I hit a blind man

Illustration of a terraced house

I recently watched a television programme, a documentary on exploring the mind. This particular episode was investigating  if people are born with emotions or if they are something we learn through life’s experiences. At one point in the programme, the presenter underwent a test at a medical university which involved completing a questionnaire about himself prior to undergoing a MRI scan while exposed to various stimuli. The presenter paused on one particular question which he read aloud. The question asked if he would feel empathy with someone else who had injured themselves. It is a question I suspect most of us would answer yes to, in my mind that is what I answered. An instant later, I suddenly realised that to me the question was completely ambiguous and dependent on circumstances at the time, circumstances to which I could equally and truthfully both answer either yes or no to the question.

Although this may seem a strange contradiction, to me it is completely logical. As a firefighter I experienced many occasions when a stranger to me was injured and needed medical attention. Until such time as medical help arrives, part of the firefighters role is to treat individuals administering first aid where necessary. There is an actual priority list laid down in which order our duties should be carried out. The prime duty is to save life, followed by saving property and finally rendering such humanitarian services as possible.

When I found myself in either a life saving situation or one that required urgent medical attention I know I experienced no immediate empathy with the individual in trouble. Instead I always found my mind was crystal clear and focused on the task in hand with no room for any form of emotion. Be that right or wrong, it’s the way I have found I naturally work. If however a work colleague suffered an injury not at an incident but at the station, something like a sprained ankle or a cut finger then I would feel complete empathy with them.

It was while briefly dwelling on this point in my mind that I suddenly recalled an unusual incident I went to that I had completely forgotten about. Although I cannot remember exactly when this incident occurred, I suspect it was in the 1970’s. We received a call to a fire in a house on the Plaistow/Canning Town borders. The house was a terraced property with the kitchen located at the back of the house  and which was well  alight. Voluminous smoke generated by the fire billowed out the open front door.  As we arrived some occupants of the property standing in the street shrieked out there was a disabled elderly man in bed in the front upstairs bedroom. The occupants also cried out that he was both blind and deaf. I cannot recall if he was dumb too.  As an automatic response to our training, a colleague and I quickly donned breathing apparatus sets and made our way into the building. In this particular building, the front door led to a small hallway blocked at the end by the underside of a flight of stairs. To access the stairs it was necessary to enter the front room via a door off the hallway and then find the bottom of the stairs at the rear of the front room. The stairs were a peculiar design to save space in this small property. It was necessary to open a door that sealed off the entrance to the stairs. After about two steps, the stairs turned both a sharp and steep 90 degree bend to continue upwards. The width of the stairs was narrow giving a feeling of a steep upwards tunnel to the floor above.

As we groped through the smoke to find the door to the stairs we could see the flickering glow of the fire raging in the kitchen to our side. We could not see the fire due to the density of the smoke and as we were undertaking a rescue, the fire was not  the immediate concern of my colleague or I. Other members of the initial two crews that arrived would be dealing with that problem. We arrived on the upper hallway to find it smoke logged but  lighter than on the ground floor. Fortunately the door at the bottom of the stairs had kept much of the smoke from the upstairs of the house. As we entered the front bedroom I could see the elderly gentleman in pyjamas lying on his bed but writhing, obviously he could sense something was wrong. He certainly would have smelled the smoke. Although a lot of things were going on at the time, my mind always remains clear in such circumstances which I have always found useful for immediately evaluating and responding to rapidly changing circumstances. One thing I knew is that we were going to have great difficulty communicating to this elderly person who was both deaf and blind and undoubtedly confused by the unusual circumstances.

I grabbed his hand and placed it on my fire helmet hoping that would communicate some understanding that firefighters were in his bedroom. Unfortunately he became immediately agitated and clearly but not surprisingly his mind did not make the connection as to who we were. I called to my colleague to just grab him and stand him upright. In the urgency of the situation there was no time to continue  attempting further meaningful communication, one just has to do what one has to do and our priority was to get this elderly gentleman out of the building as quickly as possible. As we stood this gentleman upright he turned out to be surprisingly strong despite his frail looking condition. He instantly started to struggle and I suspect he would have thought we were burglars assaulting him. He could neither see or hear but he would have been fully aware that he was being manhandled by strangers. It was immediately clear we would not get him out the building with his ferocious struggling and without either of us saying a word to one another my colleague clamped his arms around the gentleman’s upper body pinning his arms to his side as I knocked him unconscious by a blow to his chin. In reflection the thought of what I did makes me shiver slightly but as I said, at the time one has to do what one has to do. It was clear that it would take a long time to get this struggling gentleman out of the building during which time he would be inhaling smoke and fumes. The same smoke and fumes did not allow an option of staying where we were. In his unconscious state it was quite easy to carry the gentlemen out of the house and straight to a waiting ambulance which had arrived while we were inside the building. I explained the reason for the gentleman’s unconscious state to the ambulance attendant which he fully understood. Fortunately the gentleman started to regain consciousness while we were still by the ambulance and a relative of his was also holding his hand. He clearly found the female relatives touch reassuring as he did not struggle again despite being in a strange environment. There must have been some way in which she touched him that must have communicated to him who she was.

The last I saw of this gentleman was the ambulance rapidly disappearing down the road on the way to hospital. I have little doubt that our actions while somewhat drastic due to circumstances,  probably saved the gentleman’s life. Smoke and fumes are rapid silent killers. The house however was not so fortunate. The kitchen was completely destroyed and once the fire was out and the rest of the house ventilated to clear the smoke all rooms in the house were deeply blackened due to smoke damage and as such uninhabitable. Google Street maps show that the entire area where this house once stood has been replaced by a swathe of social housing.

It’s strange how watching an unconnected television documentary can lead to triggering memories long since forgotten.

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