A year in Baltimore, ended with a final, human touch

When Stephen Pitcairn cried for help that night, Reggie Higgins answered.

Higgins, who had just returned home to Charles Village from a trip, ran into the street and, seeing Pitcairn on the ground and bleeding from his chest, started screaming for help himself. He called for his neighbors by name — "Jacques!" "Regina!" — and ran back inside briefly to call 911.

In the end, though, only Higgins would be there for Pitcairn, two strangers on St. Paul Street as cars drove by and nearby residents slept behind the aural wall of their air conditioners.

Higgins got down on his knees to support Pitcairn's head and hold his hand. He shushed the young man, who was struggling to both breathe and speak.

"Hang in there, the ambulance is coming soon, you're going to make it," Higgins told him, desperate to believe his own words. And then he made one more appeal for help.

"God, please!" Higgins begged. "Please take care of this man."

Having held his own mother's hand years ago as she died, Higgins could feel Pitcairn slipping away. "Help," the young man said weakly. "Mom."

It would not be until the next day that Higgins would learn Pitcairn had been talking on his cell phone to his mother as he walked home from Penn Station around 11 last Sunday night and was attacked, robbed and stabbed in the chest. Higgins didn't know that the man he held during his last minutes of life was a promising young research assistant at Hopkins who, at 23, would leave behind a wealth of friends and potential.

"I just kept thinking, you don't want to die alone," Higgins said. "You would want your loved ones around."

Quick friends

Pitcairn's family members were miles away — his parents in Jupiter, Fla., where he grew up; a sister he had just visited in New York, where they had been joined by his other sister. He had moved to Baltimore last June after graduating from Kalamazoo College in Michigan to take a job as a technician at a cellular research lab. While he had friends in the Washington area, he knew almost no one here.

But that soon changed. Lab manager Medha Darshan's first impression — "Wow, he's really young" — was quickly followed by a second one: "He sure is talkative."

They hit it off and, from adjacent benches in the lab, quickly became friends. She was a couple of months pregnant, and charged with training him to take over her duties when she went on maternity leave. Soon, she and her husband were having him over to their Arbutus house for dinner, or giving him a spare table for his computer in the apartment he rented in the 3000 block of St. Paul St.

"He would talk to people in the elevator, and then they would be friends," she said of her engaging new colleague. "He was always organizing something: poker nights, or to go out and get lunch, or to go to the market by Hopkins. He had this very open personality."

Pitcairn proved to be a quick study in the busy and often stressful lab, and "plunged" into his new job and city, said Daniele Gilkes, a postdoctoral researcher who worked with him. He had a gift for relationships that transcended all lines, she said, with friends who were "Indian, African-American, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani, Syrian … single, married, divorced with, without kids.

"Somehow we would be in a room together," she said, "celebrating birthdays, doing potlucks."

In a lab where researchers conducted experiments to better understand and treat diseases like breast cancer, co-workers said he knew when to lighten the intensity. He liked to play music, cracking up his colleagues with his unlikely taste — Japanese pop from the time he had spent working in a research lab there, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.

He was also a sensitive colleague, Darshan said, remembering how she returned to the lab from a doctor's appointment one day, having learned she had a breech pregnancy and would have to have a Caesarean. Pitcairn could tell something was wrong and, while she hadn't told anyone yet, she found herself spilling the details to him.

"He said, 'Oh, that's really not a big deal.' Yes, with all the wisdom of his 23 years," she said with a laugh. And yet somehow it was reassuring anyway.

After she gave birth to her daughter in December, Pitcairn rushed to the hospital, baffling her mother and mother-in-law who told her as she was being wheeled out of the operating room that some tall, skinny guy was waiting to give her flowers.

"He was definitely wise beyond his years," she said. "I called him an old soul."

'Most complete person'

Former Hopkins President William C. Richardson has met numerous students in his decades in academia, but Stephen Pitcairn holds a unique place.

"Of the thousands of students, he stands out in my mind as the most complete person," said Richardson, who left Hopkins in 1995 to lead the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Michigan but ultimately returned to campus life as a professor at Kalamazoo. "He was just an extraordinary young man."

Pitcairn had gone to see Richardson, who teaches and serves as something of a guidance counselor to students at the small liberal arts college, to talk about what he might do after graduation. Richardson was impressed with this economics major and Ultimate Frisbee competitor who had spent his junior year working with a stem cell researcher in Tokyo and used the experience as the foundation for a senior thesis.

"I realized almost immediately what an unusual person he was," Richardson said of the bright yet modest student in front of him. "He had done twice as much as the average student, and yet his expectations were very understated and did not take full advantage of his capabilities."

As Pitcairn spoke about perhaps doing some kind of public health work on the community level, Richardson thought: He should be at Hopkins. "That just seemed a natural link," he said, and started developing a plan. Pitcairn, he thought, should get some experience in a Hopkins lab and start working toward applying to its medical school.

He called a friend there, Dr. Gregg L. Semenza, who runs a lab at the Institute of Cell Engineering and who ultimately hired Pitcairn. Richardson stayed in touch with his protege by e-mail and the occasional lunch when he was back in Baltimore, and had high hopes for him. Pitcairn's MCAT scores were in the 94th percentile, Richardson said, and contacts at the med school indicated that "they had their eye on him."

Richardson was delighted that Pitcairn chose to live in Charles Village, near the Homewood campus, allowing him to take advantage of all the activities there and ride a free shuttle to his job at the Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore.

"He was very happy there," Richardson says.

Recalling the occasional crimes near campus when he was at Hopkins, he warned Pitcairn to be careful.

"I told him, if anything happens," he said, "just give them what they want."

'Incredibly quiet now'

His lab mates said he kept up a busy schedule, working, juggling medical school applications, shadowing Hopkins doctors to observe surgeries and teaching an MCAT prep course — yet somehow he found time to hang out with friends and explore the city. He especially loved going to ethnic restaurants like the Helmand and Dukem and enjoyed Max's in Fells Point.

Gilkes said he thought nothing of walking or biking around town, from Sherwood Gardens to Federal Hill. On weekends, he often got together with friends in Washington, or he'd take the Bolt bus from Penn Station to New York, for a visit with a sister who is an intern there.

On Friday, July 23, he was especially excited about heading to New York because his other sister would join them for a sort of "sibling reunion," Gilkes said. She felt like a sister to him herself — he was so much like her own brother, who is the same age, equally gregarious and a newly minted med student.

She got a call from Pitcairn early that evening because he had just received exciting news: He'd made the first cut at the University of Florida med school and would move on to the next phase.

"He and I were the two Floridians in the lab," she said, "so I was pushing Florida."

That was the last she heard from him. The following Monday, everyone learned that he had been killed the night before. "It's been pretty rough," she said of the pall that has descended over the lab. "It's incredibly quiet now."

Darshan, who left the lab recently to deal with child care issues, last saw him a couple of Tuesdays ago, when he had rented a Zip car to drive out to his MCAT course near her house and stopped by afterward to see her family.

"We were making plans to all go out for his birthday," she said, which was last Tuesday. "He hadn't decided yet where he wanted to go."

Instead, she and Gilkes were among a group of Baltimore friends who gathered their pictures and memories to share with Pitcairn's family, and traveled to Florida for his funeral Friday.

Blocks apart, never met

Reggie Higgins is slowly coming out of the fog that descended since the frantic chaos of last Sunday night and the uproar that ensued when it was revealed that Pitcairn was killed after giving up his wallet and that the two people arrested had previous criminal records.

After police and fire personnel arrived on the scene and took over, Higgins, by then covered in blood himself, was interviewed by investigators and took refuge away from the scene. More than 24 hours would pass before he could even sleep.

Pitcairn's family has reached out to him, and he had an emotional phone conversation with one relative and expects to speak with other members in the coming days. "My heart, my deep sorrow and condolences go out to them," he said.

Tall and muscular, with rimless glasses that match a quiet, watchful demeanor, Higgins is in his mid-40s and works in work force development for Baltimore City.

They lived four blocks apart, but Pitcairn and Higgins had never met. Higgins thinks he would have liked him, and, indeed, they seem to share a certain citizen-of-the-world sensibility: Like Pitcairn, who rapidly became proficient in Japanese during his junior year there, Higgins spent a number of years living abroad, the product of parents who wanted their children to appreciate other cultures, and speaks Turkish from several years in Turkey.

An entire wall of his living room is filled with books and music reflecting his interests, from a photo of schoolchildren in Ghana to several volumes on Cuba. Sitting on his old "graduate school couch," surrounded by walls painted in soothing shades, Higgins says he now feels all the more committed to staying in the neighborhood he and Pitcairn shared.

"We can't live in fear," he said.

Higgins is troubled by the racially tinged anger that has spilled forth in the wake of the crime, as it invariably does in Baltimore when a particularly sympathetic white victim seems to have been preyed upon by black repeat offenders. But race was the last thing on his mind when Higgins, who is black, saw Pitcairn, who is white, gravely injured outside his house.

"It's not about race," Higgins said. "It's a criminal issue."

"They hide behind the keyboard," he said of anonymous commenters who leave incendiary posts about the case on Internet sites. "The person that assisted him and tried to help him is black, so what are you talking about? It's not black or white. I saw him as a human being, dying in the street."

Higgins seems a bit overwhelmed by the attention his act of humanity has brought.

"Sometimes we have to step away from ourselves, and I guess I wasn't thinking about myself at the time. You think of the other person.

"I would hope everyone would do the same thing," Higgins said. "In my neighborhood, I know people would do the same thing. We have good folks here."

Final link to friend

Last Tuesday, instead of taking their friend out to celebrate his 24th birthday, Pitcairn's colleagues brought a cake and flowers to the 2600 block of St. Paul St., creating a streetside memorial.

Higgins happened to come home for lunch as Pitcairn's co-workers were lingering at the site, and a neighbor pointed him out as the man who stayed with their friend through his final minutes.

Tears well up in Higgins' eyes as he remembers their impromptu meeting, the first people Pitcairn encountered when he moved to Baltimore and the stranger who would be his last.

"They asked me if he suffered, or if it was quick," Higgins said. "They wanted to know if he looked afraid."

Higgins told them what he could, although in the end, their questions and his answers were less important than what he represented to them — a final, human link to their lost friend.

"They basically thanked me for being there," he said, "for holding his hand, and his having some comfort."

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