Sanctuary: Blog

To rescue...or not to rescue?

Submitted by: Nelson Urena, Faculty, Sanctuary Institute


About a week ago toddler momentarily distracts me from my busy translation work as I sit diligently typing away at a bustling coffee shop.  Puzzled as I am to see a toddler crying and in agony at the door of a busy New York City coffee shop, my eyes leave the computer screen and park themselves directly in front of the distressed child.

I guess it is part of my own vicarious trauma to automatically turn my attention to children in distress…

I look around for a parent… Look at every single face (buried in their laptops, tablets, cell phones, etc.) in the coffee shop in search of familial resemblance to the child.  As I sit unable to locate a parent I find myself beginning to feel distressed.  The child’s distress somehow permeates my person.  Emotional contagion.  Distress that I am the only person in this shop paying any attention to this child, not my child… but our child! Social responsibility! I look through the store front windows and count the 15 or so steps the child could take in the safety of a sidewalk before reaching the rapids of a New York City street.  I look again and see child’s fragile, cute, and dexterous little fingers as he cups one hand in the other and leans his body in the very direction of where the door meets the wall creating a crevice just small enough for him to squeeze those precious little fingers through…  

Distress turns into mild panic as I whip my head around one more time in search of a guardian… Impulsively my legs shoot back, knocking over the chair from under me, and begin to take a first step toward the child when suddenly I hear a calm soothing voice, “Ok… its ok… its ok… its ok…”  I notice a gray haired middle-aged man sporting a t-shirt that reads “Proud parent of a rescue cat,” and the familial resemblance to that child for which I so desperately searched.  At that moment both the child’s and my own distress are simultaneously calmed.  My anxiety level plummets and calm begins to ease its way back into my body as I watched the child embracing the man’s leg with a certain familiarity that can only exist between guardian and child… 

So much of our voluntary behavior is dictated by our histories…  histories in which we may or may not have had voluntary choice, thus bringing to mind the question of free will…  We are free to act, yet our freedom to respond is in some ways bound, and for some people, held captive by our histories, traumatic experiences, learned responses, other people’s actions, or simply put, things outside of our control…   It has been about a month since I left my role as a full time Milieu Therapist to work in other capacities at ANDRUS and this episode was my first chance to reflect upon my experience at Griffith Hall.  This episode highlighted for me the cumulative effect that my work as a direct care staff has had on me.  The continuous and repetitive need for me, as a Milieu Therapist, to be hyperaware of the safety (physical, emotional, social, and moral) of the children around me (headcounts, safety checks, baseline recognition, emotional first aide, engaging in activity, etc.) has become a learned behavior which I now find difficult to turn off.  And so as I continue on my quest to help make the world a better place, I am challenged to understand my responsibility to the community around me.  Crises and people in distress will surround me everywhere I turn and this incident in the coffee shop calls me to think about how and when it would be socially appropriate for me to intervene.  Ultimately I am faced with the challenge of not allowing my learned intervention techniques to become maladaptive and dictate how I interact with my community.  So I return to my work, wrap up for the day and as I walk away from my self proclaimed office I spot another toddler reaching the end of the sidewalk as the parent meanders distractedly about 15 feet behind with her head buried in her iPhone and I think to myself, “to rescue, or not to rescue?”


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