Last week, my kids and I visited my father in Indianapolis. We went to a playground near his apartment.
Playgrounds had re-opened the day before, so my kids were super excited. They’d gone almost three months without climbing much. And the playground near my father’s apartment is excellent, with a variety of nets and terraces suspended from platforms near the canal.
When we arrived – at about eleven a.m. on an eighty-five degree day – we noticed a child sprawled face down in the shade at the other end of the playground, apparently asleep.
My own eldest child promptly started climbing toward the highest slide, which was going to be quite difficult for her. I followed her up, ready to provide encouragement whenever she felt too nervous, and to catch her if she slipped.
My four-year-old hopped onto a swing.
My father, temporarily free of supervisory duties, crossed the playground. In addition to us and the sleeping child, one other family was playing – a woman my age with a baby strapped to her chest and a four-year-old careening in front of her.
My father asked if the sleeping child had come with them. The woman shook her head. So my father asked a few more people, calling down to folks who were sitting on benches near the water.
Nobody knew who this child was.
My father knelt down and gently woke him, to ask if he was okay. My father is a medical doctor. Helping people is what he likes to do.
When roused, the child had a seizure. His body shook. His eyes went stark white, having rolled all the way to the side.
My father called 911.
But then, after about thirty seconds, the child’s seizure ended. And, unlike the fallout from a typical epileptic seizure, the child sat up immediately, alert and unconfused.
My father told the dispatcher that maybe things were fine – no need to send an ambulance – then hung up to talk to the child.
“Are you okay?” my father asked.
“Oh, that’s my sugar high,” the child said. “Some people get a sugar high from eating sugar, but I get that when I sleep. It happens a lot, just when I sleep.”
“I think you had a seizure.”
“Well, I just call that my sugar high.”
“Do you take any medications?” my father asked.
“Only a little, sometimes, for my ADHD.” And then the child started to climb up toward the high slide of the playground, near me.
A few moments later, a drone began to hover near us. I’m not fond of drones, mechanically whirring through the air. And I’ve never even had reason to feel traumatized! They must be so terrifying for people who’ve survived contemporary war zones, or who’ve been subject to drone-enhanced policing.
“What’s that noise?” my six-year-old asked.
“It’s a robot,” I said. “A flying robot. See, over there. Sometimes they put cameras in them.”
“It’s called a drone,” the formerly sleeping child clarified. “I used to work with drones. I’m an inventor. But that person should be careful. That drone is over the water, and when drones crash into the water they can short circuit and catch fire.”
“You like drones?” I asked.
“I like to build stuff. Some drones you can control with your mind, like telekinesis, with a strap …”
“Oh, like an electroencephalogram?” I asked. “We played a game at a museum once, you wear a headband and try to think a ping-pong ball across the table.”
“You can make a drone fly that way, too. But those are tricky because if you laugh they crash.”
“You wouldn’t want to laugh while it was over the water!” my six-year-old exclaimed, giggling.
“You wouldn’t,” the child agreed, sagely. And then he turned to me to ask, “Say, do you know where the nearest McDonalds is? My dad wants me to get him something.”
I shook my head, apologizing. “We’re visiting my father, I don’t know where anything is around here. But you could try asking him.”
When asked, my father shook his head, too. His apartment is in a rather fancy part of of Indianapolis, it seems. “I don’t know of one … I don’t think I’ve seen a McDonalds around here.”
“Well, that’s okay, I’ll get something at a gas station instead. Thanks!”
And with that, the child jogged away. I never even learned his name.
My father walked over to me. “I’m worried about him,” he said. “That was a tonic-clonic seizure! I don’t know how he came out of that feeling lucid. I mean, he’s obviously a bright kid, but …”
“It didn’t look like he had a phone with him,” I said. “I don’t know, suddenly needing food … I’d guess schizophrenia, but that’d be really strange for an eight-year-old.”
“I know,” my father said. “But something’s wrong.”
On that, we definitely agreed. A lot of somethings might be wrong if a third grader is napping at a city playground on his own.
And I didn’t help him.
In retrospect, I’m still not sure what I should have done.
When my father thought the child was experiencing an acute medical emergency, he called 911. But then he canceled the request when the problem seemed chronic, not urgent. The arrival of an ambulance probably would’ve caused more harm than good, because a trip to the ER is often followed by egregious bills.
A few weeks ago, my spouse woke up with blurry vision. This might be nothing serious, or it might be the sign of a detached retina, so we drove her to the ER. After two hours of waiting, a doctor spent three minutes with her, visually examining my spouse’s eye while shining a light on it.
Thankfully, nothing was wrong.
We received a bill for $1,600. After requesting an itemized bill, they split the charges into a $200 ER fee and $1,400 for “ED LEVEL 3 REGIONAL.”
To diagnose a child who’d just emerged from an atypical seizure, they might levy poverty-inducing charges, which is why my father canceled with the dispatcher. He volunteers at the free clinic because he knows how many people are priced out of access to health care in our country.
But, if not a hospital, who could we call for help?
Currently, there’s a big push to defund the police. In many cities, the budget for policing is so large, and the budget for other public services so small, that police officers are de facto social workers. Which doesn’t make anybody happy.
In a recent New York Times conversation, Vanita Gupta said, “When I did investigations for the Justice Department, I would hear police officers say: ‘I didn’t sign up to the police force to be a social worker. I don’t have that training.’ “
Police officers are tasked with responding to mental health crises, despite receiving little training in psychology, counseling, or even de-escalation. Police officers use their budget to combat the downstream effects of poverty – which often includes theft, vandalism, and domestic violence – without a commensurate amount being spent on addressing the poverty itself. Police budgets dwarf the amounts spent on jobs programs and public work projects.
Many police officers join the force because they want to help people. They’re motivated by the same altruism that inspired my father to practice medicine. But just as hospital billing, as a system, undermines the altruism of individual doctors (“In this seminar, we’re going to train you to optimize billing. If you perform diagnostics on a third organ system, we elevate patient care to the preferred reimbursement tier.”), American policing, as a system, exacerbates racial injustice and inequality.
Even a charming, well-spoken, eight-year-old Black child has good reason to fear the police. I don’t think any good would have come from us calling the cops.
And so I’m left wondering – what would it be like if we did have an agency to call? What if, instead of police officers with guns, we had social workers, counselors, and therapists patrolling our streets?
Maybe then it would have been easy to help this child.
As is, I did nothing.
Feature image: photograph of sidewalk chalk by Ted Eytan, Washington D.C.