Sunday, 27 November 2011

The man on the platform

As I stepped off the Tube and headed for the exit I saw him.  A fifty or sixty-something man in a suit, carefully placing his belongings in a pile and then lying down beside them on the ground.  By the time I reached him there were only a handful of other people on the platform.  Plenty more had already walked past him, oblivious to this man sprawled on the floor, with his arms over his head, clearly in some pain and distress.

Two young women were hovering near the man, asking tentatively if he was ok. This was a question that did not need an answer.  'Should I call an ambulance?' one asked him.  He nodded weakly, his face white and sweaty.  I returned to the platform where a station attendant was changing the posters along the platform; 'Excuse me, there's a gentleman here who needs some medical help.'  He finished struggling with his papery task and headed over to join our little huddle on the now empty platform.  The two women dashed off to dial up the emergency services, whilst the attendant adopted a facial expression which indicated he had clearly seen this all before.  Getting down on the ground next to the man he established the man's name and the fact he had a heart condition, rearranged him into the recovery position, and radio-ed upstairs to alert the rest of the station's staff.
As the attendant spoke into his crackly radio and shortly departed for the ground level control room, I was left with the poor man, crouched on the cold, dusty station floor, trying to keep him in the recovery position as he rolled backwards and forwards clutching his chest.  I talked to him, trying to calm him down, explaining why he needed to try and stay still and why we could not do any more to alleviate his pain until the trained medical professionals arrived.  He told me where he had been and where he lived, gasping out his words as he fought for breath.  For several minutes we two people were alone on the platform, and then another train pulled in.  Blocking the exit as we were, numerous commuters hustled towards us, most of whom gave neither of us a second glance - this older gentleman in what now looked like severe pain, and this young girl who knelt by him probably looking rather terrified.  Someone asked if we'd called an ambulance or if we needed any help, but the majority of people swept past keen to get home to their warm houses, where no stranger in distress threatened their comfort.  

Time crept by as I and the man awaited the paramedics.  Another train-load of people passed us by, some trampling a little too close for my own personal safety, rubber-necking but unwilling to take any responsibility for what they saw before them.  Then silence again.  A minute or two later I heard a radio crackle, and two paramedics dressed in green arrived, all jolly and jokey.  'Hello!  Who have we got here? Is he your dad?' one asked me.  I admitted that until about twenty minutes ago I had never seen this chap before in my life.  Once the paramedics were there however I breathed a sigh of relief.  Here were people used to dealing with strangers in need, something I most certainly was not.  The tension in the tunnel dispersed, as the paramedics conducted tests, joked about the man's luck at being found by 'such a pretty good samaritan', extracted further information from the man and stabilised him.  Despite his protests that he would rather spend a couple more hours lying on the floor of the station, the paramedics, now aided by two more colleagues, hoisted the man into an e-vac chair and pushed him towards the elevator. They picked up their large crash bags and I gathered up the neat pile of belongings which he had deposited when he was first taken ill.  'Ooh thanks! You'd be amazed how many times things like that get left behind.' laughed the paramedics as I placed them in the back of the ambulance once we were above ground once more.

'Thank you' the man said as the doors of the ambulance closed on him.  Once he had got his breath back down in the station he had repeated it over and over.  'Don't worry about it. It's no problem!' I'd said, and smiled in what I hoped was a reassuring way, that didn't convey how unsettled I had been by the whole incident.  What I didn't say to the man was 'When we were alone in the tunnel I hoped you wouldn't die because I wouldn't know what to do.'  I didn't say the thing that haunted me afterwards as I walked home, which was 'One day that might be me on that floor'.  As a sufferer of migraines that leave me half blind and unable to speak properly, I have often worried about what would happen if one struck on the Underground.  And maybe that was partly why I stopped to help the man, in the hope that my actions might accrue some karma points that I might need to cash in sometime.  If I were to collapse in a subway station I would want someone to stop and find out what was wrong, to get me help and to stay with me. I would want someone to find out who I was.  I would want them to make sure my coat and handbag were not just abandoned on the platform, but came with me when I left.  I would want more than anything not to be alone.  And that was the main reason I could not just walk on by, because being alone somewhere in a city where there are hundreds and thousands of people all around you is somehow so much scarier than being alone in a place where you are truly on your own. 

12 comments:

  1. It always amazes me how lost someone can get in a city. The mentality of the next guy will help is so rive, it's one of the main things that scared me about city living.

    I would've done exactly the same as you. After all, as you said-i would hope that if anything like this ever happened to me, i would want someone to do the same with me!

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  2. It always amazes me that people can walk by without offering help. While I think that your migranes gave you empathy, I find it hard to believe that you only helped him in the hope that someone will return the favour if you need it. I think you would have helped anyway.

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  3. You're right, Rachella - I would like to think that I would have helped anyway. In fact, the thought that one day it could be me only really came to me after the incident as I walked home.

    But I find it fascinating that some people are capable of turning a completely blind eye to something like that. And you wonder if, unlike myself and Twad'dler, they have just never considered the opportunity that one day they might be in a similar position.

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  4. I don't know if you earn any karma, but you certainly earn my admiration. Good for you.

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  5. What an amazing and lucky tale! I agree, Karma will come back to you ten-fold. I'm so glad you were there to help him.

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  6. Ah, the joy of living in a big city...Sometimes I think that someone could die next to me and no-one would lift a finger to help. Very weird.
    On behalf of the older part of the population, I thank you for your good deed!

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  7. Well thank you, Angusm. I wonder whether New Yorkers would react similarly to such a situation or whether Londoners have their own peculiarly detached way of interacting with their fellow citizens.

    I guess it depends whether you believe in karma or not, Ariel. Plenty of people don't, but I think I do. (Maybe it's wishful thinking...)

    MuMuGB, don't be silly - you most certainly do not count as 'the older part of the population'! But thanks anyway.

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  8. I'm so glad you did what you did, I hope this man is okay and I am sure he will remember you forever! It is very disturbing that people walk by, I am really happy you didn't. Once I was lying on the floor outside a doorway in Covent Garden (no drinking involved and it was daytime!), I just went into this really dramatic low blood sugar faint type thing. It sounds stupid and it obviously wasn't life threatening like this poor man, but I actually couldn't seem to stand up long enough to queue to buy anything to raise my blood sugar. Luckily I was waiting to meet a friend anyway and she turned up, but in the meantime everyone completely ignored me. It didn't matter luckily, but it could have been something worse. They looked quite scared, as if I must be somehow a drunk or troublemaker. I can understand how people get like that in a dangerous city, but I don't think that really cuts it, especially when people who obviously are not a threat like the gentleman you helped ( or frankly, me) are ignored. I hope none of your fears come true, I promise you I will try to react like you did so if you collapse on the tube and I'm around you'll be okay! I have a friend who collapsed in Nottingham with a blood clot, and after a while one lady stopped and got her to hospital. Lots of people hadn't. She just survived, any longer and she wouldn't have. Now she is well and has her first grandchild, all because thankfully one person stopped. I just cannot fathom why when a well dressed lady in her 60s collapses people don't help, they can't claim fear. It really is scary. Not saying you shouldn't help the suspicious looking, but when we can't even see that as a motive for not stopping it is quite sinister. Sorry about long comment! By the way, I think you/anyone likely to help would have done the compassionate thing anyway, not for karma!

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  9. This all reminded me of a book I read a while ago, called 'Influence', about why people do things.

    One of the chapters looks at why large groups of people sometimes ignore someone who's in trouble - it seems quite a lot of research and experiments have been done on this.

    It suggests this comes down to 'social proof' - the idea that for lots of our decision-making, we (normally sensibly) rely on seeing what others are doing, particularly if we're not sure of the situation. So, if it's not clear whether someone's in trouble, then we see how other people are reacting - but probably try to do so without losing our poise, or showing we're concerned. Others are looking at us, and seeing that we're not reacting. And the whole thing becomes self-reinforcing.

    This obviously happens when there's other people around - and the very fact that there are other people who could help also dilutes the sense of personal responsibility. So ironically large groups of people often don't help because of the fact that there's lots of them, not in spite of it. And the research also shows that this effect is much stronger if you're with strangers, rather than friends (where it's much easier to say 'have you seen that guy collapsed over there, do you think he's ok…?'). All of this is most likely to happen in a city, where we're surrounded by strangers all the time.

    I went back to remind myself of a few of the facts they had. One experiment in NYC found that someone who appeared to be having an epileptic seizure received help 85% of the time when there was a single bystander present; but only 31% of the time with five or more bystanders. The good news is that we're much better when it's unambiguous that there's an emergency, and no room for doubt (as Lucy says, with someone collapsed people might think they're a drunk - you might not really believe they're a drunk, but you've at least got room for doubt, and by the time you've thought about it you've gone past). In an experiment in Florida where a maintenance man was obviously hurt, he got help 100% of the time, and 90% of the time even when helping involved potential contact with dangerous looking wires.

    Anyway, the book draws a few conclusions. One is that it's not that people in cities are less human, less kind, or whatever - it's just that they're most likely to be in the circumstances where social proof and diluted personal responsibility mean they're less likely to help.

    The second, more practical, one is that if you're ever in such a situation, there's two things you have to do. First, remove the ambiguity - so shout help, or something, so people know you need it. Second, if lots of people are around, then you need to make someone feels personal responsibility - so, if you can, point at a person and identify them: "hey, lady in the red dress, I need help." The author of the book talks about an instance after a car crash where he did this, and people immediately helped.

    Even better, social proof should then work for you - people see one person helping, and will do the same. But having said that, this hardly seems to have happened at all in Accidental Londoner's experience, with only a few other people stopping to help… And despite all the above, I do think there's something particularly dehumanising about the tube - I know that when I'm down there, a lot of the time I don't even really think of myself as a person, let alone as having personal responsibility. That might be the worst place to be in trouble.

    Finally, the other conclusion we should draw from this is that it's even more impressive that Accidental Londoner stopped to help that man - beating not just TfL syndrome, but also all of the rules of social proof. Obviously you're an independently minded sort. And if there is such a thing as karma, you get double helpings for this one!

    Oh, and sorry for the even longer post!

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  10. Gosh poor you, Lucy. But you raise a key point - we are now all so suspicious of people in the city who may wish to take advantage of us that we're reluctant to help people in need.

    And clearly we are all affected by this 'social proof' too. Thanks for sharing this fascinating phenomenon, Fastestloser. Wow, you seem to know your stuff, maybe there's a whole blog post in this that you should write!

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  11. Good on you - glad to know there are people like you out there as there are a few too many of the "walk on past" crew.

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