I’ve never considered a career as an EMT, not until my commute on the green line last night when a man sitting directly across from me started into a seizure. At first I thought he was singing but there was no music and no headphones and he kept jerking. Me and the woman next to him saw drool. I thought of my son. I thought of the age difference between that young man and my boy. I got up and went to press the button.
I pressed it twice because nobody said anything after the first. I kept my eyes on the seizing man. I was the entire length of the car from him. As I walked back, I saw everyone who had been close to him move away. I heard a few women offering muffled somethings, not quite screams or words. I thought of an experiment I read about in one of those psych classes by a guy named Zimbardo. I thought about a woman in New York who had lost her life after being stabbed seventy times. She screamed but dozens of people, some sitting in their windows and others walking up and down the lane from her, thought everybody else was going to do something about it.
I got back to the man. A woman was next to us, me and him. I stood there, gathering him into a kind of hug, judging his weight, knowing I needed to put him on the floor, on his side. The woman was talking to the 911 people who told her to put the man on his side. I thought of my cpr class, the first one ten years ago when I worked in child welfare and the second one last year when I was preparing to be new father. In that class we all said how much we’d freeze, how much we’d forget if those rusty skills were needed. I think I cursed my cpr teacher for lying. “It’ll all come back,” I think it went. Yeah, right.
I asked a half-full el car of people, “Help me put him on his side.” Nobody moved. I used my preaching voice when I said it. Did these people think this was my friend? Did they think I knew him? Did they think I was responsible. Or worse, that I knew what the hell I was doing? I had just come from exercising after work. I was feeling fit.
He wasn’t as large as me actually, taller but leaner. I picked him up as he was in the final third of his seizure. It seemed to go on and on. His body sank and jumped and held him like he was precious because I scared I would hurt him further. I wondered to myself, how long can this skipping thing be?
The train driver man was going on in the background, saying there was nothing he could do until we made it to the next station. Nobody appreciated his answer. I couldn’t judge if he pushed that car faster. The time between Roosevelt and 35th Street stretched out like Easter weekend. Some nice lady went on about how they should stop the train. I looked at her and shook my head.
The seizure was over by time we got to the stop. Two women sat in chairs near his head. His cheek was down in a small pool of blood. He had cut his tongue. He was breathing. My hand was on him. I was talking to him. He wasn’t listening. He was breathing harder than my voice, harder than I breath after running up a hundred something steps to the green line from the basement blue line stop at Clark and Lake. I heard the woman talking to him too.
It took forever for the firefighters to follow the sharp shrill song that was their introduction, and when they came I wished they had sent somebody else. Four large pale pink-faced men boarded the car. There was a woman bringing up the rear. She stayed back. The four rushed the car. I moved. They cajoled him unsuccessfully. They were impatient. They got aggressive.
Get up they told him. You hit your head. You’re on the floor. You can’t stay on the floor. You need to go to the hospital, they said. He was confused. I saw his eyes. He was afraid and lost the way I am when I get a phone call in the middle of the night, unsure if I’m dreaming or if I’m spinning or if I’m crazy.
He was clueless, disoriented. His head had knocked around too many times to recall. He tasted slob and blood and probably his last meal in his mouth. And when he woke, he was roused by the hoarse voices of really big unsympathetic fellows. He did get up but not before a chorus of sisters told those firemen to slow up, to lower their voices, to take it easy, that he had just had a seizure, that his brain was probably damaged.
I wanted to go home. I needed to call and tell Dawn why I would be late. She needed to go to hear Spike Lee, and I was hoping the best for this floor-laden victim while hoping that I wouldn’t disappoint the girl I love. I was childcare. So was home, expecting me and looking forward to leaving.
The train sat for about thirty minutes. Maybe forty. It was bad. Police came too. When the firefighters, the guys who had no fire to fight on the train–why were they there?–got him up, they moved too quickly. The seizing man matched their quickness with his own anxiety. He got angry. Let me go, he told them. We’re trying to help. I thought that their version of help didn’t appear helpful and that things could get bad. People were recording by that time. Phones stood in little hands. The cop came when the seizing man rustled himself away; it got uglier. I don’t know you, he said. Let me go. His eyes bulged like his mind was clearer, like he could determine whether he knew any of us. He had decided that the fire people were strangers. The policeman was strange too. The cop declared “You know me,” a little too loudly and too close to man’s face. I thought about my teacher Michael Bailey. I thought about Terry Batey, my high school friend. I thought about the mounted officer who lives in my building and works out like he wins triatholons in his spare time. I thought of my uncle Billy. I thought of any other cop but the guy in front of me. Thoughts of them came and their images helped me talk to the officer and firefighters who had no fire last night to fight.
My new friend came back on the train, the officer following. He sat down. Went to sleep again. He had had about ten naps by that moment. Nobody knew what to do. Nobody. The cop waited. The fighters stood outside on the platform. People started leaving the train, returning to the car, and leaving again–like a dance with the sad train driver man singing about how late everyone would be, how sorry they were. I felt obligated to do something. I felt sane. I was judging the cop. But I think I was right. I think he was ready to pounce on my seizing friend. I asked the cop if I could talk to the guy. He said yes. I asked again to be sure. I was in no mood to get arrested. Dawn would not like that. I walked over to the guy. I said to myself that this was sorta like pastoring a church. I have had my share of crises to respond to. I was prepared, in a way. My friend’s hands were in and out of his jacket. I thought I was about to get shot. Really. My voice quieted. I thought of my crisis line training in college when I volunteered for two years and talked to paranoid people at three in the morning. I asked the guy if he was okay, if he was ready to go to the hospital. The cop told me to ask his name and age. I had started into a kind of interview. Dee Thomas, his name. To the question are you ready to go see a doctor, he said, “In a minute.” He returned to slumber. Three more times with questions in between.
I grew impatient. Obviously he was tired, but I was tired too. Everbody on the train was tired. You’re probably tired now reading about this whole thing.
I called Dawn. Then I woke him up and said that the minute was up. About a dozen vested cops showed badges by then. The white-shirted cops came. I love it when they arrive. I’ll shorten the story now. Eventually they got Dee to move. I heard something about a paper being shuffled in front of him. He didn’t want to be hospitalized. I thought about the long lines of liquid leaking from his lips before it triggered that he was seizing. The train driver broke the silence that wasn’t silence and asked us to board the northbound train because it was now going southbound. Then the walkie talkie carrying supervisor changed his mind and put us on the original train. We expressed to 55th, and inevitable breath was taken.
People recounted the event. They talked about reports that needed to be filed. One young sister talked about the woman who was going off about needing a beer because it was rush hour and she was ready to go. We talked about the police and the firefighters. Several people either listened or spoke and it felt like we had been through something significant together. I defended the officer but called the fighters incompetent which got alot of agreement. I was glad when we arrived at Garfield. I told everyone to have a good night, as good as you can. Several folks said things like that. Dee Thomas was fine, I think. I was on the way home. Dawn would get to Spike Lee on time. It would be a good night.
Do you have any interesting stories about the el, the bus, or a commute from work?
I have interesting stories, but they play me as the victim and the world as far too upsetting so I best not share them here. I am proud of your ability to use your life’s experiences with Mr. Thomas. It makes me hopeful.
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Yes, although none quite so epic as that. They do all have in common, however, the feeling that no one quite knows what to do – that I didn’t know what to do, and no one who was supposed to know what to do does, either. It seems that when things don’t go according to plan, it’s more confusing than anything else…
I wish more people had your attitude Pastor Michael. I would hate for something to ever happen to my wife or worse yet any of my daughters (yes, you can read into that statement). Would people just pass them as if their daily task was more important than the possible ending of someone’s life? Yes, Pastor Michael you should be celebrated for having humanity. I will not call this man a stranger- because we should know him as our brother or son or father.
Well, thank you, Karlos, though there are several reasons I’m not jumping to celebrate myself! Thanks for the comments, Tabitha and Lauren. Haven’t seen Tabitha in ages…
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