The Woman in the Wheelchair

Looking back over the past few months, the blog’s been pretty saturated with rants, opinions, commentaries, and whatnot.  So I figured I’d give my loyal readers a break from all that.  I imagine one can only take so much whining on topics romantic and medical.

So instead, I’d like to tell you a story.

I’m not entirely sure of the point of this story, I’d just like to get it down on paper, so to speak.  Get it out of my brain and off my chest.  I suppose you can take from it what you will.

I was walking to school in the late afternoon, taking my usual route.  I remember it pretty vividly – it was a bit cloudy, with patches of white-blue sky peeking through.  The temperature was quite mild, especially for this time of year, and the snow had transformed to greyish slush over the course of the day.

I tromped through the ER parking lot, as always, heading for the hospital entrance.  “Are You Gonna be My Girl” was thumping in my ears over the screeching bus brakes and ambulance sirens.  But as I neared the end of the parking lot, I noticed fluorescent yellow vests bobbing up and down, partially obscured by a row of cars.  Security folks.  Wasn’t unusual, I’d seen them checking parking meters several times before.

But as I rounded the corner, I could see they were on the sidewalk, nowhere near any vehicles.  I was curious.  Maybe there was a scuffle earlier?  Maybe someone’s purse was snatched?  Maybe just chatting and enjoying the occasional burst of sunshine?  I scratched my ideas quickly – by then, I was close enough to see that there were three of them, surrounding and hunched over something much shorter than them.  A few more feet and I could see a wheelchair in the center of the circle.

That’s when I noticed she was screaming.

The young lady in the wheelchair.  I hadn’t heard her over my iPod until I was close, about 30 feet away.  She was screaming and shouting for all she was worth at those three yellow vests.  “Leave me alone!  Don’t touch me!  Somebody – please help me –”  Then I could see her face, tight with fear.  She was absolutely convinced that these people meant her harm.  That she was being held against her will.  That she had to escape.  Every few seconds she would try to get up and one of the yellow vests would gently, but forcefully, push her back into the chair.  I saw a lady walking towards me actually stop out of concern, but she moved on after a few words with the vests.

If there’s one thing in this world I hate more than anything, it’s human suffering.  It appalls me.  And it hurts.  The wretchedness of that woman’s condition made me want to cross the street and walk on the other side.  As if putting distance between us would make her fear less real, less scary.  I immediately decided against it – not only would it look incredibly stupid, but I also wanted to test myself.  If I’m going to be dealing with suffering and illness for the rest of my life, I need to be able to at least come in close proximity to it without losing my composure.

That stabbing fear and gut-wrenching empathy grew as I closed the last few feet between us, but I steeled myself and forced myself to get a freaking grip.  I think I made eye contact with one of the vests and I nodded, trying to convey some sense of worry and sympathy for both them and the young lady.

Then I looked her in the eye.  I didn’t mean to, but I didn’t mean not to, either.  And for a second, I understood her desperation and terror, looking through the bars of her reflective yellow prison.

She began to scream at me, then.  Not just pleading with the air anymore, but directly begging me to help her.  Somehow.  Not as a doctor or a medical student or security personnel, just an unknown face on the street.  The strange mix of hopelessness, despair, and shame that followed… I don’t know if I could properly describe it.  All I knew was that I was unable to help.  She was going to continue to suffer as I passed by, seemingly indifferent to her overwhelming fear.

I turned away.

Unsettled, helpless, and conflicted, I turned away.

As I walked on, I slowly realized how terrified she must have been.  Three total strangers were holding her against her will, in broad daylight, on a public street, and with dozens of people passing by.  What kind of a mad world is that?

I’ve thought about her many times since then.  It still stings a bit.  And rationally, I know that she was in very capable hands and stopping to speak to her may well have made things worse.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I identified someone in need and failed to do anything about it.  Do I listen to my heart or my head?  Did I do the right thing?  Would I have done the same thing today?  Tomorrow?

I can only hope that, throughout the rest of my training, when someone asks for my help, I’ll have the skills and the capacity to do something.  To alleviate human suffering in some way.  Because that day, I just couldn’t.

 – Atalanta

Photo courtesy of: anankkml | 


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