Insult to personal dignity is one of the worst forms of emotional injury that anyone can inflict on another person. The wound cuts even deeper when the indignity is caused by racial prejudice. And, it is extremely rare to find any individual who is able to maintain composure when subjected to that type of humiliation, especially when it occurs on a sustained basis over a long period of time. I recently came across one such person when I read Kevin Hazzard’s superb book, American Sirens.

John Moon, a black man, was born in a poor section of Atlanta, Georgia, in 1949. His parents had little education. His father worked as a handyman while his mother, a heavy drinker, stayed at home with him and his little sister. Moon’s father returned home one night after a long day of work to find his wife unresponsive in the single room the family shared. The two children were in the room but had assumed that their mother was asleep. It turned out that she was dead—from alcohol overdose. Moon was seven years old.

The little money he earned was not enough for Moon’s father to take care of his two children and pay for daycare. With no viable options left for him, he took the children one afternoon to the playground of an orphanage. While they played, he told them he was going inside to speak with a lady there, and that he would be back soon to drive them home. After a couple of hours, there was no sign of him so Moon and his sister went into the building to look for him. As they walked through the parking lot, they noticed that his truck wasn’t there. A lady met them at the entrance and took them into an adjacent room, where she told them that their father had surrendered them to the orphanage.

They were immediately separated, with Moon going into a boys’ dormitory and his little sister heading to the girls’ section. Suddenly, each of them was alone in the midst of people completely unfamiliar to them. That was extremely heart-wrenching stuff to read.

Several months later, their father’s distant cousin who lived in Pittsburgh learned about them and traveled to Atlanta to adopt them from the orphanage. She brought them to live with her in Pennsylvania, together with her husband and their three children. Moon and his sister had great difficulty fitting into their new family. He struggled in school but managed to finish high school, after which he worked some odd jobs before finding work as an orderly in a Pittsburgh hospital.

Moon was at the very bottom of the totem pole at the hospital, mostly emptying patient bedpans. He was on duty one day when a group of black men barged into the ward with a patient on a stretcher. Watching the way the men spoke with and interacted with the nurses so inspired Moon that he resolved there and then to become one of them. Until then, the only times the nurses said anything to him were when they gave him instructions. Now he craved the recognition and respect that he realized was possible if he could climb the ladder to where those black men were. The problem was, he didn’t know exactly what kind of work they did.

It turned out that the men were paramedics. They were part of an all-black team from a place called Freedom House, located in a poor section of Pittsburgh, that provided emergency medical care to people in that part of the city. Those men also happened to be America’s first paramedics, and they pioneered ambulance service in the country.

Moon had to take a test before he could join the training program at Freedom House. He failed miserably because he didn’t have anything close to the math skills required. Determined to make it, he took remedial math classes and managed to pass on his second attempt. He instantly found his calling when he went to Freedom House.

Dr. Peter Safar, an Austrian-born doctor who was then working and teaching at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, invented CPR around that time. Because the paramedics at Freedom House were the only people in Pittsburgh—and indeed America—who knew how to properly administer emergency medical care outside hospital settings, Dr. Safar began working with them. He taught them not only how to perform CPR, but also how to read EKGs and do other complex procedures such as intubation of patients. Over time, Moon became so skillful that he was essentially practicing emergency medicine without having gone to medical school.

Dr. Safar enlisted Dr. Nancy Caroline, a white female doctor from Boston who was also at the University of Pittsburgh at the time, to work with the men at Freedom House to professionalize the service and expand it to the rest of Pittsburgh. Dr. Caroline believed in the mission so much that she ended up living at Freedom House and riding in ambulances with the men to attend calls, day and night. It was there that she developed the manual that is now used to train paramedics across America—and the world.

In furtherance of their goal, Dr. Safar and Dr. Caroline asked the city authorities for increased funding for Freedom House. The new white mayor of Pittsburgh, Peter Flaherty, slashed it instead. He apparently suggested that the untrained city police force could better provide such emergency care. Later, he had a change of heart but asked for a completely new department to be created to provide the service to the city. A group of men, all white, were recruited from the wealthier parts of Pittsburgh and its suburbs. None of them had any knowledge about emergency medical care, and they began the formal training program together with the men from Freedom House, who actually didn’t need the education because they were already skilled professionals.

Moon and his friends from Freedom House helped their white classmates as much as they could but the knowledge gap was too wide. Inexplicably, when the training program concluded and it came time to form the city team, only the white guys, who had struggled throughout the program, were hired. The Freedom House men were suddenly out of jobs. They had worked so hard for so many years, and all that seemed to have counted for naught.

For Moon, it was back to where he began. Without a job and with a young family to feed, he thought about going back to work as an orderly. What saved him was that the mayor needed Dr. Caroline to serve as director of the newly created city department. She threatened to quit if the Freedom House men were not hired. The mayor relented and Moon and his friends got their jobs back. The problem though was that Moon was only deemed good enough to “hold the bag.”

On calls, Moon was made to walk behind his white colleagues carrying bags and other equipment. He was not allowed to work on patients, although his knowledge and skills were far greater. His break came one day when they were dispatched to attend to a man who was having a cardiac arrest. His white teammate who was treating the man quickly realized that he wasn’t up to the task. In a panic, he looked up to Moon and said “do something!” Moon promptly directed the team to start CPR. He inserted an IV and connected a monitor. After interpreting the readings, he shocked the patient back to life, intubated him and, when he was stabilized, helped load him into the ambulance to be transported to the hospital.

That event earned Moon the respect of his white colleagues. It also encouraged him to take charge from then on, and in so doing he helped the other black paramedics to step up also. Moon worked for several more decades until his retirement as assistant chief of Pittsburgh Emergency Medical Service.

Several thoughts ran through my mind as I read American Sirens. Three are worth mentioning. First, we should all be extremely mindful of how we treat the downtrodden. We never know how much salt we unconsciously rub into other people’s already painful wounds. Peter Flaherty may not have known the details of John Moon’s life, but that was 1970s America when racism was rampant in the country. The mayor therefore had more than enough awareness of the conditions in which black men in his city lived. The simple truth is that he had a heart of stone and just didn’t care.

Second, no matter how many white racists there are in any region of America, there is always a good number of kind-hearted Nancy Carolines who try to make life a little easier for the victims of racism. We should not underestimate the impact that these people make. They are the ones who have teamed up with blacks throughout American history to fight for civil rights for the marginalized. It is because of people like Dr. Caroline that I never consider America to be an irredeemably racist country. There are enough such good people around who are fighting every day to make America a better place for all.

Third, the opportunities that America offers to people from all over the planet to maximize their potential never ceases to amaze me. As Hazzard indicates, Dr. Safar’s native Vienna had become too small a pond for his restless mind to swim in. That is what motivated him to emigrate to America, where, instead of the bigger pond he was looking for, he found a giant lake. We should all remember the enormous contributions immigrants make to our society, even as some of our national leaders continue to demonize them.

Most of all, I was enormously inspired by Moon’s inner strength and patience. Few people would have the energy to withstand such extreme levels of indignity. His character should be an example for us all to emulate.

Author’s note: American Sirens was gifted to me by a friend, a cardiologist who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. I learned from him that John Moon was recently awarded an honorary degree by The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. It is a truly well deserved honor.