THE BLOG

If You Were Dying, Would Anybody Help?

03/19/2013 10:56 am ET | Updated May 19, 2013

Last week, in Piscataway, N.J., an 89-year-old Alzheimer's patient who went missing in a wooded area without any protection from the cold was discovered by "Creature," a two-year-old pit bull. Despite a manhunt for the woman, neither the police nor her family were able to find her. Undiscovered, she would have died. But the pit bull, just on a routine walk, would not relent and led its owner into the dense woods to discover the woman. Chalk one up for canine kindness!

Unfortunately, two weeks ago, when an 87-year-old woman in acute cardiac arrest required assistance, humans just stood by.

It takes a lot to shock the news media, but most media sources were indeed shocked when a 911 operator begged an employee at Glenwood Gardens, an assisted-living facility in Bakersfield, Cal., who would not help the elderly woman who was having a heart attack. The employee was worried about legal liability if someone in the facility administered CPR, and so despite the pleadings not only did she refuse to directly help but she also refused to look for help. The lady died.

The exchange is chilling as the operator pleads, "Isn't there anyone that's willing to help this lady and not let her die?" The employee coldly replies, "Not at this time," kind of like there's no service tech available to come out and fix your refrigerator.

I understand the rationale, but it seems to me that the liability to our country and culture is much greater than anything the facility would have suffered.

The state of California has a Good Samaritan law that shields people from liability. But our country has no such law that compels "good people" to do good things. And in the absence of such a law, corporate liability policies often give people a legitimate pass when it comes to helping another person.

But the greater question is whether this incident is indicative of a larger trend in our country in which the answer to the age-old question, "Am I my brother's keeper," is a resounding "No!"

In every society, there are examples of how authority figures sanction people isolating and absolving themselves from responsibility. Over the past few years, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has been interviewing ordinary citizens who stood by and did nothing in the face of the Nazi genocide against Jews and others during the Holocaust. The answers generally were that they didn't notice, feared for their families or didn't want to get involved.

But during the Holocaust, the Nazis threatened all of society with retribution if they didn't at least ignore the genocide. In Poland, if you harbored Jews and were discovered, you and your entire family could be killed. Needless to say, many stood by.

Several thousand people, though, including the Teski, Jozwick, Jakubowski and Boncler families who risked their lives to hide my parents and grandmother in the 1940s, did step up to do the right thing. What made the difference?

I traveled to Poland in the 1990s to meet and ask the rescuers that question. "When there was every reason to stand by due to fear of the ultimate liability -- death to you and your family -- why did you risk your family to save my family?" I asked.

They all replied that it was the right thing to do and that they were raised by their parents and grandparents to do right by others. Even after Frania Jakubowska was beaten nearly to death by the Nazis after her neighbors reported that they suspected that she had hidden Jews, she brought food to my grandmother who was hiding in a typhus hospital where the Nazis had killed all the patients.

What I realized from my journey, chronicled in my 2005 book Searching for Values: a Grandmother, a Grandson and the Discovery of Goodness, was that this "goodness DNA" wasn't born but bred. The values instilled by family and supported by community created the tipping point that converted the bystander to become the rescuer.

Fast forward to America in 2013. Have we become a nation where liability has overtaken love and the silos of self-interest have surpassed community and citizenship?

I believe that we have gone off a "values cliff." A few years ago I witnessed this values decline when, while traversing a parking lot I slipped on black ice, flew up into the air parallel to the ground, then landed on the pavement, flat on my back. I lay there, in excruciating pain for about 10 minutes while people walked by, minding their own business. Some may not have noticed, others maybe thought that I was drunk. All chose not to get involved.

In myriad news accounts, we saw evidence of this callous and uncaring behavior last summer in Steubenville, Ohio, when multiple teens stood by, some taking photos and videos, while a 16-year-old girl was raped by two high school football players at a party.

Thirty or more years ago, when few if any facilities for the elderly would have abdicated responsibility like the one did recently in Bakersfield, we also had an America where religion was more influential, where neighbors took interest in the well-being of their neighbors' children, where schools taught values and where corporate America had enormous loyalty to employees.

Who is responsible for this "values cliff" and how do we get back on track to a shared expectation of decency, responsibility and citizenship that we all can say is the real America of our traditions, aspirations, hopes and dreams?

If we leave a more intimate and caring vision of America to the canines, then our society will really have gone to the dogs!

Purple America is a national initiative to re-focus the American conversation on a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.purpleamerica.us.