The Question

I turned off my reading lamp and wondered if I had made a bad decision. It had been raining all day, and the room was lit by my reading lamp and two basement windows. The room was nearly empty except for a cot, a desk piled high with books, a suitcase and two old leather chairs my father had been given when he opened his law practice just before enlisting in the navy at the start of World War II. I remember saying to myself, “At least it’s cool.” Listening to the rain I was about to doze off when I heard a squeal of tires and a loud thud. Barefoot and wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, I ran up my back stairs and out into the street.

About fifty people were standing around a car stopped in the middle of the street. Several women were crying but mostly it was quiet. The synagogue across the street had just finished services, and I wondered if there had been an accident. I slipped through the crowd and saw an elderly man curled up on the ground. He was on his side moaning. His back was leaning up against the right front tire of an old sedan. I could see the driver pacing to the side and heard him telling some men: “I never saw him.” This is when I asked the question.

In the years since I have often wondered: “Which is more important, questions or answers?” The answer to this question is elusive since the power and success of an action often depends on questions asked. With experience I now believe the choices we make are fueled by the questions we ask, should have asked or could have asked.

I asked the man next to me: “Did someone call an ambulance?” He shook his head, raised his hands and said: “I don’t know?” This is when I asked the question. “Has anyone checked him for injuries?” “Who are you?” he asked. “I am a medical student.” I answered. With those five words my life changed. Everyone turned toward me and stepped back as if I had parted the sea. A woman kneeling next to the man waved me forward. I thought to myself, “I am in big trouble.” The only emergency medicine I knew was learned from television, movies and boy scouts. I had completed only three days of medical school and this woman was looking to me for help. Kneeling down, I checked his pulse and placed my hand on the woman’s shoulder. I asked her if she was his wife. She nodded and began to cry softly. I told her his pulse was strong and help would arrive soon. She thanked me and squeezed my hand against her shoulder.

The police had been called and an ambulance arrived after the two longest minutes of my life. I helped transfer him onto a stretcher and waved to his wife as she climbed into the ambulance. I turned and began to walk home. A woman touched my shoulder. I turned to her and she said, “Thank you.” Standing there, shoeless in my wet shirt and jeans, I shook my head and said, “I didn’t do anything.” She squeezed my hand and said: “Yes you did.”

That wet and rainy night, absent of knowledge and filled only with desire I discovered the meaning of comfort and why we should never stand quiet. The next time you have the opportunity to help someone check your pulse and follow your heart.