Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What is Help?


I suppose it's a strange question, but I sometimes wonder about what "help" really means.  On obvious reason for this is that my day job is in customer support, and we often have to determine what course of action is truly the most helpful.  We also struggle with trying to feel like our "help" is meaningful and rewarding.  More than that, though, it's my personality to want to help people.

The Mystery Men -- 

The Shoveller: Lucille, God gave me a gift. I shovel well. I shovel very well.
Lucille: Oh, honey, you shovel better than any man I've ever known, but that does not make you a super hero . . .  Listen to me. You're a good husband, and a good father. But that's all. Nothing more.
The Shoveller's Son: I believe in you, Daddy!
Lucille: Roland, do not encourage your father.

Who does want to be a superhero?
photo by Jeffrey O. Gustafson

Part of the reason that I became an EMT was a desire to feel helpful in what felt like a direct and meaningful way.  Supporting clients with their computer use is pretty detached, and writing is about planting seeds on the wind.  As an EMT, I would be helping people in ways that were obvious, immediate, and vital.

I never suffered from some of the delusions that get some EMT's in trouble.  I'm not a trauma junkie.  I'm not in it to save lives.  I don't see myself as a battlefield medic.  But, even the most minimal view of what we do on the ambulance seems helpful: making sure that people get to the hospital with an open airway and a pulse, hopefully feeling a little less panicked than when they called us.

Being an EMT, though, I get to see a lot of different pictures of being helpful, and it's often thought-provoking.

Last night, for instance, we were called to be on stand-by for a structure fire.  What that means is that there's a building on fire that might have people in it and might take a while to put out.  We go the scene, park the ambulance near the fire, and set up a help station.  We make ourselves available to any patients who might have been injured in or overheated by the fire, and we provide rehab for the firefighters.  Rehab consists of bottles of water, cooling damp towels or ice packs, and a quick check of vital signs to make sure they're still healthy enough to continue.

So here's the scene last night: a house fire on a wooded country road, ~ 23:00.  It's a trailer home and there are four people inside.

We respond pretty quickly as an ambulance.  On our way to the scene, the first fire unit on scene radios that all four people are safely out of the home, no worse for wear.  There aren't even enough fire trucks on the scene to start fighting the fire or truly rescuing people.  Basically, the people got out of the building on their own.  (We were very relieved they made it so easily!)

The rest of the time, about two hours, was about putting the fire out.  With dozens of people there to help.  There are something like half a dozen fire trucks on the scene.  Our three-person ambulance crew is there.  A two-person fire and rescue team from a nearby town is there.  A police unit is there.  Some neighbors are there.  A couple utility crew are there.

At any given time, there were about half a dozen fire fighters actively battling the blaze.  Others were in support or taking breaks to drink water.  There were never any patients. Three fire fighters asked for their blood pressures to be taken, but no other vitals or full rehab.  There were more bottles of water than any of us knew what to do with.  The police really had no task, as there were not rubber-neckers, and there was no crime in the fire.

Then, at about 01:00, as we were all pulling out, the Red Cross team arrived to see if any of us needed water and to make sure the occupants of the home were okay.

A lot of people, on hand.  Doing a few things, for sure.  But mostly just being there.  Just in case.

Do I doubt that any of us were being helpful?  No.  But it does make me realize that being helpful isn't necessarily about doing something. 

Blue Raja: Well, there's the Sphinx.
The Shoveller: Yeah, I've heard of this guy. He's a big crime-fighter down east.
Mr. Furious: What's his power?
Blue Raja: Well, he's terribly mysterious.
Mr. Furious: That's it? That's his power?  He's mysterious?
Blue Raja: Well, terribly mysterious.
The Shoveller: Yeah, plus he can cut guns in half with his mind.

Sometimes, I think, being helpful is about being present and making yourself available.  As humans, it's in our nature to sometimes feel like we're wasting our time or that we should somehow be doing more.

But do you feel led to tell any of the people from the fire last night they weren't being helpful?

Me neither.



  1. I once talked to a chaplain at the VA hospital, where a number of patients tend to be not entirely responsive, and he talked about his frequently carrying out a "ministry of presence." Made a lot of sense to me.

  2. I would think your presence there as EMTs would be reassuring all by itself, because you're on standby in case anything happens. I know that if I were one of the occupants who'd gotten out, I'd be happy just to know you were there.

    Exciting life you lead!

  3. @WC - That's an interesting way of putting it. I think I can sort of understand it, though intellectually I can't quite describe what it is that makes sense about it. lol

    @Jennifer - I'm always amused by two things. When people tell me my life is exciting (doesn't feel like it), and when people tell me I'm crazy calm before tests or public speaking (doesn't feel like it). Apparently, I have reverse perceptions about excitement and calmness. lol

    But anyway, that's a digression.

    Thanks, and I know you're right; it's just not normally what I, at least, think of when I think of helping people.

  4. I like the way you wrote this, especially the dialogues, perhaps because it's a weakness/fear factor of mine. And I agree with Jennifer.

  5. Sometimes, I think, being helpful is about being present and making yourself available. As humans, it's in our nature to sometimes feel like we're wasting our time or that we should somehow be doing more."

    I get this because I see a lot of "emergency" clients who don't even qualify for our programs. Yet, sometimes I feel people just need someone to tell them everything is going to work out. Or give them permission to acknowldege their world has fallen apart, but they have the necessary skills to overcome on their own.

    Yeah, being there is a big help. Its hard to say just how valuable it is to a person to know they don't actually have to be on their own.

    Thank you Nevetts for being there when people need you. For not complaining about wasted time when your skills are not needed.


  6. I think if I were there, I'd feel frustrated about not being able to do more. Though, all the people got out, but still.

    The point is that each person was doing what they were trained to do, and whether it was needed or not, they were prepared to do their part, so that's what counts. Yes?

  7. A really interesting post, Nevets. I love the idea of the "ministry of presence" - so important. The other thing, I think, is to give the help that other person needs, and not necessarily the help you would want in their position. This means (of course) being sensitive to their state of mind rather than one's own. For example, nowadays, there is a culture of making people talk about things (grief, trauma etc), and this can be good. But there are some people who really don't want to talk, and trying to make them do so can be counter-productive. Just being with them can be enough (obviously just being with someone in a burning building woud NOT be enough!).

  8. @Shopgirl - Glad you enjoyed the post!

    @Donna - Its hard to say just how valuable it is to a person to know they don't actually have to be on their own. What a brilliantly simple truth. Thanks for pointing it out this way.

    @Jake - It's very easy to go stir-crazy and feel like you're wasting your time and yourself. When it's 1:15am and you're on your way back to the ambulance station after hanging around in 90-degree temps near a blaze, and all you do is check three guys' blood pressure, it's very easy to feel that way.

    For me, honestly, part of what helps keep me from going there is that I would never feel like the other two EMT's who were with me were wasting their time. I would explain to just what you said -- that they were prepared and available, and their sacrifice of time in the name of readiness is meaningful to the people who just suffered a greater loss than than the loss of a couple hours.

    Well, if I'm going to let them off the hook, I need to think about letting myself off the hook, too.

    @Frances - I was hoping as I wrote this that you would get a chance to read and respond. With your background in nursing, your working with the man on death row, your perspective on care for the elderly -- I knew you would have good stuff to say. Thank you!

    I absolutely love your pointing out the different layers of different that need to be kept in mind.

  9. I think if you weren't there, you'd have been missed. I sometimes feel that way, and I in no way have a life-saving job, but sometimes I feel I work hard but don't really help anything.

  10. Interesting post, Nevets. Lately I've been thinking a lot about the idea of comforting someone. It took me a long time to understand that some people just need to be heard, not necessarily told that everything was going to be okay. I feel like I have a lot to learn about how to properly comfort someone.

  11. @Clarissa - It's hard to be satisfied with being missed in absentia, but it's true that's when people tend to feel like expressing the fact that they needed or wanted you there.

    @Domey - I hear you. I literally ended a friendship one night by trying to do too much to comfort someone. We haven't talked in well over ten years. My intentions were great, and my actions themselves didn't really cause harm, but they gave entirely opposite impression I intended them to, and it felt to other person as if I were dismissing death and loss. If I had simply listened and been there, it would have been much, much better.

  12. As someone who has been and often still is on the receiving end of help. I know that just being where you are supposed to be, even if you do nothing is part of helping. A kind word or an encouraging smile, or even a joke can do far more than, say, being helped across the road, especially if "across the road" is not where you wanted to be in the first place.

  13. @Rosamund - Very well said! Thank you! I really hadn't thought about that perspective, but it's very true and very much a part of this conversation.


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