Could You Save a Life?

Most of us think we know what to do in an emergency. We don't.

I’ve been on vacation—something for which I’m profoundly grateful considering the state of the country and the world—but I had to share this experience. 

Let me start off by saying this story has a happy ending, so don’t fret. 

Last week, while eating at an outdoor restaurant, I watched people save the life of an elderly man who was choking. The short version is that a woman, on the phone with her doctor brother, yelled out instructions to her husband on how to properly perform the Heimlich maneuver. 

It was a very close call—so much so that I escorted my daughter away from the restaurant because it seemed likely that this man was going to die in front of us. But after several incredibly scary minutes, he was able to breathe again. 

While the man who was saved probably had some broken ribs—he also went to the hospital to get checked out because of how long he went without oxygen—he was talking and able to wave to clapping diners as he left. 

The couple who saved him, obviously, were absolute heroes.

But I was still left with a nagging feeling: Because in the middle of a serious emergency, the vast majority of people in that restaurant—myself included—didn’t know how to help. 

Despite how culturally ubiquitous the Heimlich maneuver is, for example, no one seemed to really know how to do it. We’ve all seen the Heimlich performed in dozens of TV shows or movies, and the posters on how to perform the maneuver are all over restaurants. If you would have asked me a week ago if I knew how to save someone who was choking, I would have said yes. But when faced with the actual situation, almost no one felt confident enough in their ability to step forward. 

This kind of hesitance in an emergency isn’t uncommon. A 2017 survey by the American Heart Association found, for example, that only half of Americans would be willing to perform CPR on someone for fear they wouldn’t do it correctly, or that they’d hurt the person. Some respondents trained in CPR even reported that they had been in a situation where they could have performed the life-saving measure but didn’t.

The other surprising thing that happened that night at the restaurant was an alarming sense of politeness. When it first became clear that this man was choking, the wait staff went quietly from table to table asking if anyone was a doctor. I didn’t even realize there was an emergency until my husband, who was on his way to the bathroom when he saw what was happening, yelled out loudly for help. I say this with empathy and understanding that folks went into fight or flight mode, but that reluctance to make a scene probably cost the choking man at least a minute of oxygen. 

I’m not sure that there’s a grand answer here; there will always be those who spring into action during a crisis, and others who freeze. But this experience made me realize how few people are truly equipped to save someone during an emergency—even though most of us probably think we are. 

Having a general sense of how to do the Heimlich or CPR doesn’t mean we’d be the person who steps forward. Realizing someone needs help doesn’t guarantee that we’d be able to sidestep our social discomfort to yell out in a public space. Our untested certainty to the contrary, I think, may be the real danger.