Friday, February 15, 2008

There's No Crying In Dispatch

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.


  1. Anonymous10:26 AM EST

    Oh boy, there's not much I can say to make it better... Maybe just I'm sorry, but you cannot save them all...

  2. There's also crying at the end of reading about it.

    You try to keep believing that loving deeply sometimes has a high price tag, and that loss is the penalty you might pay for the experience, but that doesn't stop the tears when you know it has happened.

  3. I so understand the feeling. It's probably worse for you because you didn't feel like you did anything. Well, you really did do a lot.

    I've been in the middle of this and watched folks die. Again doing everything I had been trained to do. It's not a good feeling. I so understand Linda. There was no crying at work for me either, but when I got home I did. Big hug to you my friend. :)

  4. Anonymous11:32 AM EST

    Linda, from what I hear on Hubby's scanner, you did do your job and did it beautifully.

    It is hard when you're slammed into the middle of an emotionally charged situation and cannot react or "unload." I hope you had a good cry when you got home. Sometimes you just need to let it all out.

    Hugs, my dear friends, and thanks for all you do. You do make a diffference in peoples lives...A postitive one!

  5. Thats shit Linda :(

    If its any comfort, If I was going through a crisis like that your voice is exactly what i would want to here.

  6. I can't speak... hell, I can't even type. I couldn't do your job - you are amazing.

  7. The job you do is not an easy one, and I would rather hear you on the other end of the radio than anyone else...

    Just remember that you did more for that woman than any of us did yesterday, you were there for her. Our efforts were focused on him, when she was the one that really needed the care. You gave her that.

    All I can say is, Challenger's BA.

  8. Received Challenger, you're BA, 1101 for restock, clear 103L enroute and yes, I require!

    Thanks, Rob, that means a lot to me - you have no idea and at least now the reason I'm all choked up is because I'm happy.

    KUE618 Clear 1250!

  9. There's crying here Linda - big blobbing dollops of tears!

    You may think you didn't do anything but that caller wasn't alone - you were there with her honey.

  10. How harrowing, Linda. It's the sort of thin g you face in your job.

  11. Anonymous3:15 PM EST

    Yup, big blobbing dollops of hormonal tears coming from me as well. :(

    I can't imagine doing a job as tough and demanding as yours. My hats off to you, my friend.

  12. Linda: you DID deserve a Thank You.
    You are an un-sung hero in my book.
    Yes, it's horrible but you were there for her and you did your job admirably in the situation.


  13. I couldn't read this without crying either. In a situation like that, I would want YOU on the other end of the phone. She could tell, even through your trained repetitive phrases, that you cared about her. This post proves that you are really doing what you should be doing. You do make a big difference in this world. I'm sure that woman will never forget how you helped her. So tragic.

    Despite the heartbreak reading this and the awful circumstances, it was truly a beautifully written post. I wish it never had to be written.

  14. Linda.

    Words escape me. It's comforting to know that some of the horrors of our job are shared - across the county, across the state, and across the nation.

    It's comforting to know that there are a few people out there that can understand and relate to the life changing things we do and hear each day...

    You will understand when I pass along this atta-boy (or in this case atta-girl) to you - because we rarely get the thanks we deserve for what we do (behind the scenes....) So Linda, I'm presenting you this virtual - e-commendation for a job well done - even if you don't think you did anything.

    This post was too good to not get linked back at FOF. I have asked all my regulars to stop by and check this out.. Some dispatchers, some officers, and some... well.. some "callers"...

    If that ever has to be my mother on the phone, I pray that someone as capable, kind and understanding as you answers the call.

    Thanks again Linda...

  15. Anonymous6:54 PM EST

    I have been first responder in this type of situation. Let me tell you, you don't feel any less helpless when you're doing CPR and you know in your heart it's not going to do any good because it was started too late.

    You were an important connection for that woman, Linda. In her heart she knew what was happening. Because of your professionalism and empathy she was able to cope until physical help got there. Job well done!

  16. oh honey i am so sorry for her and for you too. are you actually saying you don't have caller id with addresses though? is that why they ask for the address? man. that is scary!

    hugs, bee

  17. I have no idea how you do what you do, but I for one, am very glad that you do what you do so well.
    Best wishes

  18. Linda, that was one of the most poignant, moving posts I have read recently.
    You did make a difference in her life. Let me tell you why I think so...
    When my first husband was killed, when I got to the hospital, not having a clue as to what had happened, a police officer met me in Emergency and took me down the hall to the "little room" off the main waiting room. So right away, I knew that it wasn't good. His name? Officer Love. I will never forget him. Not just because of his name, but how he conducted himself with me as he led me down that hall. His slipped his arm around my shoulders and told me that he was praying for me and my family. Even through the awful realization that I might never see my husband alive again, Officer Love was able to meet me in a way that the pronouncing MD couldn't.
    Don't ever feel that what you do doesn't matter. Sweetheart, you'll never know how many people will carry you with them.
    I sent Officer Love a note after all the dust settled, thanking him for his kindness. I never heard from him but I hope it made his day a bit brighter.
    Thanks for the job you do...

  19. OH dear, sometimes life is hard.

    you did your job, and a job well done.

    you were a calm voice in the midst of her total panic. That's the best you could have been, and the best she could have hoped for.

    Having had 911 hang up on me once and minimize my situation a different time I can say that you staying with her with your calm repetitive talk was a wonderful gift, for which she was thankful.

    say you're welcome, say a prayer, say a job well done to yourself and the first responders.

    oh, and thanks for this post, I was getting really tired of all the super sappy Valentine's Day stuff people are putting up. My VDay sucked. I worked the first 7 hours, slept the next 7 and worked the last 7 with 3 hours of driving and eating in there for good measure.

  20. hi Linda,oh nice to be here and read your post.

  21. Nip on over and collect your award as at todays date.

  22. Your calmness and concern flowed through the telephone to that poor woman.
    You did everything you could do,Linda.
    Like Mimi I also would want you on the other end of the line if I called 911.
    You have an incredibly tough job. I could never do what you do on a daily basis. And you made a huge difference in that woman's life.

    This is beautifully written, as others said.
    Hugs to you and I hope you have a quiet weekend.

  23. You have a tough job Linda, but the world needs more like you that truly care about what they are doing.

  24. Anonymous2:21 PM EST

    Oh Linda,
    you did do a good job for her. You did. The EMT's who helped us the day Angel died will forever be a part of my life, although she did die. I will never forget their calm, loving manner.
    Your care for her did not go unnoticed. Your heavenly father noticed it.
    This pain is the very reason I cannot work with pediatric patients. It's just too painful for me.
    Love you,

  25. I know I couldn't do your job but I am sure she was thanking you for being on the other end of the phone. What a sad day for her.

  26. Anonymous1:49 AM EST

    Linda, you did do something. You did your job to the best of your ability. You did it well. You were that voice on the other end of the phone, the one voice she had besides her own screams. God bless you for what you do. I guess it helps put it all into perspective for you. I know reading this did that for me.

  27. Wow.. I could not do your job. You definitely were of help..she needed your voice on the other side of the phone. She needed to know someone was there with her. God Bless You.

  28. Anonymous3:48 PM EST

    You're one of life's special people - doing a special job. You may not think it sometimes but you are.

    Just knowing she wasn't alone was enough.

    God Bless you all.


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