No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

park-90476_640 Several days ago while going to meet a friend for Happy Hour, I drove through a nearby park. The changing fall leaves, the sun setting over the mountains on the horizon, the wide expanses of lawn were perfect for the mild weather. No season can beat autumn in Denver, and nothing in particular crossed my mind.

Until I spotted the grungy man crouched on the curb by the bus stop. Unkempt men, and the occasional woman, are not uncommon in this park in the central city, and town dwellers usually follow the “live and let live” mandate. But it was obvious this fellow was in trouble. He was mumbling to himself, swayed in all directions, and obviously couldn’t stand unsupported; so I pulled over and called out the window. “Do you need help?” “Yes” was the answer.

At 6:10 I dialed 911 to report the incident. When given the choice, I said the man appeared to need detox more than a regular ambulance. As evening fell and the skies grew dark and temperatures dropped, I waited. And waited. And waited. I made two more contacts to 911 (changing the request to an ambulance as it seemed that might respond more quickly), while a young couple on an outing with two children also called.

Compounding my frustration, on my second inquiry, the operator scolded me for “shouting.” Sorry, but when I’m worried, upset, and frantic, my voice goes up, a not uncommon reaction. It was obvious to me that this operator (and others I’ve encountered) lack elementary training in human responses to frustration.

The man muttered and swayed, sometimes seeming to communicate, others not. Vehicles, now with headlights on, sped by. Real concern that he’d struggle to his feet and land in the street to be run over made me linger. (Advice in these situations is to never leave the person alone.) Finally, at close to 7 p.m., more than 45 minutes after the first call, the emergency personnel showed up. Yes, they answered my question, detox incidents take lowest priority.

Why did I bother to stop? I’ve always felt people have an obligation, a mutual trust, to help one another. That’s what makes us human. I also made a personal pledge years ago not to wait for the other guy to act. (See “My Family of Heroes”) Guess I’m not too old to learn different.

My mistakes:
• Identifying the need for detox rather than medical.
• Hanging around to insure no one ran over the man.
• Believing that emergency personnel are supposed to respond in a timely manner.
• Stopping in the first place.

I spent the rest of the night depressed and angry. I don’t want to believe that life and death don’t matter except to the victim. I don’t want to agree with pessimists that government can’t manage any service efficiently and humanely. I don’t want to assume that individuals who are poor, homeless and substance abusers are worthless.

But following my recent experience, I’ve got to think about it.