Need A Penny? Take A Penny. Got Life? Save A Life.

Tragedy hits.  What do you do?  Freeze or take action?

I tend to jump in, wanting to help.  More than most anything else, I thrive on feeling useful;  it gives meaning to my life.  A gimme-the-reins kind of person, I prioritize well, delegate easily, and know to apply direct pressure when the blood starts to spurt ( a scary story I’ll save for another time).  However, I’m not really trained in the finer points of crisis management;  in many life-threatening emergencies, apart from dialing 9-1-1, I am often helpless.

Once when my nephew was very small, he had something in his mouth and I feared he might be choking.  I was nearly paralyzed, except to run to my sister, whose pragmatic nature would surely take over.  He was fine, she was fine, it was me who panicked.  I just couldn’t think my way through the fear, because he is so beloved to me.  What I needed was a skill set to fall back on, a clear set of steps to follow so that I could accurately assess and manage a traumatic situation, and keep those pesky emotions at bay.  I needed emergency training.

A friend who lived in New York City on 9/11 metabolized that disaster in a similar manner.  She didn’t just want to be of general service, donating money or time, she targeted a specific goal and became EMS-trained.  No small response, it was an honorable and inspired action.  Her commitment to civic duty surfaced in my memory this past autumn when I saw a man dying in Central Park.  (Read about it here.)  Afterwards, I vowed to learn first aid and CPR, so being a mere bystander wouldn’t be an option anymore.  While my instincts to jump in are strong, I needed competency to be effective.

This discovery of duty, of harboring a strong sense of social responsiblity surprised me.  Duty had never surfaced before;  in fact, besides the military and medical fields, duty seems to rub up against the rugged individualism of the United States psyche.  Where does it otherwise reside in such modern democracy?   To each their own, problems and all, right?  Well, my evolution from dependent child to (sometimes too) independent adult has been bumpy, and I’m happily embracing a new relationship with my inner citizen.  So, this past weekend I followed through, turning my vow into action and became CPR/AED-certified, the first of many steps to lead a more politically engaged and community-minded life.  Oh, how many others have gone before.

Now, I can approach someone in distress and offer trained help.  I am capable of opening someone’s blocked airway, breathing for someone when they can’t, keeping a heart pumping and if necessary, even use a defibrillator.  When someone chokes, suffers a stroke or heart attack, or just needs comfort until the medical professionals arrive and do the real work, I am prepared.  I just hope it never comes to that.



A Cyclist In Limbo

Central Park is a place in which to retreat from the craziness of the city.  There is much there to delight and rejuvenate oneself.  It is not a place you expect to see someone die.

Yesterday, while rambling around the Upper West Side of the park, I saw a middle-aged cyclist lying on his back, motionless, along one of the busy thoroughfares.  His bike was pushed haphazardly to the curb.  His eyes were closed, his skin grey and someone said he was not breathing.  Being Sunday, the park was filled with joggers, strollers, dog-walkers, and fortunately several doctors.  A few stopped as they approached the scene.  One pony-tailed woman in running shorts squatted down, put her fingers to his neck checking for a pulse, tilted her head to the side, and listened for any signs of breathing.  She began to perform CPR on him, while a woman in black sneakers phoned 911 and paced the asphalt.  A large crowd gathered along the bike path.

It took 8 minutes for an ambulance to get there and I thought how often I’d seen cars and cabs NOT pull off to the side while sirens screamed behind them.  Eight minutes are an eternity when a life is hanging in precarious balance.  No one seemed to be panicking, however, and I surmised that perhaps he was alone.  Maybe he said to his wife that morning, honey, I’m going out for a ride, I’ll meet you at Zabar’s for bagels in an hour.  And he never shows.

The ambulance arrives, and the EMTs climb out slowly, like they’re heading into the deli – no sense of urgency, but I attribute that to the CPR in progress.  He seems to be in capable hands.  The woman continues pumping the fallen man’s chest, her arms stick straight, leaning over his torso with all her weight.  Then I see him take a breath – and briefly I feel relief, until she resumes.  If she’s still working on him, does this mean that breath was involuntary, just a reflex, or is he on his way out of danger?  I wish I knew more.  A fire truck roars down the transverse, honking at the crowd to disperse, and pulls up along side the crashed bicycle.  The truck blocks my view and I leave.

Countless people die every year in New York;  that I was possibly witness to such an incident shakes me as only dying and death can do.  Split second upheaval.  Everything changes instantaneously, and not just for the victim, or the victim’s family and friends.  But all of us are affected, whether we realize it or not.  I feel duty-bound now, a social responsibility to be prepared.  What if someone’s life is at risk, and I am the only one around?

I resolve to learn CPR, first aid, the Heimlich.  I want you to do the same because we are all connected and maybe one day, my life will depend on you.

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