“Last night, the web saved my life”

Eight years ago, my web exploits took an interesting turn. I was informed that a website I helped design had saved a life.

It was the kind of news that profoundly focuses your life and makes you take stock.  All those weary, long, late nights of  trial-and-error hand-coding of  HTML pages, testing and re-testing for browser compatibility and griping about the workarounds for Internet Explorer pixel quirks just floated away.

help key

It was as if the Great Documenter had pulled out the file of My Entire Life and stamped it VALID in big, red letters.

But more on my own tale later. The burning question you may be asking is how could a mere website possibly save anyone’s life?

Bev Holzrichter received her own validation of the web’s value  in 2005.

The 56-year-old horse breeder was helping her mare Sierra give birth at KB Hilltop Stables in  Charlotte, Iowa. She was alone and her husband wasn’t due back for three days.

Just after the delivery, another mare named Nifty tried to enter the barn and Sierra protectively lashed out kicking Bev  three times, knocking her to the floor of the barn.

The entire incident, however, did not go unnoticed. Bev had installed webcams in the barn in 2000 and the live video feed was being streamed to hundreds of viewers who loved to watch the foaling  season online.

Passive viewers turned active rescuers as soon as they saw Bev fall.  A friend Bev knew through her website, Wendi Wiener in California, got on the chat room and message board attached to the site and told people in Iowa to call 911.

According to CNN,  concerned viewers  as far away as Germany, the UK and France had phoned the Charlotte Rescue Squad. “When the emergency services arrived 45 minutes later, they were very confused about why they had received calls from all over the world about me,” related Bev.

She was quoted as saying:  ”I don’t know what would have happened if it wasn’t for the webcam. I damaged my knee and my leg very badly. My temperature had dropped and I was in body shock by the time help arrived.

“The Internet is my hero. We hear so many bad news stories about the Internet and about webcams but this has such a happy ending. Those people watching are the ones who helped me. If it wasn’t for the technology of the webcam, I’m not sure when I would have been found or what would have happened to me.”

Aid worker Dan Woolley found himself in a similar predicament under the rubble of the recent Haiti quake.

Alone in the darkness with blood streaming from his head and leg, Dan remembered he had an app for that.

“I had an app that had pre-downloaded all this information about treating wounds. So I looked up excessive bleeding and I looked up compound fracture,” he told CNN.

The application on his iPhone is filled with information about first aid and CPR from the American Heart Association. “So I knew I wasn’t making mistakes. That gave me confidence to treat my wounds properly.”

A father of two boys, Dan used his shirt to bandage his leg,  tied his belt around the wound and firmly pressed a sock  to his head to stop the bleeding. Concerned he might be in shock, Dan said the app warned him not to fall sleep. So he set his phone alarm to go off every 20 minutes.

Dan turned the alarm off once the battery was down to 20 percent. By then, he had trained his body not to sleep for long periods, drifting off only to wake up within minutes.

After more than 60 hours, Dan was pulled from the under ruins of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince. The iPhone and the app he downloaded, he said ”was like a high-tech version of a Swiss Army knife that enabled me to treat my own injuries, track time, stay awake and stay alive.”

Watch the video of Dan relating the incident to CNN.

Actress Demi Moore and husband Ashton Kutcher are the celebrated Twitter couple of the web. In April 2009, Demi received a tweet from a woman named sandieguy: “I’m just wondering if anyone cares that I’m gonna kill myself now.”

Then a short while later: ”Getting a knife, a big one that is sharp. Going to cut my arm down the whole arm so it doesn’t waste time.”

Demi replied: ”Hope you are joking,” sharing the scenario with her then nearly 400,000 followers.Some of her followers then contacted the authorities.

As San Jose Police Sgt. Ronnie Lopez told E! News:  ”At 4:37 this morning, the San Jose Police Department received a call from a citizen requesting that we check on the welfare of a 41-year-old female. The caller indicated that she had been sending out messages on Twitter. Officers were sent to the address. There were no injuries but officers determined that the woman fit the criteria to be brought in for psychiatric evaluation, which she is currently undergoing.”

An hour later,  Demi tweeted: “Everyone I was very torn about responding or retweeting that woman’s post but felt uncomfortable just letting it go.”  She also posted: “Thanks everyone for reaching out to the San Jose PD I am told they are aware and no need to call anymore. I do not know this woman.”

A few hours later, the celebrity tweeted a confirmation of the events’ validity. “It is my understanding that the situation was not a joke and that through the collective efforts here, action was taken to provide help.”

Husband Asthon chimed in: “wifey reported a suicide attempt based on a at reply tweet she got and saved someones life. the woman is in the hospital now.”

That story was not too dissimilar to my own.

Ten years ago, I had helped activist Ivy Josiah and her team design and develop a website for the Women’s Aid Organisation.  I never met the team physically but trained two enthusiastic advocates for the organisation remotely via email and Yahoo Messenger.

As part of the design, we placed the WAO’s email and phone number on every page of the website. After the hand-off, WAO continued to have dedicated personnel to keep the site updated.

In 2002,  as Ivy later related to me, a distraught mother in Damansara had hung up on her son in the UK. Concerned, the son trawled the Internet to find some organisation to help him. He reached the WAO website and called the organisation’s hotline.

That led to a nearby WAO rep visiting the home of the mother and finding her on the floor after ingesting some pills. The WAO rep then counselled her and took her to the nearest clinic, as reported by P Angelina in The Star.

saving a life

I rarely spoke of my role in this incident to anyone for years. It was the kind of story that you hold dear to your heart and didn’t require repeating, except to your closest of friends.

In the last year or so, as a digital media advocate, I felt a need to share this story publicly.  With all the tech-bashing on Facebook and other social networks, it was necessary to point out that the web is not all that bad.

It is in fact a profound agent of change and we are all in it shaping that change with every tweet,  status update, blog post, comment, uploaded photo or video.

To lay blame on the web for our own human failures is to trivialize this greatest of all human resources.

What we do online today matters. It may affect us tomorrow in ways we may never dream of.

The web may even, one day, save your life.

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