“I Was Crying My Eyes Out”: American Airlines Employee Goes Above & Beyond to Comfort Autistic Passenger in Distress

Everyone has a breaking point. We spend our lives trying to hold it together and ride out the storms, but sooner or later—no matter how strong you are—the world comes crashing down.

As Russell Lehmann shared on Facebook this week, he too knows the feeling all too well.

“After having my flight delayed and missing my connection for the second time in two days, I succumbed to the worst meltdown of my life at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.”

That’s when a man named David—who works for American Airlines—found Russell curled up behind a vacant ticket counter.

“I was crying my eyes out, rocking back and forth as my muscles convulsed at a rapid pace. Sweating profusely, I was hyperventilating while my body shook in terror.”

Russell had reached his breaking point.

Most people would just stare at this grown man having a complete meltdown, with strange looks and judgmental snarks. But not David.

“David calmly approached me, and with the utmost compassion, he asked me what was wrong. I was barely able to get any words out. I believe I mumbled the words ‘I don’t know. I can’t think, I have autism.’”

Russell, a motivational speaker, author and advocate, had a speaking arrangement the next morning. Missing his flight connection meant he would never make it to Cincinnati in time to deliver his speech.

David crouched down next to Russell and let him know there was still a way to get him on a plane that night. All hope was not lost.

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“During a time of indescribable mental torment and anguish, this man showed me compassion. This man showed that he cared. He even offered to buy me a slice of pizza for lunch!”

Russell Lehmann

David offered to reroute Russell’s flight before giving him some time to cool down and think it over.

“I told him that I was afraid of exacerbating my symptoms by boarding another flight, i.e., a tightly enclosed space filled with vast amounts of stimuli.”

10 minutes later, David returned, this time accompanied by the pilot of the plane Russell was contemplating whether or not to board.

“David had notified the pilot, along with the entire crew, of my situation, and he took it upon himself to clear out a whole row of seats so that I would be able to have space to myself during the flight. 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.”

Russell decided to board the flight.

“I was the very first to board, and David walked onto the plane with me, introducing me to the flight crew one by one. 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.”

Russell says he will never forget David for as long as he lives. The compassion, patience and kindness he showed to a complete stranger in the absolute worst of circumstances is absolutely beautiful. It’s a reminder to all of us that autistic or not, stranger or not, we’re all called to serve our brothers and sisters—especially in times when they need it most.

His post has been shared over 15,000 times in just two days. Russell hopes that everyone who reads about his airport experience takes away this: “Be like David.”

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Bri Lamm
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Bri is an outgoing introvert with a heart that beats for adventure. She lives to serve the Lord, experience the world, and eat macaroni and cheese in between capturing life’s greatest moments on one of her favorite cameras.