This is a true story, which happened exactly two years ago on my family vacation in Florida. Saving Traevion’s life is a moment in my life I will never forget.
It happened in a flash. I didn’t even have a chance to think.
I was sitting in the beaming Florida sun, my skin glossy from a mixture of sunscreen and beads of sweat. I was floating on a fine line between relaxing and enjoying the first full day of my vacation, paying acute attention to the location of all three of my children splashing in the hotel pool. I was about to start packing up to go to dinner at a high end steakhouse, so I turned my back to the pool for a minute to fold up towels, collect beach toys, and pack up the bags to leave. Suddenly, my partner exclaimed: “Look, over there! They just pulled a little kid out of the water!” I looked over and saw a young boy lying on the cement by the side of the pool; a crowd gathering around. It’s was as if time slowed down because, obviously, this kid was fine and he was going to sit up at any second. But, he didn’t get up. Instead a man knelt down to do chest compressions, and even from that far away, on the other side of the pool, I could see that he was doing them wrong.
I immediately felt my bare feet hitting the burning cement, and my arms fast across my chest (because bikinis were not meant for running). I was suddenly an immediate bystander to a small boy who was unconscious and foaming at the mouth, with a much larger man attempting to perform CPR in the most ineffective way. Suddenly, what was initially a relaxing trip to the hotel pool with my kids had become my worst nightmare as both a physician and a mother.
With a strength I didn’t know I had, I muscled my way next to the small boy’s limp body and swiftly forced the large man out of the way. I could hear voices in the background yelling at me: “Who are you? Are you a doctor? What are you doing?” and I don’t even recall if I answered them or not. My fingers went to the boy’s groin where I was almost (but not completely) certain that there was no femoral pulse and so I did the thing I’d been trained to do—although never beside a pool, in the blistering sunlight, wearing a bikini, and with my oldest kids watching me from inside the water.
My compressions were swift and deep on this four-year-old’s body, and I could hear a grown man behind me sobbing and repeating, “I was doing it wrong . . . I wasn’t going fast enough . . . I wasn’t going hard enough . . . I was doing it wrong.” There was no one telling me how long I’d been pumping, no one running an ACLS algorithm for me from somewhere yonder, and there wasn’t anyone coming to switch out the compressions for me, like there has been any other time I’ve done them. Instead, I was the single person moving among a growing group of silent observers. When a woman finally came up next to me and offered to help—she said she could breathe for me—I had no choice but to assume, that like myself, she was offering her assistance because she knew what to do.
Finally, in the same groin where I found no pulse before, there was a thready but present bounce under the tips of my fingers. Just in case someone was listening to me, I announced that he had a pulse and I felt a collective sigh of relief from the crowd around me. I finally answered someone’s persistent question: “Yes, I am a doctor” (and why did it matter then, I just saved this little boy’s life?). And then another question, this one from a little voice inside the pool: “Mommy, is that little boy going to be alright?”
The rest of the story remains less clear in my mind, like the cloudy afterthought of a dream. The boy sputtered from his parted lips, and almost as if in a scene from a movie, he opened his eyes and was shocked by the gathering of people around him. I asked the crowd for towels and after placing the boy into a recovery position, I covered his shivering body, despite the hot sun beating down. I moved from the spot beside him, where the large man I elbowed away moments before took his place next to the boy he is obviously related to. I backed away from the scene as if I was never meant to be there in the first place, and after giving my name and hotel room number to the security guard taking notes, I walked against the flow of people back to where my family was waiting to go for dinner.
Since that moment, I have often wondered: What made me run, without even thinking, to provide medical assistance to this little boy while I was on my vacation? It’s not my job to offer my skill and expertise when I’m decidedly taking a well needed break from my work as a physician. Are there any other professions in which this kind of “offering of unpaid services” would not only be performed instantaneously, but also expected? On the surface, the answer is no: Aside from any other person who would identify themselves as a “first responder,” there is no job description that includes “the ability to offer lifesaving assistance in an emergency.” When you are one of the few people in a group who has the knowledge, skill, and capability to save someone’s life, saying “No, I don’t really feeling like helping” isn’t an option. There is nothing more basic or essential to anyone than the need to live—to stay alive. And so, this reveals the moral obligation that all future physicians acquire the moment they accept their white coat and recite the Hippocratic oath for the first time: If you are privileged enough to be the difference between life and death, then you are morally obliged to be the difference between life and death.
I don’t regret the split second decision I made, and not just because the boy lived (suffering only a chemical pneumonitis and no long term sequelae). My decision changed the lives of both that little boy’s family and mine. My family spent the remainder of our vacation talking about what it means for a person to drown, we talked about water safety, and my kids were proud to say that their mom saved a little boy’s life. However, we could have just as easily spent the rest of our vacation reeling with the trauma of watching a little boy drown and not recover despite my (everyone’s) best efforts. This decision was not made for the glory of “saving a little boy’s life,” but because I could not have lived with myself if I did nothing and he died, even if it wasn’t my job to save him.
*Originally published in The Medical Post on November 17, 2019*
The timing of this memory is significant for me given the current events regarding race and human life. For the first time ever, I have included a picture of myself on this blog – because given these recent events, it is important to highlight that life is blind to race and skin colour. Although Traevion and I have different skin colour, the only thing that mattered was that he was drowning and I had the skill to *hopefully* save him. I wasn’t going to comment on the racial aspect at all, because in my mind, it never mattered – it was a non-issue. But I see now that race is never a non- issue. I wrote this post many months ago and did not change the body of the text in any form. At the time it happened, in my memory, and in my writing, Traevion is (and will remain) always a little boy who needed saving. Period. His life was no more or no less valuable because of the colour of his skin; And my ability to save him was no more or no less effective because of the colour of mine.