On decency and dealing with an emergency

I had to call an ambulance for a complete stranger today.

I was at work when I heard drunken rambling. I couldn’t see the person and having the problems I do interacting with other human beings at the best of times, I did my best to ignore it and focus on my work. Then I was approached by a young girl of maybe 12 at the most, asking for help. She said there was a man who had collapsed on the ground and couldn’t get back up.

As an adult, there’s only one thing you can do, when a kid asks you for help. And that’s to put on your adult pants and deal with the situation. Even if you don’t want to. And I really, really didn’t want to. But I knew the guilt of doing nothing would eat me up. So, I went with her to see the man. He was conscious, if not entirely lucid. He was obviously drunk and lay on the ground where he’d fallen, unable to even sit up. I tried to ask him if he was hurt. He insisted he wasn’t, but he couldn’t get up and couldn’t quite get his legs to work right. I thought I saw what looked like blood seeping through his pants at one knee, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t want to be and figured it could just as well have been something he’d spilled on himself as he fell.

I did my best to at least get him up to sit, because he was lying awkwardly on his side. But he was big and heavy. Thankfully a woman, who looked to be some kind of social worker came over and between the two of us, we managed to get him to sit up, at least. He kept insisting that he just needed help getting back up onto his bench, but the woman suggested I should call an ambulance. I’d been considering it myself, but I was grateful for her saying it out loud. It might have taken me longer to get to it if she hadn’t. I stayed with the man until the paramedics arrived. Then, booked it. I thought about mentioning the wet patch I’d seen over one knee, but I figured the paramedics would do their job without my input.

This was actually my second time as an adult having to deal with finding a stranger collapsed in public. The first time, I witnessed a young woman suffering some kind of seizure just outside my local mall. I’d just gone out for takeout, that’s all. Then I saw her, just slowly sliding down to the ground as she started convulsing. I think she might have had to deal with it before, because she’d managed to put herself in the recovery position. But she was alone, and I was the first one there. I had absolutely no idea what to do. I think I tried to check on her, see if I could get a response or anything. She was unresponsive. I was lucky that the mall was full of people. I remember there was a woman, who appeared to be somewhat in shock. She kept repeating: “I don’t know what to do.” I didn’t have my phone on me, so I couldn’t call an ambulance. Luckily there was a man who did. I didn’t want to just stand there doing nothing, so I suggested the woman go fetch mall security, assuming they would have had some first aid training. As soon as there was someone there who appeared to know what they were doing, I was out of there.

I hated not knowing what to do. I hated feeling helpless. So, I half resolved to take some first aid class, just in case I got into a similar situation. I never did. That was a few years ago.

I don’t know if things had gone differently today if I’d taken a first aid class. I don’t think I’d have acted differently. I don’t think it would have affected me any different either. Seeing another person in distress, is very distressing in and of itself. Unfortunately, many people choose to look the other way. They don’t know how to deal with the situation and choose simply not to. I myself would be inclined to choose this option. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I shy away from any kind of responsibility. I still manage to “man up” when necessary, but as long as I don’t deem it necessary, I’m happier to run away. See no evil, hear no evil and all that. No need to play hero when there’s no need to.

Regardless of what I choose to do about the situation though, once I see what I’d rather not, I can’t un-see it. It sticks with me regardless of what I do. I take everything to heart and it’s better to be able to tell myself: I did everything I could, given the situation. Rather than have to beat myself up over what I did or didn’t do.

As I sat waiting for the ambulance, I had to interact with the old man. He was in such a sorry state. Filthy from lying in the mud and disheveled. To put it bluntly, he looked like a bum. He even called himself a bum at one point. He was wearing a hospital shirt underneath his jacket and told me he’d been hospitalized more than once. He said it was no use, that they couldn’t do anything for him. He said they couldn’t give him what he wanted. I didn’t ask what it was he wanted. I didn’t really want to know. He said he was all alone. No parents. He’d been waiting for a man to deliver his medication. But he didn’t want to sit alone in his messy apartment. So he’d come to the bench to sit and had himself some beer. “To make myself feel a little better”, he said. He tried to light a cigarette, but he could barely move his hands properly and misjudged the distance between the lighter and the end of his cigarette. And the wind kept blowing the flame out. So I helped him light it by shielding the flame and guiding his hands. His hands and arms were so stiff. He asked if I could just light it for him, but I told him I couldn’t. I assume he meant by putting the cigarette to my own mouth, which wasn’t going to happen with the pandemic and besides, I hate cigarette smoke. Eventually though, we got it lit.

It was such a short exchange. But so absolutely heartbreaking. I’d like to think that I acted with compassion and did some good for the poor guy. He was just so lonely and hurting. I still feel like I should have been able to do more somehow. I still feel bad for running for the hills the moment the paramedics arrived. I excuse myself by telling myself I had work to do. But in truth, I just couldn’t bring myself to do more than I’d already done.

Experiences like these tend to stay with you. Especially if you’re the sort to agonize over everything. It got me thinking about what I could do to help alleviate some of the agonizing. Being able to tell myself I did a decent thing, that I was brave enough to face an awful situation and treat an old man with a bit of compassion and dignity helps a great deal. Giving myself some time to recover and just process things probably helps too. I considered making myself a relaxing cup of tea. Which would probably have been a whole lot better than cramming as much sugary goodness into my mouth the minute I got home. Turning to sweets is almost as unhealthy as turning to alcohol to cope. Next time, I’ll make an effort to make myself turn to tea instead. A nice cup of tea and some quiet relaxation.

I did want to make a point with this post, besides simply sharing an experience that weighs heavily on my mind. It is that if and when you find yourself in a stressful and unwanted position where another person needs your help, it doesn’t have to be a choice between compassion and self-preservation. But whatever you do, it is important to take the time to take care of yourself after the fact and acknowledge when you find yourself out of your depth. As long as you make sure to take care of your own needs, it’s possible to extend your limit as necessary – but only for a short time.

And you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be super to be a hero, you don’t even have to be a hero to be a decent human being.

3 thoughts on “On decency and dealing with an emergency

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