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While traveling with chemotherapy drugs, a woman remembers a stranger's kindness

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Time now for My Unsung Hero, our series from the team at Hidden Brain that tells stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression. Today's story comes from Ellen Butterfield (ph). In October of 2001, Ellen and her husband, Chaz (ph), were driving back home to Los Angeles from Tijuana. They'd gone there to pick up chemotherapy drugs for Chaz's colon cancer. Since this was right after 9/11, they got stopped at the border.

ELLEN BUTTERFIELD: We had eight little bottles of white powder. That was the chemotherapy. And it looked a lot like anthrax. So before we could just cross back into the United States, we were led into a big auditorium with a bunch of other people where there were a lot of guards wearing these tan uniforms. There were X-ray machines. The plastic bag that had the eight bottles was in my purse. And suddenly, both Chaz and I were really panicked that they would just confiscate these drugs and not let us take them home, and then Chaz's one chance at maybe beating the cancer would be gone. So finally, I just put my purse on the conveyor belt. And, of course, the guard did a perfect double take and told us to take the bag and go way across the auditorium to where a man was seated at a table.

He was enormous - really scary looking. And I gave him the bag, and he took out two of the little bottles out of the bag. But then he reached back into the bag and he took out the prescription, and he studied it for what felt like an hour. It was probably, like, 10 seconds. And then this huge man reached out for Chaz's hand and he smiled. And he said, you know, my dad had cancer, and he had to take all them chemotherapy drugs too. And then he looked very closely at Chaz and he said, and he's still alive. And then he just turned to the people who were behind us in line, and we were free to go. After we walked the few feet out the door, we both just started crying and hugging each other. That man had looked so frightening, but he was so gentle and he was so kind. It was like a lesson for us that, you know, you never know who a person really is by just how he looks.

SUMMERS: Ellen Butterfield lives in Studio City, Calif. Her husband, Chaz Eisner (ph), lived another 10 months until August 2002. You can find more stories like this one on the My Unsung Hero podcast. To share the story of your unsung hero, visit myunsunghero.org for instructions on how to send a voice memo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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