When a stranger falls, what’s your duty?

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Bob Levey

On a nice spring afternoon, as I walked in a busy suburb, I was thinking about the important things in life (baseball and blues music).

Suddenly, I was face to face with what could have been a disaster. Twenty feet away, a man tripped on a jagged piece of sidewalk. He went down onto his right hip, hard.

I scurried over to him and offered him some help. I noticed that the man was at least 80, perhaps older. He was obviously dazed, and he wasn’t capable of getting up on his own.

He gave me both of his hands. I braced myself and pulled. Slowly, he rose and was able to stand, unsteadily.

He was breathing hard, but he was not bleeding, and he was not complaining of pain. He hadn’t hit his head. He probably hadn’t broken anything.

I asked if he was OK.

“I think so,” he said.

“Do you feel dizzy?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

I urged him to lean against the wall of the nearby Chinese carry-out until he felt better. He did so.

I asked if he wanted an ambulance.

“Oh, no, no,” the man said. “But I do get dizzy a lot,” he offered.

That sent my warning bells into a higher octave. I asked the man if he takes medication that might cause dizziness.

“I take eight pills every morning,” he replied — sort of answering my question, but sort of not.

I asked again if he wanted me to call 911. He waved me off. So I wished him the best and walked away.

Did I handle this incident the right way?

A piece of me thinks yes — if the only question is whether the man had the right to make all decisions about his own health.

I was a stranger. I have no medical training. I’m my brother’s keeper, but not my brother’s overlord.

But a bigger piece of me thinks I swung and missed.

The clues were all there — dizziness, disorientation, advanced age. Should I have insisted that the man go to the emergency room?

And if you think the answer is yes, what would have given me — a total stranger — the right to make that decision? Or is this what any caring fellow citizen could and should do, regardless?

I’ve floated this story past many people. Reactions are all over the map.

I’ve been lectured by several friends about minding my own business. “If someone says he’s OK, then as far as you’re concerned, he’s OK,” said one. “I don’t care if he was 80 years old. He’s a big boy. It’s his decision.”

Another friend wanted to fit me out for a halo. “It was great of you to ask him all those questions,” this friend said. “Most people would have crossed the street rather than get involved.”

Still another friend thought that the man’s age was a clear signal for me to do more.

“What if it had been a relative of yours?,” this friend asked. “When you’re 80, you’re not playing with a 52-card deck any more. You need all the help you can get. You were that help. Shame on you for not calling 911 right away.”

Then there was the friend who raised legal issues. “If you had called 911, you would have had to give your name,” this friend said. “Then you might have been sued for violating the man’s privacy. Or you might have been billed for the ambulance.”

When I called this friend an alarmist, he said: “I never do anything that could lead to legal action, no matter who I might be helping.”

Was the situation more difficult because the man wasn’t bleeding, or because he apparently hadn’t broken any bones?

I shouldn’t have looked at it that way. Any doctor will tell you that falls at age 80 are very dangerous, because they can cause internal bleeding. Also, older people are much more apt to break hips and legs, even if no break is immediately apparent.

At the same time, this wasn’t a car accident, a shooting or a fistfight. I’m a big boy, too. Given that the man wasn’t unconscious or delirious, I decided to back my judgment.

One friend had an especially interesting take on the story. He thought I would have called 911 if the victim had been a woman.

He thought a male code was operating here, regardless of the man’s age — if one guy tells another guy that he’s tough enough to handle something, the first guy is inclined to accept that.

I wasn’t conscious of any hormonal sub-plots, but....maybe.

Another friend thought that I should have asked the man if he lived nearby, or had a relative he wanted me to call. “Then you wouldn’t have had to choose between playing God and washing your hands of it.”

A nice notion — but sometimes you don’t think of everything in a moment of stress.

And one friend made me laugh, despite the seriousness of the issue. “Just be glad that you still have enough strength to lift an adult male off the deck by yourself,” he said.

The best news of all: No nearby hospital reported any admissions of any 80-something men later that day.

Even so, I think I could and should have done more. Better-safe-than-sorry is in the language for a reason.

In the meantime, whenever I walk past that Chinese carryout, I’m careful to step over the jagged piece of sidewalk. Better-safe-than-sorry applies to people who are still south of 80, too.

Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.