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Why Couldn’t Eric Garner Breathe?

Why Couldn’t Eric Garner Breathe?
Why Couldn’t Eric Garner Breathe?
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I breathe therefore I am. And I am, I’m happy to say. It goes without saying that if you’re reading this you’re breathing. Now that I’ve pointed this out, I bet you took a slightly deeper breath as your conscious side took over your lungs. Most of the time we breathe unconsciously; it’s simply way too important to leave to our “awake brain,” as breathing is the difference between life and death.

This need to breathe is primal and it helps explain our outrage this week at a Staten Island grand jury when they failed to find criminal fault with the NYPD in the death of Eric Garner. You may remember, Eric died last July while being arrested for a misdemeanor. Yes, you read that right, a misdemeanor. Eric desperately appealed for help with the now famous phrase: “I can’t breathe.” The question is: why couldn’t he?

The answer is complicated, of course. During the arrest an NYPD police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, jumped him from behind and put him in a chokehold. Several other officers then crowded Eric pushing him onto the ground. As they subdued Eric he was lying on his belly with his hands behind his back. An uncomfortable position for anybody. But Eric wasn’t anyone. He, like me, is — or I should say was — asthmatic. He was also overweight. Actually he was morbidly obese. So lying on his belly with his hands forced behind his back was a life threatening posture for him, a morbidly obese asthmatic.

You see, it’s instinctive when you’re short of breath to sit upright and lean forward. This way your “respiratory apparatus” lines up optimally and you can also, if needed, use your accessory respiratory muscles. Accessory muscles are the back ups used when you’re having a hard time catching your breath. Think of it this way: after you’ve run around the block several times, you wouldn’t lie on your belly with your arms behind you to catch your breath. No, you would not. Mother nature just wouldn’t let you. You’d sit up and lean forward while your lungs played catch up. Now you’re beginning to get the picture of why Eric couldn’t breathe. And then there’s his asthma.

In asthma, the problem is in expiration. It’s not that we asthmatics can’t get a breath in, we can. It’s getting the breath out that is our problem. Throw in Eric’s morbid obesity and the “police action” — now you’re getting the full picture. He literally has hundreds of lbs. weighing on his lungs stopping them moving air in or out. Small wonder he cried out over and over and over a full 11 times, “I can’t breathe”. He couldn’t. The man simply couldn’t.

Much has been made by some that if Eric was truly short of breath he wouldn’t have been able to talk. This is absolute nonsense. My asthma has made me short of breath many times but I could talk. I’ve also treated a ton of patients over the years with shortness of breath and virtually all could talk.

As always in theses scenarios there’s lots of blame to go around, and it’s not all on Officer Pantaleo. It’s also on his superiors who insist that street cops treat even misdemeanors as if they’re major, violent felonies and escalate to whatever force is necessary to bring the “bad guy” in. In this case the “bad guy” was a man selling “loosies.” Absurd. Also I have to say the paramedics, to their eternal shame, didn’t cover themselves in glory. They did virtually nothing when they arrived. It seemed as if they had no training at all. That’s a scandal in itself.

Eric’s death is unquestionably a tragedy, and I believe wholly unnecessary. And it’s on all of us. Here’s hoping change will come. As a salute to Eric, celebrate this simplicity: I breathe therefore I am.  Go on, do it. Take a big breath. Gulp the air down. Forgive me Eric if my breath is a little wheezy as I too gulp down the air that gives life. May you rest in peace.


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