Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Underwriter Message

The border guard looked forbidding — then surprised them with his empathy

Ellen Butterfield and her husband Chas Eisner.
Ellen Butterfield
Ellen Butterfield and her husband Chas Eisner.

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 October 2001, Ellen Butterfield and her husband, Chas Eisner, were driving home to Los Angeles from Tijuana. They had gone to Mexico to pick up chemotherapy drugs for Eisner's metastasized colon cancer.

Butterfield had the medication in a plastic bag in her purse. It was eight little bottles of white powder — which raised alarm bells at the border.

"It looked a lot like anthrax, which people were really terrified about," Butterfield said.

So before they could cross back into the United States, they were taken to a large auditorium full of X-ray machines and guards in uniforms.

"And suddenly, both Chas and I were really panicked," Butterfield recalled. "I was afraid that they would just confiscate these drugs and not let us take them home. And then Eisner's one chance at maybe beating the cancer would be gone."

Butterfield reluctantly put her purse on the conveyor belt. Just as she had feared, when the official saw the plastic bag full of bottles, he told them to take the bag across the auditorium, to another border official seated at a table.

"He was enormous, really scary-looking," Butterfield remembered. "And I gave him the bag, and he took two of the little bottles out of the bag."

He then reached back into the bag and took out the doctor's prescription order. He studied it for what felt to her like an hour, though it was probably just a few seconds.

"Then this huge man reached out for Chas' hand, and he smiled. And he said, 'You know, my dad had cancer. And he had to take all them chemotherapy drugs, too.'"

"And then he looked very closely at Chas, and he said, 'And he's still alive.'"

After that, the border official turned to the people in line behind them, and they were free to go. Butterfield and her husband were in shock. As soon as they got outside, they cried and hugged each other in relief.

"That man had looked so frightening. But he was so gentle and he was so kind," Butterfield said. "And it was like a lesson for us that, you know, you never know who a person really is by just how he looks."

Butterfield now lives in Studio City, California. Eisner lived another 10 months, until August 2002.


Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more stories like this.


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 myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brigid McCarthy
Laura Kwerel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]