A stranger, twisted and bleeding on the sidewalk. What would you have done?

We think we know how we would intervene in a crisis. It turns out we're not great predictors of our own behavior

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 23, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Broken Glasses on the Ground (Getty Images/SEInnovation)
Broken Glasses on the Ground (Getty Images/SEInnovation)

I thought at first that it was a tangled pile of clothes, strewn in a heap ahead on the sidewalk. But then, a young duo passed me, clutching watery iced coffees.  And the long haired one met my gaze and said, "Can you call 911 for that guy up there?" It was a cloudless summer afternoon. I'd just finished eating an ice cream cone, feeling proud that I hadn't dripped any on my new blouse. The couple never broke their stride, gliding further and further away from the pile as I continued walking apprehensively toward a steadily spreading pool of blood from what turned out to be an elderly man, his limbs askew, unconscious on the ground.

I've never been a fan of the phrase, "If I'd have been there . . . ." I cringe at those "What Would You Do?" hidden camera shows that present unsuspecting individuals with moral dilemmas. I've been in too many split-second decision moments of my own; I understand that there is no certainty in hypotheticals, that so much within a real dramatic situation hinges on its surrounding details. What would you do . . . if you were running late for something else? If you were alone late at night? If you grew up on a farm? If you were on antidepressants? Of if you were, as I was that day, coming off a weekend of tending to a sick kid, and it was two and a half years into a pandemic?

"We all think that we would intervene and we would help."

"We all think that we would intervene and we would help," said Jennifer Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D., a professor and associate director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine and author of "Good Ethics and Bad Choices: The Relevance of Behavioral Economics for Medical Ethics." 

But the study of forecasting errors shows that when people are asked to speculate how they'll feel or behave about certain situations, "We often do a really poor job" of predicting our own responses, Blumenthal-Barby said. "It makes it easy for us to blame other people who don't intervene, because we think that we would have."

Scientific literature shows, and psychologists have demonstrated, that "we may not actually [intervene and help] if we're in that situation," she said. 

I was standing in the midst a grim, clear-cut tableau — a set of crumbling building steps, a scattered cane and pair of eyeglasses, a crumpled man in a baggy T-shirt and corduroy trousers. He wasn't moving. He looked like he'd broken a few bones. And the blood was not stopping. His white hair, his surgical mask and the entire left side of his face were already soaked in it, along with other matter I couldn't identify. What would you do?

I would have hoped that under such circumstances, I'd be noble and brave and quick witted. Instead, I pulled out my phone and looked at it dumbly, because I had completely forgotten how to dial 911. How to dial anything, in fact. Then I shook myself back to sense and called for an ambulance. I gave the exact address of the building the man was sprawled in front of. The operator asked for the cross street, and I told her that it was Broadway.

More than two years of pandemic protocols mean I don't really touch people anymore. I don't shake hands with strangers. I carry hand sanitizer. I wear a mask and I wash up as soon as I come through the front door. But as I waited for the ambulance, I sat down on the building's front steps, next to the glassy-eyed, very still man, and clutched the hand that was curled up closest to me. "Your ride's on the way," I said, helplessly. "Don't move." He didn't respond. 

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A couple with a dog walked by and asked if they could help. A pair of college students, at least I think they were, stuck around too. Other people walked past, seemingly oblivious. A tiny older woman stepped out of the building, and gasped at the scene. She said she didn't know the man but thought he lived downstairs. Someone — it might have been me, it might not have — asked her if she had something for his head. She went back inside and returned a minute later with a kitchen towel, paper towels, and a bottle of water. I took the towel, and held it gently, probably ineffectively, to the man's temple. The woman said she couldn't do it because she wasn't wearing gloves.

The man started to moan. "What's your name?" I asked, and he mumbled something. For the sake of privacy I'll say it was Sam. Then Sam groaned and tried to pull himself up. The college students steadied him by his shoulders so he wouldn't crash back down, and I knelt behind him, in case he did anyway.

Twenty minutes passed. Over the endless wait, I called 911 a few more times. Some others of our little group called too. "You said it was on Broadway," a dispatcher told me, and I felt my stomach drop. A bleating ambulance whizzed by a half a block away. The woman with the dog said her husband would flag it down. Her animal barked, confused at all the fuss.

I had very few coherent thoughts and even fewer productive ideas. I knew not to try to move Sam. I tried, with marginal success, to be calm and reassuring. I held his hand almost the whole time, and I will never know if that was for his sake or mine.

Eventually, an ambulance pulled up, and two sturdy men jumped out. "He says his name is Sam," I blurted. "Sam, are you on blood thinners?" one of them asked him. I looked behind me to the sidewalk. Sam's cane. His eyeglasses. His inhaler. A single sandal that had flown off his foot.

The paramedics loaded him into the ambulance, and I handed one of them Sam's stained, scooped up belongings. The man with the dog had started picking up wadded up paper towels. Then the ambulance door shut with a distinctive thunk, and I wondered a beat too late if I should have gone with Sam, or if they even would have let me.

I thought back to a few weeks prior, when I was in the emergency department with my teenaged daughter for a minor medical emergency. There had been a flurry of activity nearby when a stabbing victim was brought in. Later, my daughter asked her nurse how the patient was doing. "He'll be all right," he'd said casually. "And by the looks of what was in his backpack, he had it coming." Would the people who tended to Sam say that he had it coming too, based on the contents of his pockets? Would I have said the same, had I known anything of his life prior to the moment after he hit his head?

I looked down at the blood on my arms and hands, already dark and drying in the afternoon sun.

I looked down at the blood on my arms and hands, already dark and drying in the afternoon sun. Sam's blood. I felt suddenly, ominously contaminated. "Would you let me come inside and wash up?" I asked the old woman with the kitchen towel. She didn't say no. She didn't say anything at all; she just blinked back at me in silent refusal.

"It's OK," I said quickly.

She tried to hand me the bottle of water.

"You can have this," she said, but I told her I didn't need it.

I understand her reluctance. 

"Covid has done a lot of things to people psychologically," said Blumenthal-Barby. "I think it has definitely put them more on guard and more protective of themselves as individuals and their families, rightly so. But it becomes psychologically hard to think about when to turn that off sometimes. It becomes ingrained enough that it then becomes difficult in moments where maybe we need to turn it off, and engage and help other people where the risk is relatively low."

In the diner from "Seinfeld," no one looked twice at the blood splattered woman trying to make her way to the restrooms in the back. "There's a line," an aproned waiter explained nonchalantly when I said I needed to get in. The patrons kept on eating their eggs and burgers.

I turned around and walked to another restaurant, a very nice one with a very nice wine list that a friend used to take me when she taught at Columbia. In the quiet, dimly lit bathroom, I scrubbed up to my elbows. I splashed soapy water on my legs. And then I absently wiped away some snot from my nose and realized that my hands still carried the unmistakable, metallic scent of Sam's blood. So I just went home on a dirty train and cried and showered and threw my clothes in the laundry.

In the days that followed, I checked in with my doctor and got tested for hepatitis, HIV and COVID, just to be sure. I asked myself why I'd gone up that particular street, instead of the other one I'd intended to walk that afternoon. I thought about Sam incessantly. I wondered if the place on the sidewalk where I found him was still deeply stained, or if the rainstorm that had howled in the next day had scoured it clean. I wondered about the couple who'd told me to call 911, and whether they had their own vulnerabilities, their own reasons for not making the call. I wondered what would have happened if they hadn't commanded me, so clearly and directly, to get involved.

"We always think that somebody else is going to intervene so that's why we don't do it," said Blumenthal-Barby. "It's this common feeling when we encounter a situation where somebody's in need. That often gives us the justification to not do it."

On a different day, even a different moment, I would have handled the same situation differently. But I have thought lately about what I could have done better. Mr. Rogers said that in a crisis, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." I want to be one of the helpers. I need to figure out how.

Did Sam have someone who loved him out there, wondering why he was running late that afternoon? Would he have called 911 if the roles were switched and it had been me, knocked out on that sidewalk? Would he have capably staunched my bleeding, or walked on by? What would you do, Sam?

I want to know how he is. I worry about him. I recognize, however, that he's not mine to worry about, that his experience isn't about me at all. So I stay away. Yet I wonder what Sam would think if he knew that when he fell, he crashed into the path of a group of strangers and became their sole focus for 20 minutes. That he pulled together a disparate sextet who cared about him, briefly but deeply. And that just as quickly as they came together, they all went all their separate ways, melting back into the day with nothing but a blood-slicked sidewalk to show anything had ever happened there at all.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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