In an Emergency, Maybe We Don’t Want Our Privacy?

(Photo: Margit Detweiler/TueNight)

Two weeks ago on a Sunday night, riding the subway home in New York, I saw a man have a seizure on the 2 train.

I was in the carriage with him. I helped, a little. Others helped even more.

He had slumped sideways, shaking with massive jerks, making audible thuds as his skull smacked the seat. One of the women sitting nearest him saw the moment of our terror, even disengagement. “We need to lift him.”

In a rattling train, with his limbs flailing, we moved him from a seat onto the carriage floor. Then we helped to sit and comfort him for the 25 minutes it took for paramedics to reach him. He said his name was Junior, and beyond that was completely anonymous. He had bitten his tongue.

* * *

Ever hear the one about the man who watched people stepping over a dead guy who just lay there on the sidewalk?

Or the woman who fell down a storm grate and waited for help as walkers passed by?

Urban legends tell us what awaits if we fall into danger in public. We learn and believe the possibility that no one would help.

Call me contrarian: I’d like any paramedic to know more about me than the arts-college grad who held my hand.

But in the deepening discussion we’re all having about privacy — what to share virtually, when to protect our identity — let’s admit that the ways we shield ourselves from others, face to face, are starting to seem fearful. And sometimes counterproductive.

When Junior came to, he saw nine strangers staring at him, and was unbearably frightened. He had no epileptic bracelet. He seemed to have no idea what had happened. We wanted to reassure him.

But what did we all know about each other that night — apart from the fact that we were all randoms on the subway who had to handle a young man’s emergency?

(And yes, I’ll own to being decisively “random,” more in person than even online. We present our most blank selves live and in person. After Buzzfeed discovered Resting Bitch-Face, most friends of mine admitted we carried Resting Back-Off Face as a daily tool. “Tell me why I would want to look approachable,” one friend said. “No good can come of that.”)

But in the long minutes where I kneeled on the carriage floor next to a stranger in distress, I started to wonder. I may have the finest medical training a literature degree can buy. But why should the medical personnel rushing to the scene know as little as I did about Junior?

That question, it turns out, vexes everyone — from hospital administrators with one eye on response times, to social-work professionals who deal daily with the folk who “present” at clinics for physical or mental distress, without prior histories.

Above ground, healthcare technologists like Ramesh Devare say that public anonymity during emergencies has been a critical area for better tools. Want to see a paramedic catch up on your history at the scene? Credit the cloud, he says. “With these technological advancements, it is possible for doctors, nurses and paramedics to view patients’ health records on a tablet or smartphone.”

Devare, COO of RxOffice, a health care technology provider based in Columbia, MD., spends a lot of time thinking about how our technology can work with HIPAA laws, which govern the absolute privacy of our medical information. If we want paramedics to know as much as possible at the scene, Devare says the devices they’ll use to access our data will have to scrub between emergencies — and still aren’t immune to getting smashed screens.

“Data is now easily available through these hand-held devices, which are subject to getting stolen or broken,” he says. “From a security perspective, systems should also feature a strong data wiping tool that will enable the removal of sensitive, unwanted data from devices immediately after the data usage is done.”

When health insurers and hospitals already deal with patient data breaches in spectacular public, patients are going to have their own feelings about how secure mobile data would ever become. Can a system ever assuage each person’s unique feelings about keeping their private information private?

Call me contrarian: I’d like any paramedic to know more about me than the arts-college grad who held my hand.

But all that wireless technology doesn’t yet reach into a subway tunnel — at least, yet.

In the half-hour before the FDNY paramedics entered Train 6471, we sat with Junior, looked out at the walls of the Borough Hall subway tunnel, and tried to get him to stop trying to sit up.

“No, no,” he said, through his blood. Did he want to leave? Did he have somewhere to be?

All we could do was to calm him still, knowing that once the EMTs arrived, the real questions could begin.

“Shh, don’t try to move,” I remember saying. “You don’t have to talk.”

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