Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Well, either everyone is out to lunch or I asked a really sensitive question. So, here's another question which is not less sensitive at all, but I just thought I'd add it since no one has answered my first one.

If you were walking down the street and saw someone who was choking, would you consider it your responsibility to give that person the heimlich maneuver?

A co-worker told me one time she was in a sushi restaurant waiting for take out and started choking on something. NO ONE tried to help her, even though she had her hands around her neck and was clearly indicating that she was choking. She had to give herself the heimlich maneuver on a chair.

What do you consider to be your personal responsibility when it comes to strangers? If you were a doctor, it would be in your code of ethics to help anyone that was in need, but as an average civilian, what is your responsibility? Would you be more likely to help someone who looked/acted/seemed like you or someone who seemed more like they could really use help... like a homeless person...?


Terri said...

Ok, I'll take a stab at this. First of all, I'm not sure every doctor feels responsible in the way you describe their code of ethics - I know wonderful medical professionals who are natural care-givers, but I also know any number of chumps who strike an attitude with their own patients who pay dearly for a slice of their time.

Secondly, I (like a lot of people, thank goodness) really enjoy being helpful to strangers. Yesterday I gave directions to a French father and son who were touring San Francisco and got lost on the #6 bus. Too bad my French wasn't better.... I would certainly hope that choking victims would receive instant help, and I would be happy to be the one to supply it.

But I've been trained in first aid and am a Reiki master/teacher. What about folks who don't know quite what to do to help? You'd hate to hurt someone by doing it wrong.

Which brings me to a possible reason for the absence of comments to Pam's previous question about the homeless. I feel great sympathy, and the urge to help, but am genuinely confused about what that really means. Is it helpful to give them some change? Or is it helpful to donate clothing and blankets? To meditate/pray for them? Or is it most helpful to donate funds to shelters, or to volunteer at food banks? I've done all of them at different times, and sometimes nothing, because I just don't know how to really help. And that leads to hesitation and inaction, a lot of times.

Curious to hear from other people...

Andre said...

Hi Pam,
in response to this question: yes, if we see someone in life-threatening need and have the skills to remedy that situation, I think we're doing good when we try to help.

Re: homeless people. . I feel an obligation to help eradicate homelessness. . that's where I personally draw the line. Volunteering in shelters, giving material support to shelters, giving stuff you don't use to goodwill, pressing our elected officials to act to eradicate homelessness and allay its symptoms. . that's what I choose to focus on.
hope this answers your question.

Jake said...

I think you've really hit the nail on the head, Terri. Wanting to do something and knowing what to do are very different things.

I would like to think that at the very least, if I saw someone choking, I'd call for help. I have had the opportunity to call 911 when a homeless person was having a seizure; it was interesting that I was the only one who acted, but once I got on the phone, I wasn't alone in my concern, either. It definitely wasn't a slam-dunk, though. "Should we do something?" I think was asked a few times before someone suggested I make the call. People gathered to watch, and I stuck around until the ambulance arrived, and the crew obviously knew the victim. I did not leave that scene feeling terribly heroic, I'll tell ya.

While on vacation, I watched a LOT of television, and one of the things I caught was Mythbusters (love that show - they've done more to teach people about the scientific process than anything else in the media). On one episode, they took on the story of the untrained passenger flying an airliner to a safe landing with guidance from the ground. Before trying it coached, they tried it as if they just jumped in the cockpit and tried to help. (They ran this experiment in a training simulator.) It was an unmitigated disaster - both guys, despite all their good intentions, flew the digital planes into the ground at frighteningly high speed.

This kind of thing really reinforces the paralysis I think people feel about "doing something". Not knowing what to do, we're all quite sure we'll make it worse.

But let's add to this fear the cultural paranoia we have about helping someone. While the stories of people helping out strangers in need almost never make the headlines, the stories of people getting sued for helping a tad ineptly get ingrained in our consciousness. We are bombarded with the message that only experts can do xyz, that if we did something even slightly wrong, we could kill someone. Health alert after health alert in the mainstream media reinforces this message.

And to a certain point, our own education and liberal piety is to blame, since we've learned enough to know that we "should" do something, and we might even have a clue about what, but what if we've forgotten the details? What if that person has AIDS or hepatitis (if there's blood involved)? What if I fuck up and they sue me for all I'm worth?

First responders and paramedics drill and drill and drill and drill (I was a "victim" when my parents were going through this process) to make sure they are doing things right, and they still make fatal mistakes. What of the average joe? My awakening to this was when I took the written driving test ages ago, shortly after I had taken CPR. The correct answer to one question on the test violated what I had learned in CPR, that you must do things in the right order and with the proper training. But the lady behind the desk just said that you gotta get them breathing first, bub. A retrospective duh.

And to me, that's the root problem with the homelessness issue. I never give change, because I really don't believe that it's helpful. But on the other hand, I really have no clue what is helpful. Everything else I could seems to be such a pitiful bandaid against the obliterated limb of our society that homelessness represents. And so in the end I do nothing.

Pam said...

So, I guess I feel like it's not really too hard to figure out what things you can do for a homeless person. I mean, if someone is hungry, you can give them some food. That's pretty simple. If you don't feel you have the time to take them somewhere to get something to eat, you can give them a granola bar or whatever else you have. If you wanted to be prepared, you could carry some extra food with you. I know a lot of people struggle with giving homeless people money for fear that they will spend it on drugs or alcohol, so giving a person food seems like the easiest way to alleviate that fear.

I don't understand all the complexities of what other issues people face when they live on the street. I have been told it costs $9 a night to sleep in a shelter with a decent bed. I have not done the research to confirm this. I do not understand what the factors are that allow a person to get a bed in a shelter, what cost is involved, and what the conditions are or the reasons why a person would or wouldn't want to sleep in one place or another. A lot of people in this town sleep on the sidewalk. Luckily, the weather permits it. In Boston and many other places, the weather usually does not permit sleeping outdoors. I know I would not want to have to deal with having to find a place to sleep every night. That would be amazingly stressful. And, what about basic hygiene and health care? Where do you go to get clean drinking water if you live on the street? As far as I can tell, there aren't many public drinking fountains and businesses are not at all friendly towards people who aren't paying customers. So, maybe you can't help with everything, but there are certainly some things you know you can do to help.

I know there are difficulties when it comes to helping a person who is choking, for example. Sure - you could break someone's rib if you did the heimlich maneuver wrong. But, I would think most people on the verge of death would consider a broken rib a small price to pay to stay alive. Would you really refrain from potentially saving someone's life out of fear of breaking their rib?

When my co-worker told me about her near choking incident, I was disturbed. I have certainly been in situations where something needed to be done, but I assumed someone else would take care of it. Her story felt like kind of a wake-up call to me. How often do I assume someone else will take care of what needs to be done? How often do I actually step up and take responsibility?

Jake said...

I really love your optimism, Pam, and I sometimes wish I weren't so cynical. One thing that occurs to me is the distinction between doing something for a homeless person versus doing something for homeless people. Sure, it's a great idea to tote around a granola bar or something, and that may make a difference for someone. What about the next day? What about the next person?

Years ago, after having dinner with my mom and my brother, we passed someone curled up in the corner of a building. I gave him or her my leftovers, and was shocked at how upset my mother got with me. (Which is really another topic.) In that case, it seemed like a no brainer - hunger was radiating from that person, and they were genuinely appreciative. But most people I see on the street here don't lack for caloric intake, so I'm not sure what good I'd be doing.

Beyond that, it raises the issue of mendicancy versus homelessness. I'm disinclined to give handouts to people who are asking for handouts largely because I feel that if they have the wherewithal to do that, they probably have the wherewithal to actually work. I'm far more inclined to help someone who looks like they truly need help right now.

I wonder what it's like in other countries? Not being one who has traveled much, I'm reduced to guessing based on National Geographic spreads. It always seems, though, that even though much of the world lives in desperate poverty, not having a place to go home to is less of an issue. People live in shantytowns and vast, noxious slums, but they have shelter and a place of their own, even if it's shared with 15 others. They even have things to do that earn them those 20 cents a day or whatever. Is this true? Am I imagining that here in the U.S. we've raised the bar so high for ourselves that employment and housing just don't go to that minimal level anymore?

Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

I frequently end up giving money to homeless people, and I always feel ambivalent about it. I'm sure a lot of times I'm giving people money for drugs. Yesterday I gave a couple bucks to a woman who was crying and said she was hungry. I felt an immediate need to respond somehow to the intense display of distress in front of me and giving her money was the first response that sprang to mind. She looked like she could be hungry; she also looked like she could be a meth addict. I don't know. I frequently resolve to stop giving money to homeless people and it never sticks. I don't think I'm being generous. I think I hand over my cash out of a feeling of helplessness--because I do think we have an obligation to do something about homelessness, and I haven't figured out yet what I, personally, should be doing.

--Stephanie (of sweet water journal, away from my own computer and can't remember my Blogger password)

Pam said...

Thank you all for your thoughtful answers.