Helping some guy who was having a heart attack – and thoughts on our duty of care

Last Sunday my wife and I were out for a walk along the Hutt river, which flows into Wellington harbour. It was a pleasant autumn morning. And then we found someone lying at the bottom of the stop-bank.

He looked derelict. He might have been sleeping, or maybe drunk or something. But he didn’t look right, so I ran down the slope and called to him.

The Hutt river, looking south towards the rail bridge. Usually there's a lot more water in it than this.
The Hutt river and its stop banks.

He stuck his head up and for a moment there was nobody in his eyes. He had, he said, just been discharged from hospital. He was on his way home, though the suburb he named was in the opposite direction. Then I saw he still had ECG leads on his chest.

‘I’m going to call an ambulance,’ I said. He didn’t like that.

‘I don’t want to go back,’ he wheezed. ‘Want to help me? Gimme ten bucks and I’ll get a taxi home.’

‘No, you need medical help.’

He didn’t want medical help. After a bit of debate I finally said:

‘Look, I can’t not help you!’

He didn’t look cyanotic, but he was agitated and incoherent, obviously having a cardiac episode. I went back to my wife, told her what was happening, and we called an ambulance. They arrived within five minutes and took him back to hospital. I hope he was OK.

The moment got me thinking about ethics and morality and that sort of thing. We were infringing on his right to be left alone if he demanded it – and he was demanding it. He was pretty aggro about it too, which may have been symptomatic of having a heart attack. Or maybe in his own mind he was tired of life. I don’t know. Certainly, I am sure, he was tired of being in hospital.

But it wasn’t a moral dilemma for me. He was in serious trouble. He was in pain, his life was possibly on the line. There was no decision to make. He had to be helped, and the best way wasn’t to call a taxi and send him home – it was to get medical support. Fast.

These things are not optional.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014



21 thoughts on “Helping some guy who was having a heart attack – and thoughts on our duty of care

  1. Hi Matthew, I think it was good of you to help me. Me being a storyteller and watching a ton of films – On the run springs to mind. He seems to have fled from the hospital. Do you know if he had been convicted of a crime and that’s why he didn’t want to return to hospital? Or that someone may have been after him? Did any of these thoughts cross your mind?

    1. I think he might well have discharged himself from hospital. Or he might have been discharged only to have the issue reoccur quickly – our public system is pretty heavily pressurised and I know they’ll throw people out early if they have to. I got the impression he had a chronic problem, and I think his motive was that he was just plain sick of being in hospital. It never occurred to me that he might be on the run – he looked rough, and had tats, but I took what he said at face value.

  2. You made the right call. He wasn’t in a fit state to make the decision so you stepped in and helped, in a way any sensible person would have done. I hope he survived to feel grateful to you.

    1. I hope he survived too – that’s the thing about helping random strangers…they get taken off by the relevant people and you never do find out. But it was important – and he was, indeed, in no fit condition to make decisions for himself (though he hadn’t realised the point).

  3. Good for you doing what you did. Caring should always come first. You cared. You acted. The alternative was to not care. There’s more than enough of that in the world. Given that, for whatever reason, the man couldn’t/wouldn’t thank you, then I shall. Thank you.

  4. You did the right thing. My friend (86 years old and still sharp) had an episode almost one year ago. I had stopped to pick her up for church. She was alert but agitated. I wanted to take her to the ER instead of church, but she refused. I honored her wishes. She wanted to go back to bed. I made her comfortable and went to church where I asked for prayer for her. I checked on her later. She said she felt better, but on Monday she went to her doctor. It turns out her potassium was too high. That doesn’t happen very often. After she was better and brought the subject up, she never remembered the tries I made (at least 3) to get her to go to the ER. Luckily, it worked out well, but I told her I would not listen to her the next time she told me ‘no’. If I thought she needed to go, she was going!
    Thank you for stopping. It amazes me when I watch videos of people who walk past and do nothing. I was especially appalled at the story I heard about the news reporters at Princess Di’s crash who did nothing to help her. They took pictures as she died and never called for help.
    Congratulations on being a hero.

    1. We almost did walk by purely because the guy looked like he was simply resting. He hadn’t collapsed, exactly – he’d had time to settle himself down with his head on his hands, and people do occasionally rest on the riverbank. But it didn’t look right to me. There was something wrong, I couldn’t put my finger on it – so I really had to check. And, of course, once I’d discovered his problem – well, there was NO option but to act!

      I can’t understand these stories of people who don’t – who walk past somebody who obviously needs help. I guess the worry is that helping might create a legal liability for them. I’ve heard stories of this happening. It’s kind of sad to think that we can be punished for being Good Samaritans. Typifies the way humanity can intellectualise itself away from proper moral compass. The media who were there when Princess Di crashed were a whole step further down the ethical drain – an utterly disgraceful performance. Here in New Zealand it’s an offence to fail to give assistance after a motor accident. They’d have been charged.

      1. This last part of your comment also brings up the issue of people who’d rather stand and tweet or instagram the accident rather than giving help. Not really an issue with your experience, but with more “dramatic” incidents it’s shockingly common.

        1. It is, alas. In point of fact, we both had our phones on us – my wife used hers to call the emergency services when I reported back that we should. It never occurred to me to “memorialise” the moment – nor would it have been right. I put a fair amount of thought into whether I should mention the incident on my blog (hence the week’s delay) but felt, in the end, that it was appropriate to raise it in context of the wider issue of our general duty of care for others. Help that you or I would do straight off, but as you point out, these days others don’t – often for such dismal reasons as wanting to photograph somebody else’s misfortune. It worries me that moral compass can be so easily distracted, via the artifice of technology, and I think society needs to discuss these issues.

  5. Good on you Matthew. He’s have to be a bit crazy to pull the tubes out and leave hospital. Glad he didn’t sock you one.

  6. Good for you Matt, Far too many people would have just kept on walking. The measure of our humanity is our compassion for those in need. I left the EMS business many years ago as a jaded young man. But, thankfully, I have since been tested numerous times and still react appropriately when faced with someone in real need.

    1. The hard part was that the guy absolutely didn’t want to be helped. That made it may problem because there was no way I was going to just leave him without assistance. I don’t know how many others on the riverbank that morning just walked by. In their favour, the guy did just look like he was asleep to a casual glance.

      1. It is hard when they don’t want help, but need it. There is a fine line between providing assistance and harassing. Sometimes it’s best to just wait until they become unconscious. then you have implied consent. It’s a little harsh. but if it’s that serious. we do what we must.

        1. What worried me was that he was getting very agitated in his denial of help and I didn’t want to compound his problem with stress. Very difficult. But as you say we have to do what we must. He never lost consciousness. In the end, when the ambulance crew arrived, he accepted their help. That choice was a relief as far as I was concerned.

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