Walking The Path that winds itself through the underground maze of downtown Toronto shops and restaurants, I noticed how people avoided eye contact and didn’t return a friendly smile or a “good morning” greeting. Is it due to the intensity of the city, the sardine closeness of their morning train commute, the density of the wall of protection each one has built up from a fear of intimacy, of getting involved? I don’t have the answer but I know I’d rather live in our small town where even strangers wave to one another and everyone says hello.
My morning walk with my spouse for a quick breakfast made me think about the TV show “What Would You Do?”. The show sets up scenarios with actors to engage Jill and Joe Public to see how they’ll respond to situations where people are threatened or wronged in some way. In one episode, an actress posing as a drunken mother, was about to have her eight-year old daughter drive the family car home. Every stranger who interceded gently worked with the mother and daughter to keep them from getting into the car. They cajoled, bribed, used every tactic imaginable. This was humanity at its best. Watching these shows I’ve reflected on what I’d do under the same circumstances. Then three nights ago faced with a real life crisis I found out.
While staying in Toronto for a couple of nights, my spouse and I decided to stop at a store for a pre-made dinner salad rather than dine in a restaurant. We had the choice of two grocery stores and as we headed to the No Frills I said, “We won’t be able to get the salad we want there; let’s go across the street to the Metro.” We u-turned, parked, made our purchases and started out of the store.
In front of us, a woman in her twenties staggered through the automatic doors. I quietly said, “She’s probably drunk or on drugs.” But in the back of my mind I thought she might actually be suffering from a medical condition. Outside the store, my spouse asked her if she was alright or needed help.
” I’m okay,” she replied. But she obviously wasn’t. “I don’t feel right; my chest hurts.”
We enquired if she had driven to the store; she hadn’t. Then she mentioned she was meeting a man there.
“Where exactly are you meeting him?” we asked. She didn’t know. At that point she spun around and crumbled to the ground. We told her we needed to get her inside but she didn’t want to go.
“I don’t have any clothes on,” she said. She appeared to be clothed so we reassured her she was dressed. We lifted her to her feet and insisted she return with us to the store. On our way, I asked her if she had a medical condition.
She whispered, “Long QT Syndrome.” You may not know what this is but by chance I learned about the condition years ago and recognized how serious it was. (Long QT syndrome (LQTS) is a disorder of the heart’s electrical activity. It can cause sudden, uncontrollable, dangerous arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs) in response to exercise or stress.) I knew we needed medical assistance. There are many cases of very young athletes suddenly dying of heart attacks whose autopsies reveal the cause was Long QT. I asked if she was on any medication. She answered me but her voice was so weak I didn’t hear what she said.
Inside the store a family of five filled the only bench. Without a second thought, I requested firmly, “Please move, we need the seat for this young woman. She’s not well.” They jumped to their feet and got out of the way.
While I settled her on the bench, my spouse went to customer service and asked them to call 911 for assistance. The young woman provided her name; I’ll call her Karen Jones. Curious staff and customers began gathering around. One cashier shared that Karen had said she was drunk and asked where the Wine Store was in the Metro or the closest liquor store. I got very close to check her breath; there was no smell of alcohol. Later I learned the manager had hesitated calling 911 because the woman was under the influence of alcohol. My spouse had insisted she make the call explaining the young lady definitely needed medical help.
“Does anyone know CPR?” I asked the bystanders. No one did. One customer asked if he could help. I sent him to the parking lot to wait for the ambulance.
My spouse searched through Karen’s purse for a cell phone, prescription drugs, emergency phone contacts, anything to help us gather information for the paramedics. There was nothing useful.
Karen kept asking where she was and what was happening. Each time I reassured her, “You’re in the Metro store at the corner of Eglinton and Victoria Park. We’ve called an ambulance. They’ll be here soon. We’ll stay with you until they get here.” She held my hand and thanked me.
Several times Karen’s eyes rolled back, she went limp and looked as though she would lose consciousness. I rubbed her face and hands and insisted she stay with me. Finally my efforts failed…she was out cold; her hands freezing and lifeless. I laid her flat on the bench; that’s when I realized she was only dressed in a winter coat and track pants. How and why had she come out on a winter night dressed like this? I felt for breath and pulse. Nothing!
In 2006 I completed the new CPR training through the Canadian Red Cross. I had hoped I would never need it…. That night I did!
Somehow throughout the experience I remained calm and focussed; I tried to remember what to do. I checked to ensure her tongue was not blocking her airway and then began chest compressions. One… two… three… four…five…six . . . Karen coughed and came to. A wave of relief washed over me.
“Where am I?” Karen whispered. I once again repeated the same information.
Within seconds the ambulance and paramedics, the fire department and police arrived and took over. We shared everything Karen had told us and what steps we had taken.
The EMTS and police shook our hands and thanked us and the customer who had watched for the paramedics to arrive, called us angels. We’re just people who care; we did what I hope anyone would do. This life altering experience for us lasted less than 15 minutes.
As I reflected back over our brief encounter with Karen, several things struck me.
Firstly, we had changed our minds about where to buy dinner which delayed our arrival at the Metro store and put us in exactly the right place at the right time. Was this a “divine appointment”? Were we meant to be there?
I thought about how proud I was of my spouse for asking the young woman if she needed help and insisting the manager call 911. These simple acts initiated a life-saving experience for a total stranger.
Although my first thoughts about Karen involved her being drunk or high on drugs, I didn’t let them rule my actions. I understood her symptoms might be connected to a medical condition like Cerebral Palsy or be the side-effects of a prescription drug. My background in social work and some understanding of substance abuse gave me a different interpretation of her symptoms. My first thoughts had judged her but my second thoughts had kicked in and suggested her behaviour might indicate something more sinister. Would those who stood around watching, now think twice when they saw a person staggering down the street?
Then what are the odds I would know something about Long QT Syndrome. (For more information on Long QT: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/qt/)
If these things weren’t enough, I was the only person available trained in CPR. Why wasn’t someone on staff in a large grocery chain store trained? Would they now consider doing that?
If you had asked me what I remembered of my CPR training I would have said, “Very little, if anything.” I’d had no opportunity to test my knowledge in a real crisis or emergency situation. What a surprise to discover it was waiting to rise to the surface when needed. (For more information on CPR training, contact The Canadian or American Red Cross or St John’s Ambulance)
We may never know Karen’s story; who was she, why was she out on winter night dressed in so little? We can only speculate. Maybe she was an angel sent to us. Whoever or whatever she was, she provided me with the opportunity to learn something new about myself. I’ll be forever grateful.
Emotionally I’m changed. If Karen and I never cross paths again, we’ll still remain connected. We’re all part of a larger Spirit and Consciousness, every one uniquely crafted, and yet each a part of all the others. Invisible strands of spirit join us, weaving us together and pulling us apart, forming patterns and relationships in the ever-changing, kaleidoscopic fabric we call Life.
If only we all had eyes to see and ears to hear each other. Maybe it can start with smiling at strangers and saying hello to those we don’t know.
I think it’s worth a try.
© Wendie Donabie 2012