A home defibrillator sits in the corner of the dining room in the house where I grew up. It comes in a bright red case with a black strap, rather like a lunch box from the fifth grade. This lunch box is supposed to save my grandmother if her heart decides to twitch or move too fast. “Snap out of it!” the device yells via carrier electrons.
But the problem is, if I were alone at home and something were to happen, I am not sure what I would do. How would I even know whether to first open the box or call 9-1-1? When I opened the box, what if I did everything wrong? And who’s to say I wouldn’t just freeze—feel my own heart beating like a ticking clock, but be unable to move my limbs and brain into action?
I read up on how a defibrillator works after my parents purchased the device for our home in high school, and I think my dad once told me how to use it. But knowledge in my brain, which slips away easily enough, is not the same as knowledge at my fingertips. I am the type of person who goes to someone’s house when they are preparing for dinner, awkwardly asks “how can I help?” and ends up never actually lifting a plate because I don’t innately know what to do without being directed. I’ve always thought that it was not in my nature to take control of situations. I sometimes feel like a posterchild for the bystander effect.
Maybe more and more of us are these posterchildren, though. Everyone references the Kitty Genovese stabbing case, where 38 people supposedly saw her pursued by her murderer yet did nothing—the New York Times called it “first a tragedy, then a symbol, then a bit of durable urban mythology.” Yet it seems like it’s a story from this far-off dystopia that we would never participate in, this sick, twisted parallel universe that we can believe happened but believe would never happen to us. Of course I would never watch that happen and not intervene, we think. And I don’t argue that’s not true. But even if it’s on a less dramatic scale, I think to times when I’ve seen someone throwing up on the T, or someone slumped in a dark vestibule on Dunster St., and subconsciously assumed that if help was necessary, someone else was already on their way, and there was no need for it to be me—not because I didn’t want to help, but because I felt unqualified. Or maybe that was an excuse.
A month ago, I was walking to my favorite coffee haunt, which neighbors an “apothecary” (their word, not mine). Their window display includes a black leather walker and a skeleton; their brick exterior boasts the only pharmacy-themed mural I’ve seen in my 23 years. Outside this hipster pharmacy, right at the corner of the building, a man was lying face-down on the pavement. He looked sturdy but his body was limp and splayed. He was dressed in a puffy jacket and jeans even though it was warm out. It was noon. His fingernails were dirty. I wondered if that was why no one batted an eye, why no one was even goggling—if his fingernails were clean, would someone have already stopped? It’s scary to think that your fate could lie wrapped up in such superficial tiers. You could only see his hands, brownish-reddish, palms down, succumbing to something. As I approached, I saw a woman pass by pushing her baby. I saw two runners in neon-yellow mesh shirts zoom towards and then away. I crossed the street and was at his latitude. I gulped a little, thinking what to do. “Sir?” I said. No response. At that moment, a pharmacist in a white coat came out of the apothecary, probably headed out to lunch. “Excuse me,” I said. “There’s a man lying over there.” I pointed. “He seems unwell. Can you call someone?” He bent at the waist to look at the man. “Sir?” he also asked, repeatedly. He touched his hand. No movement. He sighed, with what sounded more like annoyance than worry, and told me he’d go back into the apothecary and call for help. We were right next to the hospital, so I figured the man would be okay. I felt there was nothing else I could do, so I just walked to the coffee shop and sat there, feeling discomfort in my comfort. I had no idea what was actually wrong with the man. That was part of the reason I walked away and let the pharmacist handle the situation—but also part of the reason I felt that maybe I should I have stayed. What if his heart actually stopped beating? What if he was in a diabetic coma? What if he had had a stroke? Whatever it was, I felt a wee bit responsible and a wee bit curious. But I was just another person in a coffee shop now. This was both a relief and a burden to me. A half hour later, leaving to go to class, I panicked a little, imagining that the pharmacist had lied and done nothing. I backtracked to the apothecary corner. Nothing and no one was on the pavement, which I supposed was a good thing, but I nevertheless felt unsettled. It was as if I had seen a mirage. There were just more women with babies, more runners, and me.
I wonder if the feeling of powerlessness that often comes upon me on seeing such situations actually comes from lack of power, or rather from lack of will. The act of intervening requires a certain dose of both awkwardness and responsibility. Passively ignoring something is much easier than actively taking it into our hands. If a person falls on Cambridge Street and no one hears him, does he make a sound?
All this is to say that I’ve guiltily felt the creeping truth that my powerlessness in many situations is more of a choice than an innate quality. I lack knowledge and experience, and so I am probably correct in assuming I would do something wrong even if I tried to intervene. But I also know that I can change that if I want to. Emergencies by definition strike you unawares, and thank god, I haven’t been in many. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to take on the responsibility of knowing what to do and of doing the right thing, and for that I need practice. I especially need practice since I’m the type of person who, if something involves hand-eye coordination and motor skills, needs to do it about 10 times more than the average person to both remember it and get it right (think: dance routines, driving, making free throws, riding a bike, remembering directions, or hitting the 10mL mark when pouring acid into a test tube). Before, the practice itself of these things used to terrify me because I knew I would mess up. But I think a year in Taiwan—in which I fumbled through sentences in a foreign language, wore a bright pink poncho, was a foot taller and shades darker than everyone else, and sweated profusely from every pore—threw all my self-consciousness out the window. So what if things are awkward? So what if I’m the subject of some situational ridicule? I know that if I keep plodding through the mud I’ll emerge better—in fact, maybe that’s the only way to be better. So I decided to take an EMT-B course (EMT-B stands for “Emergency Medical Technician – Basic.”) Some take the course to master the basics of what to do in emergency situations, while most take it to gain this knowledge with the expectation of using it in a future career as a first-responder. For example, if you pass the course, get state certification, and are at least 18 years old, you can work in an ambulance in Massachusetts if they choose to hire you.
I had actually been interested in an EMT course sophomore year, four years before I first entertained the notion of a medical career. It seemed like a useful skill to have, but the course schedule didn’t fit with mine. This year, while taking physics and chemistry, even using the few tools we dealt with in lab made me feel insecure about my abilities to do things rather than just understand the way they worked. I thought about the EMT course once more. They had spots open for non-students at a local university. I decided to take the plunge.
I also knew from talking with doctors—including my parents—that much of what you learn in an EMT course or later as an EMT is stuff that you may never practice in medical school or as a doctor. An EMT deals with things that happen before the patient reaches the doctor, and develops a different set of skills in doing so. My roommate sent me this interesting report about how doctors deal with emergencies on planes. My mom herself had a stressful but ultimately successful experience dealing with a child suffering severe health issues on one flight. I imagine that knowing how to deal with emergencies outside the hospital is something that will be useful for me lifelong, not just before medical training.
So here I am, at day one of the course. I am hoping to blog frequently about the lessons and labs, which promise to be chock full of their share of useful information, interesting classroom interactions (at some points we’ll be splinting each other and extricating each other from fabricated car crash scenarios), successes, and failures. I know I’ll be awkward. Heck, maybe I’ll even cry like I did when I busted the tire of our car on the first day of driver’s ed back in eleventh grade and had to change the flat by myself while everyone watched silently. But even so, I hope that many fumbles later, I can find myself alert and knowledgeable in future situations—whether at the hospital or on Cambridge Street.