I remember vividly spring break 1998 in Ormond Beach, Fla. It was a beautiful but windy afternoon as a crowd gathered on the beach to watch a man who was drowning. Among the crowd was a woman standing with her young child. A moment earlier, her husband had been dozing beside her on a blanket. She had awakened him and pointed to the screaming little girl in the water.

At first everything seemed to be OK. I had reached the girl and was carrying her back toward the shore. But we suddenly disappeared in a large wave, only to emerge farther from the shore.

I began to swim while the little girl in my arms recommenced her screaming. As the waves poured over us and we were carried farther from the shore, I quickly tired. In an instant, two things struck me: the realization that I lacked the strength to swim any farther with her, and fear that I was about to die.

As a police officer, I had feared for my life before, but this was the first time that I feared imminent death. Neither my terrified wife nor the burgeoning crowd could perceive what next transpired. All they saw was yet another wave sweep over us; I disappeared while the girl surfed safely to the shore.

In the moment prior to this last wave, the larger world had ceased to exist in my mind. I was no longer conscious of other persons or things. There was no past, no future. There was only me – and tragic death in the form of water pulling me under. Exhausted, seized by the fear of death and governed by a natural instinct to survive, I recalled seeing a small boogie board strapped to the girl’s wrist when I first reached her. That board might keep me afloat. I looked for it; there it was. What should I do? That board could never support both of us. One of us would have a chance to live, while the other would almost certainly die.

Thoughts raced through my mind: I have done my best to save her; why was no one coming to save me? I have a wife and three children. This can’t be happening! Although recognizing the risk involved, I never seriously considered that I might actually die when I entered the water to help her. With utter exhaustion in my body, terror in my mind, pain in my heart for my family and pity for the little girl, I made my choice. Grabbing the board I placed the girl on it, telling her to “hold on.” Looking over my shoulder I waited for the next evil wave, and just before being swept under, I pushed the board toward shore.

After struggling to the surface once again, I looked for the little girl to no avail. And then my body and mind gave up; I stopped swimming. There was no more fear of death; all I had to do was let the water pull me down and my suffering would end. But I also realized that my wife and son were watching. The last thing I could do for them was to let them see me die trying to get to them. What physical pain ensued as I swam diagonal to the shore. As I discovered later that evening, it was because of my choice to do one final thing for them that I got to the edge and escaped the clutches of that undertow.

It is a very personal and risky thing to share one’s innermost thoughts, emotions and fears with others. But after 15 years I realize that the lesson I learned would seem hollow without them: it may occur that by making choices on behalf of the life of others, we unexpectedly discover the strength within that saves our own.