Alone with a suffocating stranger, screaming for help that didn’t come, I learned that sometimes you have to be involved | Charlie Brinkhurst cuff

WWhen I was nine, my oldest friend almost choked on a gobstopper. We had sneaked out of my backyard to get candy, a girl gang of four, jumping over a low wall and armed with enough pennies for at least one treat per person. Finally, probably imitating each other, we bought gobstoppers – white, terrazzo-cooked sweets with a chewing gum center that you had to lick hard to get to. We were having a great time, until halfway home my friend started coughing – and then choked.

Her face turned red, her eyes looked panicked and she started wheezing. We shouted for help, but there was no one around except some guys we had laughed at on the way to the corner store. They ignored our cries. Finally, after we pounded her on the back a few times, she coughed up the monstrous beast into a potted plant. I haven’t had a gobstopper since and I carry with me the fear of seeing someone choke again. Unfortunately, as I discovered this week, lightning can strike twice.

I was getting off a tube in London when I saw a woman coughing. I slowed down and looked at her subtly. I’ve since learned that coughing is rarely a sign that something is terribly wrong. “If a person can cough, he is at least passing some air through his airways,” says the esophageal patients association. But shortly after I started looking at her, the woman stopped coughing, her eyes started to bulge, and she leaned over.

When I went to her to ask if she was okay, she looked up at me, panicked and gestured to her back. I started hitting her on the back and screaming for help. Despite watching a few videos, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to perform the Heimlich maneuver correctly and would have to walk away with her death on my conscience. But there were two of us, alone in the tunnel of a metro station; If I didn’t try to help, no one would.

The bystander effect is described as a “diffusion of responsibility,” the idea that if there are other people around, they will step in to help and so your help is not needed. I’ve seen it played again and again in London, especially on the tube.

A terrible recent example (which I did not witness) was when a 20 year old woman was raped in a train car towards other passengers. The tube now shows posters for a “Awareness campaign for bystanders”, which encourages people to sensitively intervene or report when they see harassment or hate crimes.

But despite the growing awareness, I have seen a worrying number of times when people ignored – or distanced themselves from – passengers experiencing medical emergencies. I get it: the fear of making things worse, especially if you don’t have medical training, is real; Research shows that when a “medically competent” person is assumed to be available during an emergency, immediate assistance from others is too much less likely to happen. However, sometimes it can be helpful to get involved, regardless of who else is around.

It was the same with the coughing woman on the tube. Luckily, like my friend, a few sharp blows loosened whatever was stuck in her throat. She thanked me, almost ashamedly, and walked to the escalator. I followed her, shaking, with tears in my eyes, muttering about how she had given me the fright of my life.

The incident taught me that the bystander effect is difficult to overcome – and that I urgently need to take a first aid class. Nothing can prepare you for the real thing, but my God, I would have been much more useful to that woman if I had had a medical degree.

By the time we reached the top of the escalator, we had both calmed down. She turned around, took my hands in hers, bowed her head and thanked me again before disappearing. She might have been fine without my hurried slaps on the back—maybe I didn’t actually save her life—but at least she knew that someone, a stranger she’ll never see again, cared about her.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a freelance journalist