A Troubling and Educational Experience
This afternoon, I left my house on the way to a doctor’s appointment. I had 15 minutes to get there, which should have been more than enough time. As I drove down the street, just a block away from my house, I spotted two young children—girls, probably between the ages of 4 and 5—walking alone. On the sidewalk, perhaps fifty yards away, a woman lay on the ground. At first, I thought she was laughing, but as I drove by, I noticed her shoe was off, and she was in a great deal of pain. Another car passed me going the opposite direction. It did not stop. At first, neither did. I drove on to the end of the block. This part of the story shames me. I actually thought, “If I go back, I will be late for my appointment. I’m sure someone else will stop.” And then I turned the car around.
I drove back down the block, pulled up next to her, and rolled down the window. I asked if she was okay. But I really didn’t need to ask. Her ankle was already swollen up to the size of a baseball. She was a rather large woman, dressed completely in black. Her clothes were torn (either from the fall or from wear, I couldn’t tell). Her pant legs were covered in dirt from the sidewalk and grass. The pain rendered her nearly mute.
I got out of the car and asked if she wanted me to call 9-1-1. She said no. I asked if she lived close by and if there was anyone I could call. She said her husband was at work. I asked again if I should call 9-1-1. She said no again. She was in so much pain, I should have just dialed 9-1-1 there and then, but I knew what she was scared of.
See, we’ve all heard the horror stories of an unexpected medical bill draining people’s savings and costing them their homes. If I called 9-1-1, I could see that happening to her. What if it was just a sprain that would be better in the morning? A trip to the ER in an ambulance could cost thousands of dollars. Thousands of dollars she clearly didn’t have.
Another couple of cars drove by, and no one stopped. I couldn’t leave her there. I had to to something. I asked where she lived. She said close by. I told I’d turn the car around (so the passenger side was close to the curb) and her I’d drive her home. I got back in, and pulled a quick U-turn.
Luckily, I have two car seats in the back of the car. I asked her girls to climb in and buckle up. I asked if she could make it to the car. She said no. As I said earlier, she was a rather large woman—easily more than 250 pounds. I couldn’t carry her. Either way, I still have one foot wrapped in bandages after yesterday’s minor surgery, and I can barely walk myself. I tried to help her up, but I couldn’t support her. Luckily, a young, Hispanic man on a bicycle stopped and helped me load her into my car. Tears still poured from her eyes, and she struggled to give me directions to her house, which, as it turned out, was nearly a mile away. And she lived in second floor apartment.
Getting her out the car (now by myself) was not easy. I couldn’t help her beyond the bottom of the steps. I had to stay there and watch as this poor woman crawled, on her hands and knees, up the flight of splintered steps, wailing with each movement. I again asked if I should call 9-1-1, or her husband, or anyone. She said no each time. I held my finger over the keypad on my phone, wanting to call 9-1-1. She needed help. This ankle was not going to heal without medical attention. But she kept saying no. I couldn’t go against her wishes, could I? I watched her unlock her front door, then I got into my car and left.
In the end, I was 7 minutes late for my appointment.
On the way back from my appointment, I started to get very emotional. First, I felt so guilty for not stopping right away. I can’t believe I drove by, and had those initial thoughts. What has happened to me to allow “someone else will handle it” to be my default reaction? Is it my physical condition (i.e. yesterday’s surgery and my Guillain-Barre Syndrome)? Was it that I was in a hurry? Was it that irrational fear of someone I didn’t know?
What I do know is that I will struggle with the guilt from that initial decision for a long time to come.
Then I got angry with the United States, and the sorry state of health care insurance in this country. That every man, woman and child isn’t covered by single-payer health care is an atrocity. That corporations can make a profit from people’s tragedies is a disgrace. That a person can lose their life savings or their home because they tripped while going for a walk with their kids, is an abomination. That it is a popular opinion among a large number of people on the right side of political spectrum that “everyone for themselves is the American way” is despicable. By the time I got home, I was near tears for that poor woman, and her two children, and I was shaking with anger.
But I did one thing, after I got home, that helped me. I called up the headquarters of the East Pierce County Fire and Rescue Department, and asked them what I should have done. I asked them what would have happened had I called 9-1-1. Would all of those fears have come true?
The answer was no. In my district, if you are below a certain level of income (approximately 150% of the poverty line for a family of four), a call to 9-1-1 for a genuine emergency will cost you nothing. You will receive a statement, but with a few simple entries on a form. Either your insurance company will be billed, or the amount will be written off and paid for by the taxpayers. At the hospital, a similar plan exists for the very poor, though the paperwork is probably not as simple. Had I known this, I would have absolutely called 9-1-1. I also asked what would have happened to the kids in this case. They said the rescue rigs come equipped with two child seats, and they would ensure that the children were taken care of. Clearly, they could have handled this situation much better than I could have. I should have called. I will next time. I don’t know if this is normal policy for all counties in all regions of the country, but today, I am very glad I live where I do.
This is not a story I am telling out of pride or out of guilt. I tell it so that in case someone reading this finds themselves in a similar position in the future, whether it be in my town, or some other town, that they do the right thing. Stop. Call 9-1-1. Don’t worry about the money. Make sure the person gets the care they need. An injured person is not thinking clearly when they tell you they don’t want medical help. They’re hurt. They’re embarrassed. They don’t want attention. And they’re probably worried that they won’t be able to pay for it. If you are the person helping, you need to do the right thing. Call 9-1-1. Get them the help they need. Don’t wait.
I can only imagine what would have happened had I been the one writhing around in pain while my frightened children looked on. Hopefully, it never comes to that, but if it does, I hope that if someone stops to help, that they call 9-1-1 and let the professionals render the help I need.