I commute to work on the water. Every weekday I take a bus to the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal and board the boat. My time onboard is spent working on Mind Vault, writing blog posts, or surfing the web. Occasionally something exciting happens; we’ll pass an aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine returning to nearby Navy bases or a pod of orcas will swim next to the ferry. Last week my usual routine was interrupted by a medical emergency.
I was working when I heard people behind me rushing around. Ferry workers were trying to rouse a man who was slumped against the window next to his bench. Within a couple minutes a call for any commuting medical professionals came over the loudspeaker. There are a few hundred people commuting on this boat every day, including many doctors and nurses on their way to the hospitals in downtown Seattle. Several people, some in scrubs, came to the back of the boat and after situating the patient on the floor began performing CPR. They would continue compressions for the remainder of the trip across Puget Sound, about half an hour.
As I sat there I wondered what to do. If it had been my wife on this boat, she could have lent a hand, she is currently interviewing for residency in emergency medicine. Since I know nothing about medical issues or CPR (I need to change that at least) it would have been useless and obstructive for me to offer assistance. There were plenty of people who knew what they were doing. They took turns with compressions, some searched his belongings and called his wife, the ferry workers brought the AED (automated external defibrillator) and arranged for EMS to be waiting when we arrived in Seattle. They were all focused on their essential task. The rest of us awkwardly returned to what we had been doing before, as the crisis carried on next to us. This was fruitless, I could not keep from turning around to see them working on this man, without his shirt, rhythmically trying to pump the life back into him. The man survived and was transported to a local hospital.
When I told my wife about this, I explained how I did not know what to do. Was I being disrespectful of the situation attempting to get back to what I had been doing? Was it better to return to work, so as not to add to the drama? She told me something that will stick with me. She said, “It’s always good to pay attention when the veil is thin”. The veil is a Mormon term for the separation between this life and the next. If this term does not mean anything to you, it might be best to think of it this way: when life and death are in play before you, it is best to pay attention. This is the inheritance of our common humanity and I consider moments like these sacred.