The human eye can be mighty delicate, which the human brain sometimes forgets. One morning last month, Ruby Poirel of Northwest Washington forgot in a big, dangerous way.
When she awoke early on the morning of Oct. 7, the iris in one of her eyes was bright red. "I really panicked," she said. Shortly afterward, she felt faint.
Ruby's husband, John Knoll, called 911. D.C. Fire Department Engine Company 9 and Medic Unit 31 were on the scene within seven minutes. What they found was more serious than the redness in Ruby's eye.
This 66-year-old woman was suffering from a panic attack.
As measured by the medic unit, her blood pressure had skyrocketed to 198/100, and she was hyperventilating. Medics had to administer oxygen for nearly 20 minutes before Ruby was calm enough to move.
At Georgetown University Hospital, doctors quickly determined that Ruby had suffered a broken blood vessel in her eye.
This happens fairly frequently. It doesn't mean that your vision is about to disappear, or that you're bleeding to death. It's a relatively minor injury that can be caused by something as simple as sneezing, or scratching yourself by accident while you sleep.
Within a couple of days, Ruby was as good as ever. What she has since realized is that she was in much worse shape because of her panic attack than she was because of her red eye. She has resolved to stay cool -- or at least cooler -- if there's a next time.
First things first: Ruby and John would like to commend the crew of Engine 9 (Lt. James Monohan and firefighters Robert Eubanks, Shannon Simister and Jimmy McDuffie) and the crew of Medic 31 (paramedics Audrey Griffin and Steven Chasen).
"You always hear about how bad ambulance service is in the District," said John. Not this time, I'm happy to say.
How can you tell if you've moved from a state of increased anxiety into a full-blown panic attack? The American Psychological Association lists these criteria:
* The attack occurs without warning.
* The level of fear is out of proportion to the actual danger.
APA also notes that a true panic attack "passes in a few minutes." That knowledge might help you wrestle yourself back to stability if a panic attack ever lands on you.
If left untreated, panic disorder can lead to other serious conditions, according to APA. They include dangerous levels of drug and alcohol consumption and greater financial dependence on others.
How to treat it? APA suggests "informational therapy" to help panic sufferers "replace those thoughts with more realistic, positive ways of viewing the attacks." Anti-anxiety medications and relaxation techniques may also help, APA says.
Ruby hasn't had any trouble with her eyes -- or her fears -- since October. Her husband says that by the end of her day of difficulty, "she was the happiest woman in the world" -- mostly because of the excellent care she received from those D.C. emergency workers and the crew at Georgetown Hospital.
Yet the uncomfortable truth is that if you've suffered one panic attack, you're prone to suffer others. If you've read this far, you now have some counter-strategies if it ever happens to you.
This one wasn't quite full-blown panic disorder, but it certainly led to a case of rumpled nerves. Happily, it starred a man who could have ducked, but who stepped forward.
The scene was North Arlington, on a quiet Saturday evening, about 11:30 p.m. A young woman who lives on a "quiet side street near Chain Bridge" had been out on a date with a young man. The couple returned to her house for a nightcap.
The woman turned the key in her front door lock -- and snapped it in half.
There's a back door, but the same key opens it. She had never gotten around to hiding a spare key anywhere outside. The woman describes herself as "angry and frustrated."
Sir Galahad asked if any of her windows were open. She thought that the one on the second floor might be. So Galahad climbed a nearby tree and jumped onto the roof. He was about to try dangling precariously in the direction of the window ledge when a neighbor came past.
"I don't know his name, and I never asked it," the woman told me. But he intervened right away -- before Galahad fell off the roof and turned an inconvenience into a disaster.
The stranger went home (a distance of about half a mile), got a ladder, propped it against the side of the house, clambered up it and tried the window.
Meanwhile, Galahad scrambled back down to earth, safely.
The woman said the man with the ladder was very apologetic. "He kept saying he was sorry to have jumped into the middle of our business," she told me. "I told him, 'Hey, I'm glad you jumped into the middle of our business!'
"Isn't it a shame that in this day and age, a guy can't even help a neighbor without worrying that he'll be blamed for interfering?"
I see your point, gentle reader. But I also see his. What if the ladder had given way? We'd be talking about a lawsuit rather than an act of mercy.