I'm a 911 dispatcher, a professionally trained and certified emergency medical dispatcher with years of experience under my belt. I help save lives. I have the knowledge. I have the well-scripted protocol. I have the ability. Sometimes all of that doesn't add up to a hill of beans.
Experience has taught me that whenever I pick up a 911 call and can hear the screaming before the receiver even reaches my ear it's not going to be good. Sometimes that screaming isn't a precursor to a totally hideous call, sometimes it's just the way that people react to situations that aren't life-threatening but scary and sometimes, well ... sometimes it's the precursor to a call that's not going to end well. Such was the case with a 911 call I picked up towards the end of my shift yesterday.
"American Ambulance, what's the address of your emergency?"
"Aaaaiiiiiiii ... help me, please somebody help me .... aaaaaiiiiiii!"
"Ma'am, please calm down, I need the address of your emergency so I can send you help."
"Help me, help me, help me - please send help! Oh help me!"
The dispatcher at the police department who had transferred the call over told me that the caller's husband was unresponsive and gave me the address and the phone number as well as the name that had popped up on their 911 screen (we don't have an enhanced system at our company so have to rely on the PD for the info when we can't get it out of the caller).
"Ma'am, can you tell me, is he breathing?"
"No, no, he isn't. Send help! Please send help!"
I tried to tell her that my partner was dispatching an ambulance and the fire department had also been started but she wasn't listening to me. Instead I heard her counting ... "1-1,000; 2-,1,000; 3-1,000; 4-1,000; 5-1,000; 6-1,000; 7-1,000". A pause and then a big breath. I turned to my partner and told him that she was doing CPR and he started a second ambulance to assist with what we call "a working 100", a code that means there is a potential cardiac or respiratory arrest and the patient could be dead already or could be brought back with the proper interventions and medications. In other words, it means we need more manpower and we need it there fast.
The caller finally came back to the phone still screaming for an ambulance and I attempted to calm her down using repetitive persistence, a technique whereby you tell the caller the same thing over and over in a calm and reassuring voice in an attempt to break though the hysteria. It wasn't working, I couldn't reach her as she cried to her husband to not leave her, to not die on her, that she loved him, that he had to wake up as she called his name over and over. They were the most anguished, heart-wrenching cries I had heard in a very long time and my heart went out to this unknown stranger on the other end of the phone.
I was finally able to get through to her enough to find out a little bit of information about his medical history and that he had gone to take a nap a half hour ago before she started to do what a lot of callers do - she started to blame herself. She should have checked on him, she never should have let him take a nap, she should have known something was wrong. I'm sure that my words of reassurance that she had done nothing wrong and not to blame herself went pretty well unheard but it was all I could think to say at the time. Where, oh where, was that ambulance or the fire department? The address wasn't far from us - what on earth was taking so long? Minutes seem like years when there is a life hanging in the balance.
The poor soul on the other end of the phone once again began imploring her beloved not to leave her, not to go, that she loved him and he couldn't die, he just couldn't. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I heard the ambulance crews arrive and the first responders come through the front door. I told her I was going to let her go and she said thank you before she hung up.
"Thank you"? For what? I didn't do a thing. I couldn't do a thing. All of my training, all of my years of experience, all of the well-scripted protocol, all of my knowledge and ability meant nothing with that call. I was simply a human voice on the end of a phone line; a person who heard the grief, the heartbreak, and the flat-out horror of someone finding a loved one no longer breathing and gone from this world. I was of no help to that poor woman at all. None.
After I hung up the phone I sat and stared at the spreadsheet in front of me, barely able to see it for the tears welling up in my eyes while feeling like a complete and total failure in my chosen profession and grieving for the poor woman whose name I didn't even know. But there's no crying in dispatch as there just isn't time. The wheelchair vans that I was dispatching that day were calling on the radio and I needed to acknowledge them even though I could barely speak around the lump in my throat. The phones were still ringing and couldn't be ignored. Life went on. At least in the dispatch center.
In spite of the best efforts of the paramedics, emergency medical technicians, firefighters, and police who arrived on the scene of that 911 call the patient didn't make it. He was 49 years old. It was Valentine's Day.
There's no crying in dispatch but there is in the car on the way home.