A very unexpected and surreal experence last night as I tried to help a homeless person I found convulsing and writhing in pain. I typed up most of these notes last night as I was heading back on the train. Some of the more reflective points come from added thoughts I had added in a revision this next day after (also on the train). A couple of quick disclaimers. 1) Even though I jotted down the notes right after it happened, the mind does play its tricks, especially with respect to one's memory. 2) I switch between past/present tenses throughout the post, sorry if it drives you nuts.
When You Least Expect
To set the current moment, I write this as I head back on the train, yellow screen and all (with f.lux all the way down, set for a 545 wakeup). Listening to spotify, and Jeremy Camp’s Walk by Faith comes on. I feel a bit dehydrated, my head is heavy. I’m in a state of part numbness and reservation, mixed with passionate energy. And here I will try to explain why.
A wild hour and a half just transpired.
I was heading out of the office at 840pm (hoping to get in time to vote), as I made my way just like usual to the corner of 33rd/Broadway by Greeley Square, to catch the F train. Right by the corner I come across what looked like a homeless person doubled over in pain. I stopped and tried to figure out what was going on, and asked the food stand dude nearby. “Do you know who s/he is? Has she come here before? Has this happened before?” (In her clothing/attire, it was not clear until I had learned her name—in fact, most after still, much to my correction, referred to her as ‘he’.)
I tried to ask her what is going on, but she remained largely unresponsive to questions I have. She managed to indicate, however, that she wants a hotdog. Someone nearby then bought her a hotdog, and as she sits down, she continues to seize up a bit in pain. Some others nearby shrugged it off, thinking it might be an act to get food. And while I admit I wondered if it was just a show, I knew that I couldn’t be certain of that, and it wasn’t for me to assume she was a charlatan—the downside of being wrong wasn't a risk to take.
I tried to talk to her, and asked her if I could get her to a hospital (I can’t remember exactly how I phrase the question), but she replied something to the effect of that she had gone the week before, and she didn’t want to go again. She had also mentioned the word seizure, and then later 'cancer'.
She then asked for some ice, and I dutifully got her ice from the food stand. I continue to monitor, asking her questions, trying to see if I could get her to a shelter or a clinic. I was hoping between the hotdog and the ice that she would regain strength. We told her we could call an ambulance, but she refused the offer. Things, however, took a turn for the very worse.
At 853pm, she begins to lose consciousness—literally looking like she is falling asleep. Her eyes nearly close, with a little of the ivory showing through. Another onlooker stands by, in horror/shock. The peace at which she seemed to lay down took me by surprise.
(Mind you, as this is all going along, most people continue to walk by, trying not to step on her. Without so much as an acknowledgement that it is a person on the floor you are trying not to trip on, not some inanimate obstacle.)
A few seconds exchanging some words with the onlooker and the food stand guy on the best course of action, I dialed 911.
Why the exchange? While I had thought to call 911, my reflex wasn’t to actually dial. There was a few seconds of figuring out if that was the right action forward. There were a few things to account for. Her initial refusal/reluctance to go in the first place—was this rejecting her her agency? Processing what had actually happened—did she actually pass out, or was she just in a state of resignation (for lack of a better word)? Those questions, coupled with the initial skepticism that was baked so thoroughly in NYC street-goers (there is nothing you can do, it might be a show, etc.) gave pause for a few seconds. It wasn’t a delay by any means, but the disconnect between the thought and the action is upon reflection highly disconcerting.
Was that—even for a few seconds—evidence of a deeper and dark part of my being that I’d rather not acknowledge? Is the difference between the person who helps the person who just walks by just a matter of a few degrees? Was I just repressing this natural dark inclination that would rather avoid action? Or have our good natures just been hardened by false prophets, lost hopes, and a sea of problems in a city seemingly too overwhelming to make a difference?
Running After Lorraine
After dialing up 911, I walked the dispatcher through what went down. The process was made difficult by a lack of information. As Lorraine seems to regain consciousness, I managed to gather as she mumbles in a low voice that her name is Lorraine and that she’s 53.
After I hung up with the dispatcher, Lorraine continued to regain consciousness. A short while after, I began to hear the sirens of the ambulance-they park right by Greeley Square. As I run over to the ambulances, I turn around and see Lorraine get up slowly and then begins to run/hobble down the other way towards 5th Ave with hotdog, a cup of ice, and her suitcase in hand.
My gut was to first quickly get the EMT, but after just a few seconds I looked back again and couldn’t see where Lorraine had fled. I tried to quickly get another bystander to help on the ambulance/police front, and give her my #, but to no avail (at this point my mind and mouth were probably running too fast). I turn back and dart down the block, and find her crossing over to the other side of the sidewalk about half way catch up to her. She refused to turn back—she didn’t want to go to the hospital. As I maintained pace with Lorraine, I tried to flag down people walking down the street, to give them my info to get the police and call me. No dice. And every person that I tried to stop to explain, Lorraine gained ground, and I couldn’t afford to lose her from my sight in a crowded NYC.
Words 'O Wisp
Throughout this entire process, but especially at this point as I trailed alongside Lorraine, I tried to offer Lorraine words of encouragement. I talked about how she has a ‘soul within her,’ how she can ‘overcome this,’ and ‘can heal.’ I talked about her potential, her strength, and so on. I told her how I believed in her, that I believed she could get the care she needed. I guess I was hoping that a word or two would get through, and she would realize that if someone believed in her, perhaps she could too. Or at least, that perhaps I was a person she could trust to help.
Italy, Amsterdam, and South Africa
Lorraine then stops at the corner of 5th and 33rd, as I continue to have her turn around to the ambulances. At this point, they have likely left, but I guess getting her back to a place with more benches and an open area by Greeley Square, that would be a plus. I spent quite some time there, trying to get her to walk back, as she continues convulsing quite badly, with what seems to be intense pain in her stomach. Three guys then come over and try to help, and it turns out they are all visiting (one from Italy, another from Amsterdam, a third from South Africa). Perhaps the NYC cynicism did not set in.
With her doubled over lying on her suitcase in the middle of the sidewalk, we all try to persuade her to lie on bench. She wouldn’t budge.
A guy who works nearby then came other to us and told us to let it be—we wouldn’t be able to help. At this time I’m just trying to keep her upright by keeping her suitcase in place ensure it doesn’t go down with her.
I told the worker we just simply couldn’t leave her. And like others I would talk to, he said how often these things happen, and that I should just let it go. The other three tourists were quite stubborn as well, standing by Lorraine’s side, but they, too, eventually left.
Into Traffic — Agency and Dignity
At one point as this was going down, Lorraine began to hobble over into 5th Ave, trying to cross the street—in an attempt, I gathered, to get to Wendy’s. Lorraine does this as her body is still doubled over, her eyes facing straight down. She wanted fries. I tried to have her turn around—I told her I’d get her fries if we headed back. But she refused.
Then, without notice, she starts heading into a sea of traffic. Whether she knew that there were oncoming cars that could have hit and killed her, or whether she knew but didn’t care, or perhaps she was testing me—whatever it is, I will never know.
Up until then I was trying to guide Lorraine’s actions with my words, to no avail. It was at that point, though, that for the first time I physically prevented Lorraine from going forward. There is something odd in not wanting to remove the agency from a person. It’s almost a matter of dignity. She doesn’t want to get care—who am I to get her care? She wants to go into traffic, who am I to prevent her? I wasn’t acting on a particular from a particular philosophical stance, though, and I let whatever drives instincts (cultivated through thought or not) dictate.
And while it pains me to say this [I would note that this thought now comes a day later], I can see an argument, perhaps from a consequentialist stance, that given a long term solution doesn’t exist now, these emergency steps to keep her alive will just prolong her pain and suffering in this world. From deontological stance, another might argue that making any of these decisions that diminish agency —regardless of the consequences—is wrong. Even if she may be in an impaired state.
But at the same time, I would see that in such extreme cases it is a matter of taking away a bit of agency in deference to the person’s dignity. That is, to treat someone with dignity is to recognize them as possessing a life worth living.
(This is no doubt similar to the case of preventing suicide or assisted suicide. I would argue, here, though, that this scenario is far less explicit. With the limited information available, to assume the person is simply self-destructive, and is trying to kill herself would be a far jump. Resignation from life is very different from rejection of life.)
Anyway, I clearly have not thought this through quite deeply (less than 24 hours to process, including with a train ride the next day to revise). But I’m going to stop to train of thought, and whatever contradicitons imbedded, and the thought at that.
Wendy’s and the Police Car
As the cars finally come to a stop and the crosswalk light turns green, I let her cross (by now the three tourist peeps have left), and she stumbles into the Wendy’s.
I try to talk and figure things out with the employees, but they don’t know what best to do, either. Then, a guy nearby, (Lecold), comes over and offers to help. Turns out he’s seen and helped out with similar situations in the past. Despite our pleading to get her care, we can’t manage to get Lorraine to do anything, her body folded over on her suitcase in the middle of Wendy’s.
Lecold and I then go out, with the idea he had of trying to hail a cab by 34th. As we were discussing a plan, we missed a couple of Police cars go by. We then decide to split up—with Leecole taking 34th, and I stationed by 33rd.
As I look for a police car, I keep an eye out for Lorraine from the window, making sure she is still in Wendy’s.
After a while, I finally see a police car. As it drives by, I step right by the side of it, but it whizzes by as I yell “police!”. I sprinted after it, hoping it would stop at a light, but it seemed to just pick up speed to make the lights.
I run back, and Lecold and I were stunned. There was no way the police could’ve missed me. I continue looking out for a police car to flag down, as Lecold continues now to make additional calls to the police (between him and other people he got to call, he called another 2-3 times). He explained to me that they wouldn’t come unless it was bumped up high enough on their priority list. Who knows.
Then, out of nowhere, a friend I knew from growing up in Jersey walks down the street. Here I was, trying to flag down a police car to get this homeless person convulsing in agonizing pain, in stark contrast to the comfortable and placid Jersey Shore home I came from. Two worlds so far apart, coming together.
Things go on, as I continue searching for a car, and then finally see another. This time, as the second one goes by I had enough lead time where I walked into the street in the path of the car as it was coming—to the point where they had to slow down (or if not, I'd have to jump out of the way I guess). And yes, they slowed down, rolled their windows down. They were both casually smoking cigars, and I guess my urgency and their nonchalent approach was quite the foil. I explained to the police officers the situation, and if more annoyed than anything else, they thankfully pull over. (I'd like to add that I am eternally grateful for their help and all they do.)
Coming to a Stop
The rest proceeds as you might expect. The policemen pull over, they call an abulance comes, and an EMT comes. Lorraine at first rejects the EMT’s offer to go to the hospital. But after cajoling, she agrees.
Lorraine makes her way to the ambulance, gets in, and the last words I say to her involve some inspirational platitudes I cannot exactly remember.
As we depart, I exchange emails with Lecold. I tell him if he ever needs anything to reach out, and he offers just the same.
A couple months ago I started handing out cards to some homeless people with my email to help connect them to resources/nonprofits I know. A few days in, I connected a homeless man to get some dental work, and over the period of about 24 hours some basic assumptions I had of homeless people were shattered. What it means to be homeless, and in describing Lorraine as ‘homeless’ muddles a lot of things up. Plus this whole 'helping' stuff can seem patronizing. At any rate, today, more core fundamental assumptions we questioned.
At one point I asked the policemen how often they see a case of this severity, and they said once a day. This was routine. And perhaps when you are around this kind of deep poverty, you become accustomed to it. And the fact that—as one nonprofit leader told me—NYC sustains a population of homeless people with all the wealth and services. In other cities, it simply wouldn’t be possible.
But whatever the harsh reality is of this world, perhaps what seems most dangerous of all is accepting that as something that has to continue going froward. Yes, we might not be able to change this very moment, but each new moment in the expanse of time is a new reality of which we can affect before it arrives.
Many I crossed paths with that night seemed to have accepted both the current reality, and our ability to change it. But it doesn't have to be that way. With compassion and by tapping into some of the strongest human emotions (whether channeling them as ‘rationalist’ effective altruist or otherwise), we can change things for the better.
Hundreds of people over the course of the night walked by Lorraine, there acknowdgement of her existence going so far as stepping around her. Whether because we’ve been numbed or just been taught to accept this is the way it is and will be.
A reality check is important. We need to stay grounded in the reality and facts. Yet, at the same time, retain the belief that whatever the fact might be, it is wholly in our power to change the next moment in time. The reality we face is a direct cause of our collective actions, and we are equally empowered to change the reality. The belief in our ability to change the state of affairs in the future is born from a self-fulfilling belief. (Some might be reminded of Steve Jobs’ Stanford address.)
Others might also find this related to what has been called the Stockdale paradox, named after the incredible American hero Admiral Jim Stockade who survived torture as a POW in Vietnam. As Jim Collins’ quotes from Admiral Stockade in Good to Great:
You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
So yes, accept reality in its totality, but the belief in your ability to change it going forward—the faith that we can positively impact the world for the better.Rock on,
P.S. Fitting for this all to go down on election day. Voting is about belief that together we can make a difference. And being able to vote is implicit confidence in that very fact.
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