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'I was broken and needed help': After her father died, a stranger stepped in

Roxanne Olson and her dad Richard.
Roxanne Olson
Roxanne Olson and her dad Richard.

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

In 1999, when she was 23, Roxanne Olson left her home in Eureka, California to pursue a dream job, as a assistant producer on a cross-country reggae tour. But partway through the tour, she got some terrible news — her father had died of a sudden heart attack.

"I was young enough to not even understand that death was part of my world. And so it was a crazy shock," Olson remembered.

Olson was able to get a plane ticket home, but when she arrived at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, things went awry. Someone had run through security with a bag, forcing the shutdown of part of the airport.

"It turned out it was over 6,000 people evacuated from the O'Hare airport that day," Olson said.

She remembers standing on the sidewalk, surrounded by thousands of strangers as helicopters flew overhead.

"It was the most crazy, surreal thing to be happening on this day that my dad [had died]," she said.

After hours of waiting, Olson and the other travelers were allowed back in. But the airport was in complete chaos.

"I didn't know where to go, who to call, what to do. And it kind of felt like everybody was busy just running around," Olson said.

As she stood there, feeling more and more overwhelmed, a woman approached her, pushing an empty wheelchair.

"And she walks up to me and she says, 'I'm here to help people like you,'" Olson said.

Relieved, Olson got in the wheelchair. As the woman navigated them through the airport, Olson told her about her father's death, and her attempts to return back home to California.

"And she just seemed to understand my problem — she talked to whoever the right people were, and she got me on the very first flight out."

Olson made it home that day. She says she'll never forget the woman who made it possible.

"There was something about me that she just saw that I was broken and needed help. And she saved me."

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

Copyright 2024 NPR

Autumn Barnes
Laura Kwerel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]