A few years ago, I wrote about an experience in San Francisco, as I was walking to the train station. A man had collapsed on the sidewalk, and a large crowd had gathered. Then the man stopped breathing.
Here’s the article:
MARCH 22, 2013
The Imago Dei: Image of God
I almost watched a man die today. I was walking to the train station and came upon a group of men and women standing around a fallen man. Someone said he struck his head on the sidewalk when he fell.
The man’s face was turning blue and he was foaming at the mouth. He began gasping for breath. We turned him on his back. The man who had called 911 stayed on the phone, pleading with the operator to hurry the ambulance. Another man began CPR. I kept a check on his pulse. But it didn’t help. The man’s eyes went unresponsive. I checked his pulse, but there was none. The person giving CPR did so until the ambulance arrived.
The paramedics went to work on the man. After several minutes, they still couldn’t get a pulse. I stood behind them praying. God, don’t let this man die. Give him breath. Don’t let him die. You don’t want him to die. Don’t let Satan win.
It looked really bad. They shocked him several times, but he still wasn’t breathing. At least ten minutes passed. The faces of those gathered grew more concerned. I heard the lead paramedic tell the man performing CPR, “You make the call.” They shocked him one last time, and then it happened. His chest rose. The man took a breath.
I’m writing this as I’m walking to the train station, still shaken, a tear in my eye. We are all created in God’s image. Yes, that image grows very faint at times, and it’s hard to believe that we or others have the smile of God within us. But that man took a saving breath, and those who came to his aid stood by him, and I’m sure many of them were praying. The image of God will not wear off easily. The world and the devil can’t take it away.
It’s a great story, filled with hope and optimism. The problem is, it’s not entirely true. I mean, it almost happened like that. But with glaring differences.
The real story should read like this:
I’m pretty sure I saw a man die today.
I was walking to the train station like I did every weekday, avoiding the sewer stench rising from the open grates below, worried about missing the 5:25 to San Carlos; the next one wouldn’t come for another hour and a half. Fretting about so much more. The daily four-hour commute. The book I was finishing. The disappointment I’d recently experienced. How my dreams had come crashing down on me.
I came upon a group of men and women standing around a fallen man—homeless, from the looks of it. His face was turning blue and he was foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath.
“What happened,” I asked.
“He hit his head when he fell,” a woman answered.
The crowd grew, two rows deep now. Several filmed it from their phones.
“Does anyone know what to do?” someone asked. Several shook their heads. “Maybe get him on his back,” one suggested. We lay the man flat on his back and propped his head up.
The blueness of the man’s face deepened. His gasps grew violent. The man who had called 911 stayed on the phone, asking the operator to hurry the ambulance.
“Does anyone know CPR?” a voice shouted. But no one stepped forward. And neither did I. My mind had frozen. CPR? What was the current procedure for it? How many breaths to pumps were you supposed to give?
Minutes passed. I knelt beside the man and held his hand, my attempt at feeling useful. “Maybe stick a finger down his throat,” I heard someone behind me say. “Something could be blocking it.”
“Yeah, but if his jaw locks, he could bite your finger off,” another person answered.
A man sprinted toward us. He knelt beside the man and began pumping his chest. But to no response. I felt the man’s wrist—no pulse. His face appeared calm. At long last, the ambulance arrived.
The paramedics went to work on the man. After several minutes, they still couldn’t get a pulse. I stood behind them praying. God, don’t let this man die. Give him breath. Don’t let him die.
They shocked him several times, but he still wasn’t breathing. At least ten minutes passed. Most of the crowd had cleared out. I heard a boyfriend tell his girlfriend they were late for dinner, and they left.
“You make the call,” the lead paramedic told the man performing CPR. They shocked him one last time, and then it happened. His chest rose. The man took a breath.
Within seconds, they’d placed him on a stretcher, loaded him into the ambulance, and driven off. I, like the others gathered, was left to resume my afternoon, all the while wondering: Did the man live? If so, was his brain permanently damaged? I would never know.
That’s the truth of the story. But I didn’t write that because I wanted to protect my image, and how others thought of me. I was ashamed that I’d done practically nothing. I was scared if I stuck my fingers in his mouth he might bite my finger off. Or I might contract a disease.
I spent the weeks afterward, while walking to and from the train station, with one thought: to get out of my own head and be more caring for others. I signed up for a CPR class.
Last week, I read an article focused on technology and our addiction to it. The writer gave stats showing that empathy for others is declining, while narcissism and self-obsession is growing at crazy fast rates.
I thought about that man on the sidewalk that day. First thought, I regretted that blog, as I’d been too worried about my image. If there’s a story to tell, one has to tell it honestly, not giving a damn what people think. Second, I remembered how I’d been in the moments leading up to that—lost in my own world, consumed with my own dreams and goals.
Had I been already focused on the goal, to think of others before myself, I might have stuck my fingers down that man’s throat, even if it meant having my finger bitten off.
So how do I build empathy, that which will allow me to put the needs of strangers ahead of my own? I don’t know, but I recognize that when I’m looking down at a screen most of the time, I’m not looking up … at others, and at the world around me.
And I need to fix that.