On a bright winter morning, I sat in my car at a traffic light and mentally ran through my list of errands. The sun blazed brightly, and as the light turned from red to green, I started to proceed through the intersection, intent on making a left into the parking lot of my favorite coffee shop. As I applied my foot to the gas, the unthinkable happened right before my eyes: two cars collided and resulted in a hideous pile of metal, shattered glass, and leaking gas. As I watched the cars come to an abrupt halt, I saw the driver of one of the cars slump toward his steering wheel, clearly having lost consciousness.
Quickly, I navigated my car to the shoulder of the road, grabbed my cell phone, and got out of my car. After halting traffic, I ran to the unconscious driver’s car. Unable to open his door because of the damage, I ran around to the passenger side and opened the door just as he regained consciousness. As I sat with him, trying to keep him calm, the driver of the other car was helped by another motorist. I called police and did what I could to keep the trapped victim calm and still until help arrived.
People have since said to me that I was a hero that day.
I was just doing what I hope someone else would do for me if I was ever in a life-threatening situation. I was simply being a good Samaritan, offering help to someone who desperately needed it. And though being a registered nurse made it easier for me to leap into action, I like to think that I was doing is what anyone else would have done in the same situation — medical professional or not.
The term “good Samaritan” comes from a parable in the Bible. In the parable, a traveler is attacked along a dusty stretch of road between Jericho and Jerusalem. A priest and a Levite passed the bruised and battered man by, but it was a Samaritan who had mercy on him. The Samaritan took him home, nursed his wounds, and paid an innkeeper to look after the traveler. Hence, the term good Samaritan is used to describe anyone who offers reasonable assistance to someone believed to be in peril.
Even though I stopped at the scene of the accident to help, I realize that there are many people who are hesitant or afraid to stop to offer help in a crisis. Fears of doing the wrong thing or worrying about not having formal training are common reasons for people to avoid helping in a crisis situation, but here’s the thing: There’s no need to be afraid of being a good Samaritan, and here’s why:
1. There are laws to protect good Samaritans, so go ahead help your neighbor.
In all 50 states, there are laws that protect citizens who stop to offer reasonable aid to someone in need. Simply put, when you stop at an accident scene, your state has a law to keep you from being prosecuted, so don’t be afraid to stop and lend a hand because you won’t wind up in court. But it’s a good idea to clarify the good Samaritan laws in your state because the laws are so varied.
2. You don’t need medical training to be a good Samaritan.
When an accident happens, it’s everyday people who are there to witness it. It’s the mom in the minivan who can detail the moments leading up to the accident to the police. It’s the man in the parking lot who quickly dials 911. And it’s the woman who stops and simply asks, “Are you okay?” to a scared teenaged driver. You don’t have to perform heroic lifesaving measures to be a good Samaritan. Simply calling 911, and waiting in a nearby parking lot for police, is helpful. Even taking a basic CPR class and learning the signs and symptoms of a heart attack could save a friend’s life.
3. Being a good Samaritan isn’t just about helping in a crisis.
There are laws to protect good Samaritans in non-crisis situations too. In 1996, the Bill Emerson good Samaritan Food Donation Act was signed into law. This act ensures that anyone who donates reasonably labeled food to local community food banks cannot be prosecuted if the food is damaged or spoiled. Donating food, supporting blood drives, and raising money for a local cause are all part of being a good Samaritan. So even if you feel helpless in situations of crisis, you can do your part for your community in a variety of other ways.
4. Being a good Samaritan is contagious.
Since that winter day when I stopped to help that scared driver, I’ve had several people tell me that my good Samaritan act inspired them to be more helpful in their own community. Kindness begets kindness, and there’s no better way to demonstrate goodness and decency than to lend a hand when someone needs it the most. And don’t forget: Your kids are always watching you. When they see you act as a good Samaritan, they’ll likely grow up to do it too.
5. Good Samaritans are angels in disguise.
As a nurse who has worked in countless ERs, I can tell you that good Samaritans leave lasting impressions on the victims they help. Patient after patient has recounted to me beautiful acts of kindness extended to them by complete strangers. The world always needs more random acts of kindness.
I’ll never know what happened to that poor, scared kid in the driver’s seat on that frightful day, but I do know one thing: He had a friendly face waiting with him on a day that didn’t go nearly as he’d planned. As I held his hand and looked at his scared eyes, tears staining his face, I was grateful that I was in the right place at the right time.
In any crisis situation, calling 911 is the safest, most effective way to get help. Do not risk personal harm or injury to yourself or others should you encounter an emergency. Use discretion.