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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Note to Onlookers

Yesterday after work I went to Walmart to do some shopping before heading home. On my way into the store, I saw an elderly lady on the ground, seemingly in some kind of trouble.

I know what you're thinking: "What did you do? Was she OK? What happened to her?"
The answer: I did nothing. I walked into Walmart and did my shopping. Was she OK? What happened? I have no idea, and probably never will.

Why did I do what I did? Because I quickly assessed the situation and realized that it was already under control.

For those of you who don't know me and haven't been following this blog, almost 28 years ago I was born with epilepsy. Now, you're probably thinking "What does that have to do with this situation?" and I'm going to say it has a whole lot to do with situation. Or more accurately, it has a lot to do with how I reacted to the situation.

I've been in this woman's shoes. (Obviously not literally.) I've been in a public place with people staring, doing nothing productive, quietly saying to each other "What happened? What's wrong with him? Is he going to be OK? Oh my!"

All that this behavior does is upset/embarrass/confuse the person who is already in an awkward situation, and disrupt the lives of everyone else in the area. Especially in my case: I wake up not knowing where I am, or why I was unconscious, or what happened, or who was there when it happened, or who is there now... that extra commotion just leads to extra confusion.

Back on track:
In the case of what happened yesterday, there were all sorts of people looking in on this situation in the exit/entrance of the store.

Why didn't I stop? As I said... I took a look around and noticed a few things:
  1. The woman was not alone. Her family (or what appeared to be her family) was with her.
  2. A person of authority was present: in this case, a store employee
  3. The family was calm and not asking for help. This tells me that they probably already have all the help they need.
Basically, there was nothing that I could do that had not already been done. The family knew about the situation, the store knew about the situation, and if more help needs to be called the store will do that.

I did my shopping, cashed out, and returned to the place where I entered the store. What did I find? An even larger crowd had gathered, paramedics were there, with a stretcher and an ambulance just outside the door. Again, nothing productive that I can do. My only choice is to keep moving, or add to the chaos that is already present in this situation. 

The only problem: The crowd had grown so much that I had to actually slide past someone to actually get out of the store. They were almost completely blocking the entrance/exit. THIS is where the onlookers truly transform from innocent bystanders, into a nuisance. They're no longer just annoying the person who has already had a bad enough day, but they're in the way of other people who are just trying to go on with their day, and they're possibly impeding the work of the paramedics and other authority figures. Plus, they're forcing an even larger crowd to form, because nobody can get through.

Judging by what I saw, the woman probably is fine now. Who knows, maybe she had a seizure, or passed out, or slipped and fell... all I can tell is that there was no real panic or rush by the family or the paramedics. If it was a dire situation, the paramedics would have been in a (controlled) rush to get her on the stretcher and into the hospital so she could receive immediate attention. Since I did not see that, I can assume that the situation was not as bad as the crowd made it seem to be.

What should you do if put in this situation?
As I said, there are some key things to look for:

Main thing to look for: Is the person alone?
If yes:
  1. Ask if they need help. If they are unconscious, call for help immediately.
    1. If no help is needed, continue on with your day - forget about steps 2 and 3.
  2. Stay with them as long as they need - if at all possible. At the very least, try to stay until help arrives.
  3. Ask if there's anyone you can contact for them. Family, friends, significant other, etc.
If no:
  1. Quickly assess the state of the people with them: 
    1. Are they people of authority? This can be police/security, firefighter/paramedic, an employee/manager of a store or facility, etc.
      1. If yes, there's probably nothing you can do. If not, maybe you can call someone.
    2. Are they family/friends of the "victim"? (victim, for lack of a better word)
      1. If yes, Are they calm?
        1. If they're calm, the situation is likely under control. If you feel like it's necessary, ask if you can help in any way. If they say no, continue on with your day.
        2. If they're not calm, see instructions for if person is alone.
      2. If not family/friend, and no people of authority, see instructions for if person is alone.

This is obviously just a BASIC breakdown of how you should deal with a situation like this. I'm sure that there's more that I may be leaving out. In the end it breaks down to this: if the situation is under control, sticking around is not helping. If it's not under control, check to see if you can be of assistance.

If you have medical training - are a doctor, nurse, paramedic, etc. - you may want to stop, regardless of the situation, and ask if you can help in any way. Otherwise, you are likely just going to get in the way in many cases.