Bystander Effect

My original plans for today changed last night when my car broke down. Turns out finding an auto repair shop in San Francisco that could fix it today was not as easy as I had hoped. I eventually found a car repair shop that could look at my vehicle. Hours later, a mechanic diagnosed my problem and another one (!) which would cost several hundreds of dollars to rectify. Although not happy with the situation, it was manageable. I walked, boarded a bus home, and made plans to be without my wheels for the next 24+ hours.

Within a few stops, the bus was packed. About 10 minutes into the ride it had stopped on a steep hill. I heard an odd sound, then commotion. When I turned around there was a person on the floor of the bus; I could only see denim jeans. Then, I caught a glimpse of a woman as she tried to sit up. It was difficult to see her since there were so many passengers. As people moved around I saw her face. She looked pale and disoriented. As she started to stand she dropped her keys and purse, the contents of it spilled onto the floor. She struggled to pick up her belongings.

No one helped her.

I was several feet away and assertively said out loud, “Someone please help her pick up her stuff.” I then saw two hands on the floor collecting her personal effects.

When she fully stood up she said, “I’ll just get off the bus”, as she stared into space. As she stepped down into the stairwell it was hard to see her. The next moment I saw her she was slouched to her right as the doors tried to open at the same time. She ended up leaning in the stairwell and was stuck as the doors were unable to completely open or close. Her black glasses dangled off her left ear. She did not look coherent and was unsteady on her feet.

“She needs help to stand up,” I yelled. A couple of people responded immediately and tried to hold her up.

Someone shouted, “She’s sick”. The bus started to move. At that point many people yelled at the bus driver, including me, for him to stop because she was stuck in the stairwell and wanted to get off. The driver continued up the hill.

At the next bus stop it appeared that the two people who held her up helped her off the bus. She was parked on a wide and deep window ledge that was above the sidewalk. It looked like a small bench. From what I could tell people started to walk away from her to leave her alone. She stared into space and didn’t look completely steady in her posture as she sat. I heard people talking about her. It was clear that the ones closest to her had no intention of helping as they just stared at her or walked away.  I loudly announced, “I’m getting off to help her” because I didn’t want the driver to close the doors and drive away. No one moved out of my way for me to exit towards the front door. Frustrated, I turned around and loudly repeated myself as I made my way towards the back door. Thankfully, people did move to allow me to exit.

As I approached the young woman she looked disoriented, had no color in her face, and sweat profusely. I asked for her name, introduced myself, told her I was an occupational therapist (O.T.), and that I would stay with her. A few minutes later, three other people joined us. The young woman, who I’ll call Malia, said she had just donated blood, felt a bit dizzy as she boarded the bus, and tried to make her way to the back towards an empty seat. She said she thought she had fainted on the way. I had 911 on my phone, but Malia said she didn’t need them and that she was fine. She looked more coherent and had some color in her face. I offered to get her something to drink when a woman must have overheard me, opened her backpack, and handed Malia a bottle of water. I approached the bus driver. He informed me that medical care was on its way per protocol since something happened on his vehicle. Another bus arrived. He told the passengers to get off his bus and change to the new one. A crowd started to form around Malia and just stare at her. She said she was uncomfortable with all of the attention so I did milieu management till it was the two of us and the bus driver. He told us, “My coach is jinxed!” When I asked what he meant by that he said a fight broke out earlier between two passengers. He looked stressed.

I surprise myself how calm I remain during emergencies. Today wasn’t any different. Once the ambulance arrived and I had provided my contact details to all parties involved, I caught the next bus.

On the ride home I felt angry at the number of people who chose to do nothing or weren’t paying attention when Malia struggled. I thought of the Bystander Effect. “The bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.” Aware that my anger wasn’t helpful, I shifted my thinking towards the woman who thanked me for staying with Malia and the woman who offered her water bottle to her. I thought about the bus driver and felt sorry for him that he had two major events happen on his shift today. I prayed for Malia and hoped she would be okay. Tears streamed as I stood and looked out the window on the semi-packed bus. Minutes passed and I had the sense someone was staring at me. A couple of bus stops later I could see in my periphery a woman who sat perpendicular to me slid across a seat in my direction. I shifted my gaze and looked at her. She lifted her arm and offered me a tissue. With a wet face, I smiled and thanked her.

Here was a woman who did pay attention to her surroundings and chose to do something about what she saw.

A couple of minutes later she stood up to disembark. I looked at her. She appeared old enough to be my aunt, wise enough to understand. She headed towards the back door, stopped next to me, put her hand on my arm, and thought about what she wanted to say. I held my breath as I waited for her to speak.

She looked me in the eyes and said, “Bad days – they happen”, as she slowly nodded her head knowingly, patted my arm in a maternal way. I thanked her again.

Bystander. Empathy.


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