Society needs rules in order to function properly but we appear to have passed the point where rules are subordinated to common sense, and it's costing people their lives.
The latest head-shaking example comes out of London, Ont., where a teenage boy in the midst of an asthma attack inside a local Tim Hortons coffee shop on Sunday was refused permission to use the store's phone to call 911.
According to the London Free Press, the teen, who a witness said was clearly in distress, was going between the store's two tills looking for help.
“The employee asked ‘what do you want?’ kind of rudely," customer Kali Sproat told the Free Press. "He said 'help. Phone.' But she told him the phones weren’t for customers — there was a pay phone across the street.”
Sproat, who used her cellphone to call 911, said none of the half dozen employees asked if he needed help.
"The whole time, not one of them came out from behind the counter to see if he was OK,” Sproat told the Free Press.
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To make matters worse, said Sproat, when paramedics arrived they mistakenly tried to enter via an exit-only door. Employees refused to open it for them.
“Why didn’t they respond?" asked Sproat, who stayed with the boy until paramedics could get to him. "I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t do anything to help."
The teen, who did not need to be hospitalized, told Sproat his asthma medication was not working.
Tim Hortons spokeswoman Michelle Robichaud told the Free Press the store employee who initially talked to the teen didn't realize he was having trouble breathing.
“My understanding is that the young man asked to use the phone and the team member didn’t recognize he was in medical distress,” Robichaud said.
She said the company will review its policies for handling emergencies with staff at the franchise location.
“The safety and well-being of our guests is of utmost concern to us," she said.
Just how much can slavish adherence to rules trump compassion?
By now you may have seen the story out of Bakersfield, Calif., where an 87-year-old woman died after collapsing in the dining room at her retirement home last week. A staff member, who said she was a trained nurse, refused to perform CPR despite pleas from a 911 operator, because it was against the facility's rules, according to KGET News.
An administrator at the Glenwood Gardens facility confirmed later its policy forbids employees from attempting CPR to residents of its independent-living facility, apparently for reasons of legal liability.
What's more, the employee refused to hand the phone to anyone else so the 911 dispatcher could talk them through giving CPR.
The dispatcher spent seven minutes trying to convince the woman to do something, anything, to help the dying senior, saying she would not be held liable.
"I understand if your boss is telling you you can't do it," the dispatcher said. "But ... as a human being ... you know … is there anybody that's willing to help this lady and not let her die?"
"Not at this time," the nurse answered flatly.
You'd expect the woman's family to be outraged. But her daughter, also a nurse, said she was satisfied with the care her mother received.
The Glenwood Gardens manager said residents in the facility's independent-living section sign on with the knowledge that they are not provided medical help, unlike other parts of the complex that provide assisted-living and nursing services. The protocol is to dial 911 and wait for help.
Our medical system is not immune from this kind of stupidity. Remember those cases at the Greater Niagara General Hospital?
In 2011, Doreen Wallace broke her hip and cut her arm in the hospital's lobby after visiting her dying husband. But no one rushed to help her even though she was about 50 paces from the emergency room.
Instead, staff called an ambulance, the Toronto Star reported at the time. Wallace lay face down, bleeding, for half an hour until surgeon passing by helped her into a wheelchair until paramedics showed up.
Hospital officials put the incident down to miscommunication, saying staff may have adhered to an old rule no longer in force.
A year earlier, staff at the same hospital's ER refused to help a 39-year-old woman in the hospital parking lot who'd lost consciousness and stopped breathing. Her boyfriend was told to call 911. The woman later died from a "catastrophic heart event," the Star said.
And then there's the bizarre case in Britain last year of a man who died after in falling into shallow pond in the town of Gosport while feeding swans. Emergency crews were forbidden to rescue him.
The man was floating face down in the waist-deep water about 20 feet from the edge of the pond. But according to the Daily Mail, the local fire station manager told a police officer and a paramedic that health and safety rules barred them from rescuing anyone in water more than ankle deep because they didn't have the correct training certification.
A rescue team with the right certification arrived later and removed the body. But a doctor told the subsequent inquest the man's life might have been saved had he been rescued sooner.
Thankfully, not everyone allows rules to interfere with their sense of what's right.
Last summer, Florida lifeguard Tomas Lopez was fired for leaving his station to rescue a swimmer drowning outside his zone of coverage.
The company that employed the lifeguards explained their duties were limited to watching over the swimming areas the company was contracted to service.
"We are not a fire-rescue operation," owner Jeff Ellis initially told the Orlando Sun Sentinel.
But following a storm of public outrage, Ellis back-pedalled.
"I am of the opinion that the supervisors acted hastily," he said, explaining that the initial concern was that Lopez left his area unguarded.
Two other lifeguards quit in protest. Ellis offered them their jobs back but Lopez, for his part, refused.