Attacking the Samaritans

Some time ago, I was getting off a very long shift when I drove up to a horrible accident. Up to that point, it was the goriest MVA I had ever seen on a lonely stretch of state highway. There was exactly one other person there who hadn’t been involved; it looked as though the vehicles, one being a very large pickup truck, had hit head-on at a very high rate of speed. The driver of the smaller vehicle was literally in pieces. His head was misshapen (I won’t give the more disgusting facts), an arm was severed in the middle of the road–it was obvious even to the untrained that this man was very dead.

When I simply looked at him and got on my phone to call 911, the woman who’d seen the wreck started yelling at me to do something. She didn’t know what I should be doing, but she was adamant that I needed to help the man. There was nothing I could do, so I moved on to the other driver, who was still alive and in severe distress. At that, all I could do for him was put pressure on a wound and hold his mouth open so he could breathe. The entire time I did this the woman screamed at me, even hitting me from time to time, demanding that I go back to the other driver and help him. When police finally arrived, she told them she had no idea who either of the men were but could not get over the fact that I walked away from the corpse in the other car.

I was more upset about that then than I would be now. I had a lot less experience then. But I learned a very valuable lesson: I am not God. I cannot save everyone simply because I want to. It was not a lesson I imagined learning in such a fashion while I was in school. I never did find out if the other man survived.

On December 9 in New York City, two EMT’s were in a coffee shop when a pregnant employee collapsed. The initial reports say that the EMT’s refused to help, telling other employees to call 911. We don’t know what really did happen, though, or what the circumstances were–yet not only is the girl’s mother calling the EMT’s inhuman, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already called their actions “inexcusable.”

How can anybody say that before knowing the facts? How do we know these two EMT’s were on duty? There’s a big difference between being on duty and off–when I am on duty, I have a lot of equipment at my disposal. I also have direct access to medical direction from a designated trauma room physician. When I’m off duty, I don’t have those things, and without some of the tools in my rescue arsenal there are a lot of things I simply can’t do. Now, if it were me standing there watching someone collapse, I wouldn’t leave, but unless she had stopped breathing, her heart stopped beating, or was having a seizure, I’d pretty much be standing there like an idiot wishing I could do more, such as using a portable EKG to check her heart rhythm or calling medical direction.

This is something I know from experience, and I have about the same number of years as the EMT’s involved in this case.

Often, when someone we love dies suddenly and tragically, we want to lash out at anyone who might have been responsible. In some ways it’s actually easier when someone caused the death because then we have something to focus on. Our grief does not give us the right to crucify someone simply because we want to be angry, however.

I’m not willing to blindly accuse these two EMT’s without proof of negligence. If they had been on duty, they’d have had their rig outside and would not have ignored the problem, I can tell you that right now. So if they weren’t on duty, how do we know what was said? How do we know that they didn’t explicitly tell those folks, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do, you need to have an ambulance dispatched”? How do we know they were taking a break, as some news outlets have reported, rather than leaving or just beginning their shift?

These days, EMT’s and paramedics are sued left and right. Most often it’s not because they have deep pockets; rather, it’s because their employers appear to and they’re easy targets. Our job is to help those in crisis and stabilize them for transport to a hospital, where doctors work the real magic. When we’re not on duty, guess what? We’ll likely do what everyone else would do: call 911.

Don’t hang these guys yet. Don’t attack them for lack of evidence. Do for them what everyone screams for us to do with the criminals in our society: let them remain innocent until proven guilty.

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