this big office building and it just looks lifeless, you know ... I'm peering in the door. And then out of the shadows this young man walks into the lobby and lets me in."

Willingham doesn't remember what he said to the young man who helped him, or how the man responded. But he does remember walking out of the building with his new passport in hand.

"I got to the hospital in Toronto late that night, and I was able to be with my wife and daughter," Willingham said. "Esprit did survive that illness, and she lived 11 more years."

"There were a lot of sung heroes, so to speak, associated with that episode: Our pediatrician and the doctors and nurses at the hospital, all of whom we thanked. But I never properly thanked that young man who gave up his evening so that a dad, who was a stranger to him, could be with his sick daughter a little sooner."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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