Yesterday, I was in the unfortunate position of performing CPR on a total stranger in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He and his friends were enjoying the hot sunny day with summertime hangs and watermelon in the park. They all got high together but he never woke up.
I was taking a shortcut through the park when two women were already at the scene. I approached cautiously in case it was a movie being filmed – no really, this happens a lot in my rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. The frantic movement of nearby folks on cell phones reading street signs made me realise this was a real emergency. Luckily, one of the women first on the scene was a nurse. She knew how to manage the situation before the paramedics got there. I asked if they needed more help. She needed a break from applying chest compressions. She asked to if I could take her place. I rushed to relieve her.
Immediately, I attempted to stitch every piece of memory I could muster from my now forgotten workplace first aid training, one year prior. There wasn’t much. I could barely process the textbook “should dos” when Lisa, the nurse on the scene, instructed my hand placement and Marnie, her friend, counted out loud the 911 operator’s calm rhythm of 1, 2, 3, 4’s. I slowed down to focus on consistency. I trusted Lisa’s confidence. His chest felt damp with sweat (maybe it was mine?). Beneath me, I felt the air push out of his body with every compression. I was simultaneously afraid I was applying too much pressure and too little force. I was afraid I was going to break him, that he was already gone or that he might actually wake up.
The paramedics arrived shortly thereafter. There were eight of them. They took over the situation and updated us, but it wasn’t going well. The colour in his arms and neck would return and pass through nuanced shades of white, yellow, purple and pale pink. It was hard to look in his eyes. Instead, I looked at his hands. They were messy and a deep purple colour.
Death had been on my mind for a while, even before yesterday’s terrible events. Right now, I am still figuring out how I feel. I’m not a particularly emotional person, so I’m not completely beside myself. I live in the Downtown Eastside, so I see a lot of substance abuse daily and while I wouldn’t say I’m desensitised to open use of hard drugs, I’ve don’t think too hard and don’t judge them for it. I’ve never stopped to worry about my neighbours not waking back up (and yes, they are my neighbours). I’ve been thinking about death a lot because I’ve had a lot of it around me recently. Three family members have passed since late 2013. Each time it’s been unexpected like the universe went out of its way to create the strangest set of circumstances in order to take each person. I’ve learned to cope with and let grief wash over me. Death has been on my mind so much that I’m about to go back to school to study it. Specifically, I’m going to study the role mortality in the design of interactive systems for my Masters at the Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts & Technology (SIAT). It’s one part processing grief and one part trying to make sense of it. To make it a little better for the living, who at the end of the day live with death.
I stayed for a while hoping the paramedics would be able to perform a miracle and the guy would kick into consciousness with a dramatic gasp for air, just like in the movies. But it never happened. Lisa, Marnie, the paramedics and I exchanged awkward and dreary remarks about the increase of fentanyl in Vancouver recently, first aid tips and Vancouver, generally. Lisa assured me the guy had likely passed long before I arrived and should he recover, his brain will probably suffer from the lack of oxygen.
I still hoped he could be revived, just like in the movies. I helplessly walked away avoiding scattered needles and remnants of untouched watermelon slices.