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The Day I Went from Dispatcher to a First Responder

Author: Mary Hay Davis

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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By Mary Hay Davis

Originally published in our Jan/Feb 2008 issue.

Mary Hay DavisIf you work as a dispatcher long enough, you inevitably face one of our occupation’s worst type of calls: the death of a child. Any death call can be traumatic, especially if it comes on the heels of something you have recently experienced yourself, such as the death of a parent. But almost all dispatchers I know agree that the call they dread handling and that weighs on them the most heavily afterwards is a call where a child dies.

I have handled such calls numerous times, and they are no easier today than they were 21 years ago when I started dispatching. Over the years, the disturbances and the domestic violence and the fatal traffic collisions have become a blur of memories and words on my screen. And yet I can recall vividly every call I have ever worked involving the death of a child, even before I had children of my own. And I can hear in my mind the sobs coming over the radio of parents who have learned their child’s fate when the patrol officer on scene advised “11-44,” our radio code for a fatality.

As bad as all of these experiences have been, they were still remote and indirect – something I experienced vicariously in a supporting role to the officers in the field who were directly involved. That is, until four years ago when I learned firsthand exactly what occurs on the other end of the radio and the emotional toll it takes, not only on the victims but on everyone at the scene. The insight that came from the events that day helped me become a better dispatcher to the community I serve.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in May – one of those rare days where my husband, a canine officer, and I actually had an afternoon off together. Our kids were inside playing, while my husband and I enjoyed a beverage on our patio outside. Suddenly, screams pierced the air, breaking the day’s tranquility.

The screams continued and got louder, and my husband and I started running up the street toward the source. As we ran, our next-door neighbor pointed to the neighbor one more house down, and we heard wailing coming from the yard. My husband was several steps ahead of me, and he raced up their driveway. I had just turned a curve to where I could see what was going on – that the resident was holding the limp and lifeless body of a three-year-old child in her arms. My husband wrenched the boy out of her grip and immediately began CPR. When I got down the driveway, I wrested the phone away from her other hand and took over the 9-1-1 call. I tried to talk to the dispatcher, but there was still so much screaming and sobbing that it was hard to communicate. The dispatcher calmly got the information from me as to what condition the child was in on a moment-to-moment basis and kept assuring me that help was on the way.

In hindsight, it was very surreal, and I experienced the exact same time-space continuum that so many of our callers do: “What is taking you so long to get here? It’s been 10 minutes!” when, in fact, it was only three or four. Seeing the lifeless body and the child’s blue face and lips twisted my perception of reality and slowed every single moment into almost a freeze-frame sensation. As I knelt over the boy’s body, on the opposite side of my husband, who had paused to check for a pulse, I heard it – a gurgling sucking sound that produced a voluminous amount of water and some vomit. And then came a sound we didn’t think we would hear – a huge gasp. At that moment, time stood still as I wondered whether there would be another. And then it came … and another … and another. After spitting up some more water and vomit, the boy started taking more breaths, and then started crying. At that point, both the boy’s mother and the resident started sobbing in the faintest of hopes that this tragedy might have a good outcome. And while the boy was indeed breathing for now, we had no idea what the outcome would be.

Eventually, the first responders showed up and took over the boy’s care. I turned my attention to the mother, who spoke only Spanish. I tried to calm her and offer what little support anyone can during a crisis like that. After a few minutes, they loaded the boy into the ambulance to take him to a staging location to be airlifted to Children’s Hospital. I drove the mother there to be with him; then, as he was flown away, I took her to the hospital. I stayed a few hours until we found out the child’s condition – that he was one of the few lucky ones and would survive. Not only did he make it, he had absolutely no brain damage. He was kept overnight for observation and then released the next day – a day he spent at the San Diego Zoo with his parents celebrating all that could have been lost.

It took me a few days to process all that had occurred that afternoon. How a series of congruent, fortunate events – us being home and outside, and our middle neighbors being out to relay the screams for help – all came into alignment to give us crucial seconds that allowed for the resuscitation and revival of this boy.

While my husband and I took great satisfaction in the happy outcome, it dawned on me shortly afterwards that this was almost routine for him, and that he had handled incidents like this throughout his career as a first responder. For me, it was a life-changing event – not only personally but professionally.

Never had I witnessed something this traumatic in person, let alone responded to it as a rescuer. Hearing screams on the other end of the phone as a dispatcher is just part of a day’s work for me. But on that day, hearing the desperate screams and shrill sirens in person as they pierced the air gave me a profound and heartfelt new respect for what our caller’s experience.

Through the years, it is easy for dispatchers to become complacent and see the callers’ names on the screen as just words and letters. You go into emotional survival mode, detaching yourself in order to stay sane amid the chaos. But this experience that jolted me so personally four years ago has stayed with me professionally. Every name on my screen represents flesh and blood and emotions that make up that person and all his or her humanity – a human being that needs my assistance at that moment.

Our neighbors have since moved, and we lost track of the little boy. But I still think of him and his blue lips and how, for those interminable 10 minutes, his whole future depended on a roll of the cosmic dice – survival or death. Even though our experience had a happy outcome, I relive it every time I get a death call, such as the call about the drowning of an 18-month-old girl in a backyard pool a couple of years ago. This little girl was not so fortunate. Although transported, she succumbed – her blue lips never again to turn pink, her mother never to hear the words, “She’s gonna be okay.” Never to take another trip to the zoo, or graduate high school, or marry and raise a family. I think of all the things that little girl will never experience, and I think of all the anguish her family will continue to endure. And even more sadly, I know that there will continue to be more calls just as tragic.

The little boy in my story has a name: Diego. Four years ago he, too, was just a name on some dispatcher’s screen, a mere statistic in the 9-1-1 center’s answer times and the field unit’s response times. I promised myself that day that I would never forget the near death of this child. But Diego’s legacy to me is not just in the happy ending we experienced as his lips drew the breath of life back in. His legacy lives on in every call I dispatch. While I know that, yes, some victims will live and some will die, no longer are they just names on my screen. Each is an individual, a person with a family and a future. And I will dispatch accordingly. For Diego.

Mary Hay Davis is a freelance writer and has worked as a police dispatcher for San Diego PD for the past 21 years. She is married, with two children and lives in a small community east of San Diego. Her hobbies include photography and interior design, as well as coaching youth sports.

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