I go to lunch every Friday. The other days I pack my own, but I want to be less reclusive and so now I go out on Fridays. I want a burger. I ask my boss, who makes a point of getting away for lunch almost every day, where to go. He says Gott’s in the Ferry Building, so I head off.
The weather is clearing up, it’s a typical San Francisco day of blue skies, wispy clouds, ocean breezes. I walk past the local Wells Fargo branch and remember I have to check a problem with my transfers that are not going through. I cross and walk past the Hyatt Regency and thread my way through all the stalls where street artists are selling their wares: handmade jewelry, wine-cork trivets, photographs of the city. It’s crowded but not oppressive, just another day downtown. I wait for the light to change so I can cross the Embarcadero. Out of the corner of my eye, a pedestrian falls to the ground.
I have a moment of that did not just happen, but the facts are to the contrary. She’s about 50 — I know because when the dispatcher at 911 asks me, that is what i said — and she’s landed face down, her head striking one of the concrete bollards that prevent cars from driving onto the plaza on the way down.
A crowd forms as I look on. A mother shouts “Call 911!” as I have my phone out to do so. I dial 911 for the first time in my life. Someone turns the woman over and we can see she’s bleeding from a gash above her eye and from what seems to be cuts inside her mouth.
The phone rings in my hand. I think about everything I’ve read about our overtaxed emergency system in San Francisco and wonder how long I will wait. One second passes, maybe two. A live person answers. She is calm and ready, asking me why I’m calling. I tell her what’s happened and she asks me where. I struggle a little because I don’t know what this place is called; we’re in front of the Ferry Building clock, on the Embarcadero, next to the southbound traffic. She tells me help is on the way, and not to give her food or water until the paramedics can arrive. I pass that along to the man in the navy blue sweater who is helping to hold her up in a sitting position. I decide that he seems responsible, in the navy blue, and the least likely to forget or wander away.
The crowd of people are clustered around the fallen woman. She struggles to stand up, disoriented and weak-legged, like a newborn colt. There’s blood on the bollard, the concrete, and on her purse which lies on the sidewalk next to her mangled glasses. She pushes away people who try and hold her, offering her a chair someone’s commandeered from a nearby stall, which she also refuses.
The woman can’t speak, using guttural moans with her open palms to fend people off. Blood streams brightly from the gash above her eye and between her teeth. A paramedic appears, summoned from a nearby health fair. He puts on rubber gloves and begins attending to her. I hear a siren and see an ambulance coming up Market Street. More people in the crowd move to it, waving and pointing out where to go. Someone brings her juice. The man in the navy blue intercepts it: no liquids or food, he says.
Our SF paramedics show up and take over. The other guy disappears with no fanfare. They start to diagnose, talking calmly and gently to her. One asks if she will give her permission for him to place gauze on her cut.The people around tell them what they saw: that she just fell over, out of nowhere. A paramedic puts on latex gloves and opens her purse. The first thing in it is a thick paperback book, Robert Louis Stevenson I think. I wonder how she can read that but now she can’t form words, maybe she’s mute? He finds her driver’s license with name and address and starts talking to her by name. Another paramedic has something that looks like litmus paper that he uses to swab the blood on her head, apparently taking a blood sugar reading.They seem satisfied with the result; it wasn’t her blood sugar. One of them asks me if she had a seizure; I say she seemed to have trouble breathing when she first hit, maybe she was unconscious, but wasn’t spasming.
The mother who shouted to call 911 is now berating her teenage son for having blood on him, he’s been in the midst of the commotion this whole time. A paramedic (there are four) tells him to go by the ambulance, they have stuff to clean it up. They tell the fallen woman they’re taking her to the hospital. I ask about her glasses, and they say they have them. I see she’s wearing a T-shirt with a drawing of a cat on it. A cat, and now some blood. I ask the paramedics if I should stay and they say no, so I leave.
Later, over my lunch, I think about this city. It’s 2010 and we are apparently going to hell in a handbasket. The budget is shot, city workers are scamming the payroll, homeless alcoholics render our emergency system in operable. But let it be said that today at 1:40pm, the system worked. A group of bystanders instantly dropped what they were doing to help someone they did not know and formed a team, with each person contributing a different role. The people at 911 answered the phone immediately. They had no trouble with me being on a cell phone. An ambulance was dispatched within seconds and arrived at the correct location. A paramedic was found nearby and he jumped in to help, and let the SF guys take over with no issues. The paramedics had all the equipment they needed; their manner was calm and professional. They took care of this woman in ways that we bystanders could not, getting her to a hospital.
When I walked back, most of the blood had been rinsed away and there was no sign that anything had happened. I often say “Morale is when shit works” and today I feel proud to live in this city. Whether looking at the citizens who are passing by or the professionals entrusted with our safety, I saw how well we can operate. And the sky is still blue with wispy clouds, and ocean breezes waft through the tree branches.