It was a typical day at the card club – right up until it wasn’t.
I was happily settled in my usual $5/10 game. After three hours, I was stuck a little, but felt like the best poker player in the world, because I’d crawled out of a moderately big hole, and was only a handful of big blinds short of what I’d paid for.
That’s when we noticed the commotion.
Fifteen feet away, a large man – one of the patrons – was lying on the floor. He was face up, and barely moving. Frighteningly, he was yawning frequently – obviously trying to get oxygen to his lungs. One of the shift managers was standing over him, on the phone to EMS.
Should I go there?
That struck me. Nobody was kneeling down with him. A few security guards were creating a perimeter of chairs, the shift manager was calling in assistance. But the man was on his back, struggling to breathe, and alone. I thought that if it were me, I’d want somebody – honestly, anybody – to be close. Hold my hand, tell me the cavalry was on the way. Anything to make me feel a human connection when I was clutching to my own humanity for dear life.
I struggled with it. My organizational brain said that there didn’t need to be another cook in that particular kitchen. It wasn’t like I had medical training. Well, I do know CPR, and the Stayin’ Alive beat. Had the man stopped breathing – and I was watching – I would have been over there in two seconds. But his chest continued to rise and fall, and he continued to yawn.
So I didn’t go over there. Now, I wish I had. I wish I had gone over there, knelt down, told him my name, and said that everything was going to be fine. And held his hand.
Move the button, get the cards out of the shuffler, deal
The whole time this was going on, the gambling – both poker and player-banked “California” games – proceeded apace. The conversation, particularly physically proximate to the poor fellow, was a bit subdued. Yeah, he’s a regular. I hope the paramedics get here soon. Etc. But so did checks, bets, and raises.
Honestly, I was lost – the cognitive dissonance was doing me in. We were sitting there playing a game while this man, separated from us by one poker table, was apparently in a struggle for his actual life. After a couple of orbits, I couldn’t take it any longer. I waited until the EMS people arrived – if he stopped breathing before that, I was going to be the one to start CPR.
The EMTs finally did show up. Within a minute or two, they were cutting off his clothes without a hint of fuss, and putting EKG leads on him.
It was time for me to go – I couldn’t play poker while this scene was unfolding a few meters away.
I went outside, and stood in the California afternoon sunshine. It felt good to breathe and feel the sun on my face.
What was the alternative?
My first response was that it was “wrong” for us to continue the games while this man was lying on the floor. Instead we should…
And therein lies my conflict. We should what? If the dealers stopped dealing, the players would promptly get up and swarm the cashier. There’d be chaos in the room, rather than everybody staying seated, because Lord knows, that’s what gamblers do. They stay in their seats because they don’t dare miss a single deal.
Stop dealing and tell the players they have to stay in their seats? Yeah, good luck with that.
In retrospect, there was no “good” solution. Maintaining the status quo meant order and peace in the card room, which meant the EMTs were able to come in and do their jobs as easily and efficiently as possible. I couldn’t take it and had to leave, but I was in the tiny minority, if not literally the only person who felt the need to stop playing poker.
While I was outside, the ambulance pulled up. They brought him out on one of those magical elevator stretchers. He was breathing and seemingly alert at the time. They loaded him up, slammed the doors, and off they went.
And now what?
I went back in, where – well, it was as if nothing had happened. Unless, of course, you were in the #4 seat at table 27, or his friends and family. I just wasn’t in the mood to play, so I cashed out and went outside. Stood out there, just taking in deep breaths, listening to the traffic go by, and enjoying the warmth of the sun.
One other thing. I damn sure hope you never see me on the floor of a poker room, yawning, trying to get my breath, and waiting for the EMTs to come cut my clothes off me. But if you ever do see me there – I’ve a favor to ask: come over to me, kneel down, introduce yourself, and tell me it’s going to be okay. Even if it’s not at all clear that it is going to be okay.
And hold my hand.