How I overcame the bystander effect

Date

Andie Fox

Andie Fox interfered when she thought a stranger was in trouble. This is what happened next.

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You yelled but exactly what you called out was lost in our memory of the night. And, you see, there had also been all this shouting we heard from the happy drunken kids who, as it turned out, must have passed by you in the dark. Even I don’t know how long you were there. All I know is that you became disorientated, and realising what was happening you crashed through my neighbour’s fence to fall on your knees, as though praying. With rising panic you shouted out once more with a strong but tight voice. 

I was in my house and I assumed you were one of the drunk kids, but I felt uneasy. Thinking a person is drunk when they really need help has happened before. There was this incident I read about involving the celebrated opera singer, Delmae Barton where she had a stroke and lay semi-conscious at a busy bus stop for hours before being rescued. Many people passed by concluding she was drunk and ignored her. The story is even more depressing than that, Barton is Aboriginal and surely racist stereotypes played a part in all the inaction she encountered    

So I went out into the dark to find you, reluctantly it’s true, and not just because it feels uncomfortable to approach a stranger but because you’re a man and that can be its own risk. I found two of my neighbours converging on you there. I recognised them but we three had never really introduced ourselves before. It was a different time in my life back then and I didn’t care much about community. One of them called an ambulance.

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You weren’t drunk and you were all alone. You’re diabetic, you told us. You knew this but you couldn’t tell us your name, shock was consuming you fast. I learned only afterwards that you were 38 years old. You burst into tears and asked for your Mum. You said, I’m dying. I held your hand and told you again that an ambulance would be here soon.

Oh, it hurt to hear you say all that. I was a new mother back then and you asking for yours forced me to picture my toddler coming to me for comfort. I thought about the transition from childhood to adulthood and how it was, in part, the growing realisation that not everything can be fixed, soothed or secured by a parent. How a part of your brain, when desperate enough, retreats to infanthood. How soldiers with acute shell shock in the World Wars are said to have called for their mothers.   

I thought we should lay you down, you were still on your knees, you see. You were tall and muscular and difficult to move and I couldn’t help but be surprised that such a powerful body could fail you. A diabetic identification chain spilled out of your shirt. You felt very cold and I asked one of my neighbours to get a blanket. I could see that you were losing consciousness and there was no sign of the ambulance.

So, I called a doctor friend and he told me you should be on your side and that we must tilt your head back with your jaw open. Is he still breathing, my friend asked. Yes, is he likely to stop, I said. He might, and you’ll just have to try CPR. My friend didn’t sound confident and neither was I. We’d barely mastered the correct hand position to hold your jaw open. It was a bad line and there was nothing more to say.  

My neighbours and I bunched around you and the night suddenly seemed very still and empty. You were long past responding to us and except for the occasional spasm you were quite still also. There was no sign of an ambulance. I asked my neighbour what he’d said when he called for help. You were talking to us back then, but that seemed like forever now. Things have changed, we agreed. Your breathing was very shallow. The ambulance needs to know they should be hurrying.

So, I called emergency and told them once again about you — how you were a diabetic man who had gone into shock, who was now unconscious, whose breathing was irregular. They told me they’d stay on the line until the ambulance came. I answered their questions. Yes, your lips were turning blue, I told them. I parted them to check inside your mouth. I tried but couldn’t feel your breaths to count them. I asked my neighbour, holding you, to call out to me every time he felt you breathe. We relayed your efforts over the phone. Inhaled…. exhaled... inhaled... exhaled… inhaled.

Then, at last, the ambulance was there and the officers descended upon you. I think my neighbours and I hoped we could retreat. We had felt so ineffectual throughout and now we could stop pretending otherwise. But the officers needed us close. They wanted more details about you, they wanted us to hold torches, your arm still, and an IV drip when they eventually got a line into your arm. You didn’t respond, your blood pressure remained low. There was a call for back-up and alarms were raised.

But then finally you gave a good reading. A second ambulance arrived. You scrunched in agony but nobody knew what was racking your body. Your voice came again and it was sad and fearful, as it had been when we first found you. Where were you, you wanted to know. We gave you the simplest answers. How could we make you understand that if you’d collapsed in the other direction you’d have sunk into a creek, and that if we’d ignored your calls a little longer we’d have all gone to bed tonight thinking you were drunk and asleep? You told us you were here to visit your mother. Again with mothers, I thought. But nothing you said about the visit made sense.

The ambulance officers discussed how to get you out of the rubble into which you’d collapsed. They roused you and bullied you into walking with all four of them supporting you to the ambulance. I was stunned that you could possibly be doing this twenty minutes after we’d recorded your tiny breaths and blue lips. They stabilised you and loaded you into the ambulance. And then they left.

My neighbours and I remained for a moment together and then disappeared into the space you left behind. The intimacy was gone. It was now the middle of the night and we didn’t know you anyway, except that I held your hand when you and I both thought you were dying.