Bob Ashley: Summoning help in a Walmart parking lot

Jan. 06, 2013 @ 03:03 PM

I should deny it, but I was, I confess, grumpy.

We were taking a few days off over the holidays, spending time on Hilton Head Island on the South Carolina coast.

We’d had a wonderful dinner with old friends from Charlotte. We had gotten in late the night before, the stress of Christmas barely behind us.

The last thing I wanted was go to Walmart, even though I acknowledged we needed a lamp and other items probably best acquired there this day after Christmas. Logic (at least in the eyes of my wonderful wife, Pat) triumphed. Off to Walmart we went.

The parking lot was jammed. I dropped Pat and our son, Andrew, at the door and went in search of a parking place. Spotting one that was, relatively speaking, convenient a few moments later, I turned the car in, cut the engine and climbed out.

I can be blissfully unobservant, despite my line of work, when I’m crabby. But something in the car to my left caught my eye. Sometimes motion will catch your eye; in this case, motionless did. I realized that, a couple of feet away, a person was slumped over at the wheel of the van next to me.

I don’t mean slumped over as in nodding off. She was more than doubled over, shifted right, head and upper torso splayed over the console between driver and passenger seats. It did not look right.

I took a couple steps, let the picture sink in, and doubled back. I rapped, gently than harder, on the passenger window. No response.

I walked around, hesitated, and then banged, gently then harder, on the driver’s side window. No response.

I tried the door. It was unlocked. I opened it, asked quietly but firmly, and then louder, “Are you OK?”

No response. The engine was running, the heater on. Perhaps, I thought, I should go into Walmart and tell someone. That seemed inadequate.

I didn’t want to cause trouble. I didn’t want to upset some poor soul catching a few winks while, perhaps, a significant other was tracking down chips or a plumbing joint inside. But the unresponsiveness and running engine worried me.

I called 911 on my cell.

To my relief, I immediately connected with Hilton Head’s emergency dispatch center. The dispatcher asked several questions, and I gave the best detail I could, about the condition of the driver and our location. EMS vehicles would be dispatched immediately, she said. I’d be standing in the aisle to help them find us, I promised.

A fire engine, ambulance and deputy sheriff’s vehicle were there, sirens blaring, in fewer than five minutes. When the EMS technicians descended on the car and shook the driver, she groggily responded. I’d stepped away, but her answers sounded confused.

I walked into the Walmart and joined my family.

Pat was in a hurry, heading for the checkout almost before I could catch up. Be warned, I said, we might not be able to get out of our parking space right away. EMS vehicles are blocking the aisle.

What’s going on? She asked.

I called them, I said … and tried to lay out the story.

To this moment, I wonder if I caused unnecessary trouble. The EMS folks assured me I’d done the right thing. Better safe than sorry. One told Pat as we returned to the car that they were taking the woman to the ER for a closer look, although they had assured me she was all right.

I’m not much for jumping into situations like this. But I’d like to think that EMS tech was right – better safe than sorry.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-768-0242 or at