Friday, June 16, 2017
Reno airport worker ‘a blessing’ to autism advocate
By Sarah Litz
The Reno (NV) Gazette
Autism awareness advocate Russell Lehmann is encouraging do-gooders to be like the American Airlines employee that helped him.
Russell Lehmann – an autistic motivational speaker and advocate – wouldn’t have escaped the "worst meltdown of (his) life" if it weren't for a Reno-based American Airlines employee.
“This is David. He works for American Airlines,” Lehmann wrote in a viral Facebook post on the page "Love What Matters." “I will never forget this man for as long as I live.”
Lehmann was flying out of Reno-Tahoe International Airport on June 3 when he experienced severe distress causing "indescribable mental torment and anguish" - how he described his meltdown.
Lehmann, 26, was diagnosed with autism when he was 12. Growing up, Lehmann said that he was non-verbal and "terrified of any external stimuli," forcing him to stay inside the house. Now, Lehmann travels the country speaking about his story, acceptance and hope.
Two days before his experience at Reno's airport, Lehman was trying to fly out of Salt Lake City to Michigan for a keynote speech. His flight was delayed. He was going to miss his connecting flight. He couldn't get another flight out until the next day. Ultimately, he missed his speech.
“I was devastated, to put it mildly,” Lehmann said in an email to the Reno Gazette-Journal. “As an individual on the spectrum, I take comfort in having an absolutely solid schedule and itinerary.
"I stumbled to a quiet corner of the (Salt Lake City) airport and sat down – sobbing, shaking and rocking back and forth. I ended up staying in that same exact spot for the next seven hours - half of that time still crying, disassociating and losing touch with my physical body. All the while, feeling like I was trapped in a living hell – which I was.”
Lehmann recounted people passing by who would “stare…with confused and bewildered looks.”
“…Not once did I receive the simplest sign of compassion,” he said.
After finally making it back home to Reno, he had to head back to the airport again - this time bound for Cincinnati - when he found the same situation: His flight was delayed out of Reno, and he would once again miss his connecting flight.
"I found an empty ticket counter to sit behind and subsequently curled up into a ball," he said. "Tears were pouring out of my eyes, all my muscles convulsing at a rapid pace as I began to sweat profusely, hyperventilating, while my body shook in terror.”
Then, Lehmann said, David Apkarian stepped in.
A fellow American Airlines agent alerted the 48-year-old customer service manager that a passenger was behind the ticket counter and upset.
"I don't remember exactly what (Lehmann) said, but he said that he had autism and he needed to get to Cincinnati for a speech," Apkarian recalled.
He sat with Lehmann on the floor and offered him a different connecting flight through Dallas. Apkarian said he even talked to Lehmann's mom on the phone and offered to buy him a slice of pizza.
"This is part of what we do every day," Apkarian said. "We help people when things go awry."
About 10 minutes later, Apkarian approached Lehmann again, this time accompanied by the pilot of the plane.
“The pilot was also incredibly kind, reminding me that what I was experiencing only added validity to the message I spread - to the lives I touch,” Lehmann said.
Lehmann decided to board the flight, and because of unoccupied seats, Apkarian was able to give a row to Lehmann - to help give him physical space and fewer stimuli.
“…David walked onto the plane with me, introducing me to the flight crew one by one,” Lehmann said. “I was still shaking and crying, but this time I was crying tears of thankfulness. If it hadn’t been for David, I would not have gotten on that plane.”
Lehmann said that whenever he struggles in public, he’s “used to being treated as strange or invisible.”
“David, however, let me know I mattered, and he reached out his hand to help a fellow human up during a dark and difficult time. David was a blessing who restored my faith in humanity."
Spokesman for Reno's airport Brian Kulpin said Apkarian "saw someone in trouble, and he helped."
"Some of the folks that work for the airlines, they have a tough job," Kulpin said. "They catch a lot of grief that they can't control. Here's something one of our employees was able to control, and he went above and beyond.
"It's human nature to help and want to help, and this represents our community. This shows the heart of Reno and that people care."
Even after Lehmann's flight took off, Apkarian said he tracked the flight from home to make sure it landed and Lehmann caught his connecting flight to his final destination.
"When you see something, don't just assume," Apkarian said looking back on his interaction with Lehmann. "There may be a deeper reason as to why something is happening to someone. You don't know what's happening in their personal life."
Lehmann posted his experience originally on his personal Facebook page, before he was encouraged to submit it to "Love What Matters," which describes itself as "The new book about real people, real stories and real heart." American Airlines and Reno's airport have also shared his story.
Combined, Lehmann's post has been shared nearly 28,000 times on Facebook and countless times on other social media platforms.
“The simplest act of kindness can literally change someone's day, if not life," Lehmann said. "Be kind. Be compassionate. Don't be afraid of being vulnerable. Fulfill your moral obligations as a member of society. Be like David.”