“Where does it hurt?” I ask the young woman lying in the street.
“My leg,” she groans.
“My side,” the girl says, wincing. She’s having trouble talking.
“Can you breathe?” I ask.
“Not much,” she gasps. “It hurts when…..”
“Lie still,” I say, trying to sound comforting. “The ambulance will be here soon.”
I look up. A pale young woman is standing next me. Jeeped up on adrenaline, her right leg is involuntarily twitching up and down.
“Were you in the car too?” I ask.
“I was d..d…..driving,” she replies, stuttering from fear. “That car….. it came from nowhere.”
I look over at the wreck. Two midsize cars collided head on. I came upon the scene ten seconds after it happened. The driver of the other car, yet another young woman, is sitting on the opposite curb – screaming unintelligibly into her cell phone. A female bystander is trying to comfort her.
“Are you alright?” I ask the injured girl’s driver.
“I’m fine,” she says.
The driver looks uninjured but looks can be deceiving. I’m not an EMT, but I’ve seen people walk into emergency rooms claming they were fine and die ten minutes later from internal bleeding. I decide not to mention that little fact.
“Do you remember if you hit your head?” I ask instead.
“I don’t remember,” the driver says. “All I remember is the air bag.”
Suddenly a car horn blares. A driver in an SUV is trying to drive past the wreck. It’s rush hour. He’s got to get where he’s going and he doesn’t care if there’s an injured person lying in the street. In fact, there’s a bunch of cars lined up behind him waiting to do the same thing.
“Hey buddy!” a man shouts, jumping off the sidewalk and into the street. “There’s an accident here! You’ve got to turn around.”
The driver of the SUV honks his horn furiously and tries pushing forward. The bystander stands in front of the truck and holds his ground.
“You’re gonna get a flat tire!” the bystander yells. “There’s glass everywhere!”
The driver of the SUV leans on his horn but the bystander shakes his head. Realizing that he’s not going anywhere, the driver of the SUV cuts his engine and starts gabbing angrily into a cell phone. Another bystander, a tough looking old man, has taken up position on the opposite side of the wreck, directing traffic away from the accident.
“Hey buddy,” the old man shouts to me, pointing at the pile of twisted metal in the street. “Do you think those cars should be running?”
“No,” I reply. “I’ll turn them off.”
Stepping over the rivulets of gasoline and coolant following the downward slope of the pavement, I climb into the first car. The interior’s filled with vapor from the air bag’s propellant. I get some in my lungs and start coughing. My eyes tear up. My right hand fumbles under the steering wheel looking for the keys. The force of the impact has rearranged the car’s interior so the keys aren’t where I expect them to be. The car’s radio is defiantly blaring a Top 40 song. Trying not to breathe, I finally locate the ignition key and switch off the engine. The radio’s still blaring. The acrid smell in the car is so overpowering I decide against figuring out how to turn it off and get out of the car. After sucking in a few lungfuls of air, I hold my breath, climb into the second wrecked car, and kill its engine.
As I walk back toward the injured girl lying in the street I can hear the first police sirens wailing in the distance. The shock of the accident has worn off and the young woman’s really starting to feel the pain. She’s also starting to hyperventilate. An SUV with flashing lights pulls up. A thin police detective with an iron grey crew cut steps out. He’s holding a walkie talkie in his right hand. I walk up to him.
“Officer,” I say, pointing to the girl lying in the street. “That woman could have internal injuries. She’s having trouble breathing and she might be going into shock.”
The officer issues rapid fire instructions to the dispatcher over his walkie talkie. I can’t understand all the police jargon, but it sounds like he asking for paramedics, ambulances, and two tow trucks.
“Thank you for your help, sir,” the detective says. “Reinforcements are on the way.”
Within minutes the street is crawling with firemen and medics. Two policemen relieve the civilians of their traffic duties and detour the accumulating cars away from the accident scene. Two medics are busy stabilizing the girl lying on the pavement. It’s obvious she’s the medical priority. Another medic says something to a cop about broken ribs. Maybe the girl’s lungs are punctured. The other driver’s boyfriend has arrived on scene and is cradling her in his arms. A medic is gently trying to separate them so he can examine her. There’s nothing left for me to do. The professional rescuers are here. I’m just getting in the way. I get in my car and drive off.
As I head toward my destination, I think back to an accident I had several years ago. Not wearing a seatbelt, I cracked my head on the windshield and almost passed out. Stumbling out of my car and blinded by the blood dripping from my head, I tripped and fell into the street. A couple of bystanders propped me up against my car, gave me some water, and did their best to control the bleeding until the ambulance arrived. Someone held my hand. I remember my right leg twitching from the adrenalin and fear coursing through my system. In the end I got away with a mild concussion and several stitches.
But I’ll always remember how those strangers stopped and helped me – how good it was not to lie in the street alone and afraid. It was a reminder that, in times of trouble, you don’t always have to wait for the professionals to make a difference. In the end, when you think about it, we are the reinforcements.
We can all be Batman.