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Karen O'Keefe of "On Second Glance"

About On Second Glance

Karen O’Keefe has been a freelance writer in Atlanta, GA and Montgomery County, MD, since 1984. Prior to that time, she worked for a committee in the U.S. House, a public relations firm and as a Congressional press secretary. Since 2003, O’Keefe has been a regular news reporter and columnist... Read more

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Man on the Street

A man I know is seeing a neurologist. He recently lost consciousness — suddenly and for an unknown reason — while walking in Rockville. Now he says his neurologist is doing some  intensive MRI studies, beginning to explore and feel around the edges of his brain, carefully tiptoeing in on the few neural paths the specialists understand.

Back to his losing consciousness… After ten minutes sprawled on a busy sidewalk in the middle of the day, he regained consciousness and walked to a place where he had friends.  They called an ambulance, which brought him to a hospital, where he received excellent care.

I have to ask myself. If I had seen this man on the sidewalk — and if I had not recognized him — would I have just left him there? Would I have crossed the street or stepped around him and hurried on?

I don’t know.

Forty years ago, I was a freshman at Trinity College (now Trinity University) located on Michigan Ave., N.E.,  in Washington, D.C..  One Saturday afternoon, my roommate and I took a Metro-bus from school.   We wanted to shop but we weren’t clear on where we were going.  We had heard the names of the department stores “Woodward  & Lothrop” and “Garfinckel’s” and we knew they were on F or G Streets.  Looking back, the only thing I am clear on is the fact that we were spectacularly uninformed. We did not know that the city is divided in geographic quadrants and thus that Woody’s Department Store, as it was called, was located at 1025 “F” Street, NW.

When our bus came to H St., NE, we figured “F-G-H – we’re there!” and hopped off. As we disembarked, we saw a man lying on the sidewalk.

I had never seen a man lying on the sidewalk before. As the bus doors closed, we bent to see if we could help him.

There was a squeal of bus brakes and a racket on the street in front of us. We looked up as the bus’s accordion doors rattled open again. The bus driver’s voice boomed as he glared at us.

“Girls! Get back on the bus.”

Unnerved, we obeyed.

“Where are you two going?” demanded the driver.

“Shopping,” I muttered.

“You’ve gotten off in the wrong place.  Sit down. I’ll tell you where to get off.”

I hadn’t lived long in a city environment and up to that point, I had been on few city buses, but I realized the bus driver had done something unusual. He saw two girls headed for trouble and chose to intervene.

After a few seconds of silence, the driver spoke to us again.  “It is very dangerous to touch men who are sleeping or lying on the street.”

I never forgot that, and for many years, I looked away from anyone laying down in public. I still avoid people who are clearly bedded down on grates and grassy knolls.  But I believe someone who collapsed unexpectedly would look like a more urgent situation to me and other passers-by.

Now I live in Gaithersburg and rarely encounter people lying on the ground or the sidewalk.

I did have a semi-related experience about two years ago, when I was driving on Quince Orchard Rd. Traveling away from Great Seneca Highway, in the direction of Clopper Rd. (like me), a motorcyclist ran the red light.  In broad daylight, he drove between the rows of cars stopped at the light (including mine) and plowed right through the intersection. I could see a car on Twin Lakes Rd., approaching the intersection. I shouted to the biker to stop. He could not hear me of course.

Two cars ahead of me, at the light, I saw the biker fly through the air. I turned right,  onto Twin Lakes Rd and parked. I ran back to the intersection where I was terrified to discover  that I was the only motorist to have emerged from a car – except for the man driving the car that hit the motorcycle guy. This gentleman seemed to be having a hysterical conversation with his mother about how the crash was not his fault.

As I knelt next to the motorcyclist, I wondered why I was there. I was one of the few people I knew who had no idea how to perform CPR.

However, CPR was to prove unnecessary. Although it was clear  to me that the man would have to have his right leg amputated somewhere around the knee, he was nonetheless wide awake and talking.

Down on the street with this guy, holding his hand —  I looked around and saw gigantic-appearing, stopped vehicles towering all around me – facing me, behind me,  to my right and left.

I stared up at the faces behind the windshields and they stared down at me — and my new friend.

I yelled at the guy on the phone with his mother to hang up and call 9-1-1. He did and when he started explaining to the emergency operator that it was not his fault, I yelled to him that it was indeed not his fault —  but we could discuss that later. “Tell them where we are located!” I yelled.

By now, others were getting out of their cars and asking how to help.  A nameless man identified himself as a doctor, tied a loose tourniquet around the cyclist’s damaged leg and vanished — perhaps “for insurance reasons” as the saying goes.

Traffic in the right lane began to creep past the cyclist who was lying in the left lane.

To my great shock, people in three passing vehicles opened their windows and screamed epithets at the injured man. Some people laughed.

I was so relieved to hear approaching sirens.

I was also so angry — if I had not been holding the injured man’s hand, I would have pounded on the passing vehicles carrying the people who were so cruel.  How could they?

Today I think that derision is the way some people handle fear.

I guess none of us knows how we will behave in a frightening situation until we are in it. And, I guess, for many of us, there is something deeply frightening about a helpless human being.

I don’t know why that is, but that’s what I think.

I think too that we can do better.

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Karen O'Keefe

About Karen O'Keefe

Karen O’Keefe has been a freelance writer in Atlanta, GA and Montgomery County, MD, since 1984. Prior to that time, she worked for a committee in the U.S. House, a public relations firm and as a Congressional press secretary. Since 2003, O’Keefe has been a regular news reporter and columnist for The Town Courier, an independent biweekly newspaper based in Gaithersburg. Her blog, “On Second Glance,” explores everyday life and current events with insight, grace and humor.


6 Responses to “Man on the Street”

  1. On January 29, 2013 at 2:21 pm responded with... #

    I was touched and angered by the accurate desription of what our society has become. Since when are we fearful of people who have suffered hurt in a public setting. P

  2. On January 29, 2013 at 7:30 pm responded with... #

    You’re an angel on earth.

  3. On January 29, 2013 at 9:21 pm responded with... #

    You did the right thing to stop and try to help Karen. I am sorry to read how people reacted as they drove by the accident site. I believe it is indicative of a growing society of “it’s all about me” attitude. Fortunately, there are still many good and decent people out there who will step up to the plate and help when they can. Count yourself as one of them!

  4. On January 30, 2013 at 9:21 am responded with... #

    Karen, you are one of the good guys. I am proud to call you my friend. Great write up as usual.

  5. On February 4, 2013 at 7:57 am responded with... #

    It is a statement of fear, that people do not stop and do not want to get involved. Even a professional stopped but then thought better of it and left. As for the people who heckled as they drove past, they too are afraid. Afraid of lawsuits, afraid of contracting a disease if they get someone elses’s blood on them, afraid they may get called in to testify, afraid of getting involved. Most are apathetic to the plight of others, but those few like you who were not afraid can stand tall. Getting involved is a split decision, judgment call that some are just not able to make. Great piece Karen!

  6. On February 4, 2013 at 3:56 pm responded with... #

    I always call 911 if I see someone on the ground. Usually they are drunk and sometimes they are angry, so I don’t stay right next to them, but I do wait to make sure they are evaluated. I can’t imagine how I would feel if someone died because I wasn’t willing to do that, even being drunk can be fatal.

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