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If a person had the desire to save someone, like an angel who arrives and keeps a soul among the living just before the inevitable descent into eternal darkness or the journey to the place of light – they have only to travel the New York City subway at about 8:30 in the morning on any given weekday, and at west 4th Street they will have 2 opportunities, then at 47th-50th Street at least one more, without any doubt. In each of these places they will find a person wrapped in coats or blankets, immobile, silent, eyes closed. Are they alive? I pass this way every work day and I do not know the answer to the question. I think they are sleeping, but I’m not sure.

Now I know what I could do to find out. But would I?

What do you do when you see someone you think might be dead, but you’re not sure?

  • Give them a good strong poke and yell, “Are you all right?”
  • If they don’t respond and seems like they aren’t breathing, yell for help and ask someone to call 911 and get an “AED” (that’s to give a hefty shock to restart the heart).
  • Then if you know how to do CPR, that’s what you do. If you don’t know how, think about learning soon.

I took CPR, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and AED, automated external defibrillator, training last week at work. That makes me one of 12 million people the American Heart Association, AHA, trained in CPR in the past year. Did you know less than 8% of people who have a heart attack survive, unless they’re in the hospital when it happens? I didn’t. CPR increases the odds of surviving if your heart stops. It keeps blood flowing to the brain until the rescue crew gets there with better life support. If you know how to give the AED shock, this can restart the heart and save a life too. I learned how to do this in the training but haven’t given a real shock myself.

At an emergency above ground, if someone fell unconscious and unresponsive how would we rush to the scene? How would we see if the person would awaken and if they could yet be saved? Would we speak to see if the person would respond? Would an emergency tech arrive and shine a light in the eyes or pull back the eyelids or feel for the pulse of the heart pumping blood beneath the skin? Would alarms sound and traffic part to carry the unfortunate soul to medical care and hope and family and their future?

When I lived in West Philadelphia in the late 1980’s, I worked with homeless people cooking and serving meals together at St. Mary’s Church although I wasn’t a member of the church at the time. Then, I knew what to do to help – lots of different things from bringing clothes to listening to stories, writing letters to those in jail, shopping for vegetables for the free community meals.

Dennis Brutus, the South African poet who helped me with my writing, wrote to me at that time, “Any artist who shows no concern for the homeless reveals soullessness.

At the subway exit in New York City where I live now, day after day I pass by people who lie there. Day after day they are concealed, immobile and silent and no one I see speaks to them, and no one I see shines a light – and I don’t. No one I see reaches out to them with touch, that life saving connection, to lift them and us up out of the underground tunnels where we seem to have already been buried without a ceremony or tears, still partly alive. And it seems tragic that even after being trained, I wait for an emergency to use what I think I now know.

What would you do?

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