Biomythography - Note 33
Stopping for Roadside Accidents
There I was, sitting in the back seat of a sports car with two pretty girls. Unfortunately, I was fifteen and I couldn't drive. My swim coach sat in the front with a pile of his coaching gear by his side. Otherwise, he would have sat me next to him, away from the young women. He seemed to consider himself a chaperone of sorts. He kept the conversations mild.
As he pulled through a stop sign, I hardly noticed. Brenda was sitting next to me, both of us in swimsuits although I had pants on over mine and she had a towel draped over her shoulders. I wasn't looking forward or backward but sideways. There was some sort of noise behind us while the girls were telling me something.
"What was that?" said Andy, the coach. He glanced into his rear view mirror.
"What was what?" I turned to catch his gaze. His eyes had gone wide.
"Look!" He pulled onto the shoulder and hit the brakes.
When I turned, I saw parts of cars lying all around the intersection behind us. There were other pieces of debris, too. After a second or two, I realized that most of the debris was people. I was looking at human bodies.
Andy fumbled with the latch for a second. His arms trembled. He got out of the car and focused on me.
"You're a lifeguard," he said. "Do you know first aid?"
"I do, too. Come on, let's get over there."
For a minute, we walked from body to body. Andy was careful to not make me touch anyone although I took pulses off of two wrists without asking him if I should. We tried to rate the severity of each person's bleeding. He was relieved that I found pulses both times I checked.
I noticed a small body, a long ways away from the accident but in the middle of the road. After looking back at my coach to catch his eye and nod, I started toward it.
"No!" he yelled. "Don't touch the kid."
After his shout, I took another look. In a second or two more, I understood what I was looking at. The unmoving form was a toddler who had been ejected out the front window of his parents car. I couldn't see the face. I didn't see the chest moving. No breathing.
"I'll do it in a minute," he said. "But there's no blood there. I don't think we should do anything except stop bleeding. We don't know enough. The ambulance is on the way. They can do the serious stuff, all right? Do you know how to make a tourniquet?"
"Yeah." Technically, that was true. I'd made bunches of them in Boy Scouts. I'd even participated in a first aid relay race where I tied on two tourniquets in a hurry.
"Go back to the car. Bring out some towels."
"We have someone trapped in her car. I'm going there next."
Back at the coach's sports sedan, the two girls I liked so much refused to give up their towels.
"You're going to get blood on it?" one asked.
"I guess so." It had never occurred to me anyone would refuse. I started rummaging through my swim bag. "That's the idea."
"Use your own."
When I returned, I had a towel too large to make a tourniquet, another one just the right size, and a cloth scouting belt with a military-style buckle adjustable to any length. At the direction of my coach, I went to the heaviest bleeder, who was still unconscious, and tried to make a tourniquet with the too-big towel. After a minute or two, I got the leg tied off. I'd done it exactly as I'd been taught in scouts. It looked about right. I felt sort of surprised.
"Can I help you now?" I called to him.
"No." My coach had kept talking with me off and on as I worked. It became apparent he didn't want me to see the body of a swim team parent even as he tried to help her. She sometimes moaned or fell quiet, as if dazed. Sometimes she spoke to him in a whisper. Her main problem was that she had been pinned by the crushed door of her car. Her legs were trapped inside the crushed steel and a sharp edge of it had cut her deeply. When I heard her voice, I could hear the pain in it.
The accident response in me had triggered my willingness, even at my constantly-contrary age of fifteen, to follow orders. Here I was, executing the instructions from a swim coach who I teased mercilessly for being so nice to me, nice to the parents, nice to everyone. Now he seemed like he was doing everything right. A sort of respect for him was blossoming in me. But I didn't have time to think about it.
He kept saying we didn't know enough. Of course, he was right. When I asked if I should put a tourniquet on another person lying in the road, an unconscious woman, he made sure I meant on her arm.
"Okay," he said. "I really hoped the ambulance would be here. But she's bleeding? I remember her. Lots of blood."
"And it's her arm. Go ahead."
By the time the ambulance arrived, I had finished the second tourniquet. I had kept direct pressure on the wound, too, until it stopped bleeding. Hands on hips, I paced in a wide circle and looked for something else to do. The coach insisted that I had to avoid doing anything I didn't know well and we both realized it meant not much more. The bodies on the ground, except maybe the child, were breathing. We had made sure they wouldn't bleed out. He had me watching for tongue-swallowing or other emergencies. When the ambulance crew got out of their vehicle, my coach did something extra nice. He told the men to come talk to him. He sent me back to his car. In that way, I suspect, he meant to protect me from the crew yelling at me if I'd done something wrong.
Back at his car, I stalked the ground outside the doors. After a few minutes, one of the girls apologized for not giving me her towel. I kept marching back and forth, watching the adults handle everything. All the time I'd been working, I'd been oblivious to them but some of the swim team parents had walked out into the traffic to prevent anyone from running me over or hitting the coach or the bodies on the street. I saw a team mom who I had thought of as ditsy standing in the middle of the road as a traffic cop. She was giving directions and talking calmly with someone who had gotten out of his car to stare aghast at the scene.
I'd been in car accidents before. I'd witnessed collisions. This was the first time I'd done anything about anyone being hurt. The incident still didn't make sense to me. But I admired the parents who had taken charge. They'd known what to do.
Although I had no way of foreseeing it, helping accident victims was going to become a habit. Getting into the practice was, for me, a product of the times. During the 1980s and most of the 1990s, there were no cell phones in cars. There were only bystanders. When you saw an accident, even on the other side of the road, you pulled over to help. You had to. At the least, you needed to check on whether anyone had driven off to make an emergency call from the nearest payphone.
"Not yet," is something I heard many times. "I meant to."
In some of those cases, the only thing I did was peel out make the ambulance call. If traffic wasn't too bad to make a return, I would let everyone know. Otherwise, if I couldn't come back, they had to trust me to do what I said. Surrounding most accidents were traffic jams, so there was a lot of trust going on.
Once, after an accident next to a mall in Hadley, Massachusetts, I helped the driver get out. We stared in fascinated horror as the underside of his car started to catch fire. The flickering orange flame began to spread. We looked at each other and backed away. I walked him to the nearest payphone and he made the emergency call himself. I waved to him and marched onward to the girl waiting in my car.
A year later, on a bridge to Northampton, I came across a car that the driver had managed to turn over onto its hood. She was stuck inside. But she said she wasn't hurt. After a couple of careful pulls, I managed to open the bent metal of her door. She popped her seat belt. (I remember being slightly amazed that she was wearing one. It wasn't usual at the time.) Careful not to hurt herself, she emerged with help from another bystander, who lifted her to her feet. Since we were at the foot of the bridge next to a gas station, someone else had already made the emergency call from a payphone. But she was glad not to be upside down for any longer, she said.
A lot of times, there were four or five other folks trying to help the victims. The first person on the scene usually would be the one coordinating us. That one would say something like, "Can you search the floor of the car for her wallet? It's not in her purse." It would become one of my chores. Sometimes a bunch of us would sort through items the driver wanted saved from the trunk. Or we'd re-package groceries and commiserate with the victim about the eggs or the tomatoes.
You had to leap in to help. A lot of people did. It wasn't everyone. There might be two hundred people watching from the traffic jam and only five of us commiserating with the victims of the accident. But I think in all cases, if there weren't enough helpers, others got out of their cars to join.
That's the way people are.
The situation is better now, faster and safer because everyone has a cell phone. But I'm glad I had the experience of needing to help and of seeing other people pitch in. There seems to be less reliance on strangers now and more reliance on the professionals who, after all, respond faster than ever.
But I'm glad I got to know this part of how people are.