As I went to get into my car and away from the accident scene, one of the police officers who responded shook my hand and thanked me for helping out. A woman who also came to the aid of the victims thanked me as well. “We need more people like you,” she said. The cop said something similar.
For the first time in a long time, I answered with “you’re welcome” instead of “it was nothing.”
About 45 minutes earlier, as I was driving on I-83 out of Baltimore, a blue car lost control on the far right lane. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that it was coming straight at me. I also remember checking all my mirrors and seeing that there were a lot of cars behind me. A concrete barrier was to my left with no place for me to maneuver. So I stepped (more like stood) on my brakes.
If my Jeep doesn’t stop on a dime, the blue car plows into me from the right. As fast as we were going, who knows what kind of force exchange would have happened. Who knows if we would have ended up on the other side of the interstate. All sorts of engineering controls to save us would have gone out the window then, no pun intended. Instead, the car hit head-on onto the concrete barrier. I was able to maneuver around the debris and stop right behind them.
As I grabbed my phone and dialed 911, I ran out of the Jeep to check on the people in the car. The passenger, who I think was not restrained, had hit the windshield just as the air bag went off. The driver climbed over her and out of the car in a daze. He asked immediately if he could lay in the back of the Jeep. I told him to go ahead. Then a woman who stopped to help (on the other side of the highway) and I helped the passenger out of the car and on to the back of the car.
I thought the car had caught on fire, but my brain quickly did the math and told me that the radiator had exploded and that the sweet smell from the “smoke” was the engine coolant in the steam. That’s why I was perfectly comfortable with the passenger staying right behind the car. I did ask her to sit down because she was hyperventilating and complaining of chest pain. If she passed out, she would have hurt what she already had even worse.
A few years ago, when something horrible happened in my family — something I still don’t like to talk about — my cousins and relatives thanked me for being there. I told them it was nothing, that I had done what anyone in my position would have done. A few weeks after that, a woman was hit by a car right in front of Hopkins Hospital. I ran out of the Jeep and held her while fire and EMS arrived. (Her leg was bent in angles that legs shouldn’t bend.) Then too, I said it was nothing for me to be there for her. And a few weeks after that, a man fell off a metro platform onto the rails. Another man and I jumped in to get him and get him out. I also said it was no big deal.
As I looked around today and saw that only that woman (and another man who left almost immediately) and I had been the only ones to stop and help this couple, and saw that probably hundreds of people drove by before fire, police and EMS arrived… As I saw all this, I started to understand that Good Samaritans are not a dime a dozen. They’re actually kind of a rare breed.
Yes, I had to stop because I was about to plow into them, but there were three cars behind me who just drove around and drove away. So, no, not everyone or anyone would have stopped to help these folks. At the metro station, the man who helped me get the victim out of the rail well was the only one of about a dozen to help. The others just stood and watched. And when that woman was hit, I was the only one holding her hand and comforting her. Everyone just gawked.
As I drove away from when the woman was hit, I called my wife and cried — literally cried, tears and all — into the phone, telling her how much I hated, absolutely hated, everyone for just standing there. No one came over to see how they could help. It wasn’t until a police officer ran over that he radioed for help. The woman who was driving the car at fault was on her own phone, calling someone to tell them that she (HER, THE DRIVER) needed help because she wasn’t going to jail again.
The selfish gene was strong with that one.
In that anger, in that absolute rage I felt at all the people who just stared and/or went on their way, I started to understand things a little bit. But it wasn’t until today that it finally clicked. Not everyone is the Good Samaritan. Some people are the robbers. Some are the Levites. Others are the priests. Others are the ill intent.
My entire life, I’ve been given a set of skills that allow me to be there for others. From first aid training and CPR, to the ability to speak slowly and calmly to someone in unimaginable pain, I’ve been given these gift, and I best put them to good use. Just like I use my ability to solve puzzles, see patterns in the noise, for public health, I will use my ability to be there for others. I’ve been trained and I have chosen to be the Samaritan, and I won’t minimize it.
I’m also not going to boast about it. This might be one of the few posts where I tell you what I did.
An epidemiologist who saw something coming — which would turn out to be Ebola — once said, “Please, God, don’t let it be what I think it is. But, if it is, let it happen on my watch.” I like it.
ps: Big, big thanks to the Baltimore City Fire Department, EMS, and Police who responded to the accident and behaved completely professionally. They are heroes every day, rain or shine.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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