Last Saturday, my husband Ed and I stopped in a quiet neighborhood street near our home on our way to the Farmer’s Market. There were three garage sales in the same block, and lots of folks hunting for bargains.
Suddenly, we heard voices shouting, “Call 9-1-1!” I immediately started punching the numbers into my cell phone and looked around to see what the problem was.
An older man was crumpled in the street, his bike lying beside him on the pavement, a big gash on the side of his forehead under his bike helmet. Two women were kneeling down, stemming the flow of blood, holding him on his side so he could breathe. The man moaned a little and coughed.
I walked over, wishing I had already taken that first aid class I’ve been meaning to schedule, as my training is rusty. Thankfully, the women seemed to know what they were doing. “I’m calling right now,” I said. “Do you need help?”
“We are both registered nurses,” one of the women said, to my immense relief. “He hit a pothole and went right over his handbars.”
It seemed to take forever for the emergency operator to answer but it was probably just a few seconds. “We need an ambulance immediately,” I said, as soon as I heard a voice on the line.
“Where are you?” asked the emergency operator. Ed, knowing my sense of direction is poor, stood by to supply the answer. He then went to help stop traffic.
“What happened?” the operator asked.
“A man fell off a bike and hit his head. He’s lost a lot of blood. We need help right NOW!” I said urgently.
“They are on the way, ” the operator reassured me.
I passed this on to the two women, and they told the man,”Help is on the way.”
The women’s hands were full, so I stood with my cell phone, answering questions and passing information back and forth about the man’s condition: “… barely breathing … barely conscious … in bad shape….”
When a medical technician came on the line, one of the women reached out with her hand, and I gave her my cell phone so they could speak directly.
I then looked around to see how else I might help. Ed and a few other people were stopping cars.
A group of children at the garage sale across the street were trying to see what was going on. I walked over and said to the stunned adults with them, who were also watching. “This is not a good place for kids right now.”
“You’re right!” they said. “Thank you!”
The kids hesitated, and I explained, “A man got hurt. Help is on the way. Right now, it’s better if you stay over there.” I pointed to the toys and games piled up for the garage sale, away from the accident scene. The children moved reluctantly to the toys.
“I think I know him,” one of the women said, shocked. “Not well, but I’ve seen him riding his bike around.”
First a police officer, then a fire truck, and then an ambulance arrived. Each person was doing their best to save this man. The street was blocked, but families were still walking by on the sidewalk on their way to the garage sales.
The nurse who had taken my cell phone brought it back and thanked me. I wish I had thanked her as well.
Since this was the only thing left for me to do, I kept stopping families with kids, explaining,”This is not a good place for kids right now.” I knew that their children would have questions and might be sad – but there is a difference between knowing someone got hurt and actually seeing up close rescue workers struggling to save someone’s life.
One man looked at me blandly for a second and then moved his kids away. He came back and hugged me. “Thank you!” he said. “I didn’t understand.”
A very kind police officer asked each bystander what we knew about what had happened. “Is he going to be okay?” I asked.
“It doesn’t look so good,” he said gently. Ed took my hand. Like the others, we waited out of concern, and then, when it was clear there really was nothing else we could do, went on to the Farmer’s Market.
Later, we learned that the man had died, and that he was Stephen Pollard, a 75-year-old Santa Cruz “original” known to many local people.
Intellectually, we know that we are going to die – and that, no matter how careful we are, bad things can happen out of the blue. But for me, it is shocking when it happens so close to home, with someone I know or right in front of me.
One minute, Stephen was peacefully riding his bike in the sunshine on a level street with very little traffic, visiting garage sales as he often did on a Saturday morning. Within a few seconds, he was mortally hurt.
I felt glad that I was able to be a “someone” who called 9-1-1 — and sad that it wasn’t enough.
This experience is a poignant reminder that life is fragile, and we never know when we are going to die. Just in case, let’s all tell the people we love that we love them, often, even if we are annoyed with them. Let’s tell the people who are important to us exactly how they make a difference for us. Let’s make sure that people in our lives know we care.
And let this remind us that everyone is safer if we are prepared to prevent problems when possible and to take charge in an emergency. To be prepared, we need to make the time for ourselves and our children to gain and renew our knowledge and skills. This is what I teach in the areas of personal safety and violence prevention, but I had gotten behind in doing this with first aid. My First Aid, CPR, AED Pediatric-Adult workshop is now scheduled, since I would have worried forever about not having done the right things if those nurses hadn’t been there.
Finally, whether we know a little or we know a lot, let’s all be mentally prepared to step in when we see trouble. Sad as the outcome was, it was beautiful how a group of strangers gathered together immediately to do what we could to help someone we didn’t know, that we suddenly became a community who all wanted him to live.
—- Irene van der Zande is the Executive Director and Founder of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International and author of the just-released Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, which has a foreword by Gavin de Becker, best-selling author of The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift.