Mothers who call about their children can be challenging. Mothers tend to care way too much, yell way too much, freeze up, or try so hard to control the outcome that they get in the way or make things worse. (I’m not judging; those same words could be used to describe me during my daughter’s entire high school career.)
I’m thinking of a mom who called one day, her choking toddler in her arms, panting and interrupting me as I tried to assess what was going on so I could help.
“Ma’am, what is she choking on?” I ask, knowing she probably didn’t hear it. Is she running with the baby? That’s what it sounds like. I also hear a baby crying, which would be a great sign, breathing-wise, but experience has taught me I can’t assume it’s the right baby.
I ask again, “What is she choking on?”
“I slapped her on the back!” she announces, and now I’m really worried.
Never, never, NEVER slap a choking person on the back. There’s a scene in Field of Dreams that makes me cringe every time I see it, (and I’ve seen it many times because Kevin Costner is dreamy).
A little girl watching a baseball game falls off the stands and begins to choke on a hotdog, but thankfully, there is a “doctor” right there (played by the irrepressible Burt Lancaster)! He pauses as though he’s lining up his next great golf swing, pulls his hand back, and thud, thud, right in the middle of her back. Out comes the hotdog.
“She’ll be turning handsprings before you know it,” he tells Costner’s character, tossing the offending hotdog piece nonchalantly. I don’t really know what a handspring is, but …
No. No, no, no. A thousand times no.
“Do NOT slap her on the back anymore,” I tell her. Then I say it again, because she’s still talking over me.
“What do I do?” she says, and I take that as my cue to ask her some questions and perhaps get her going with some compressions. But before I can do that, an officer arrives.
(You’re probably wondering what happened. I can tell you with 99 percent certainty that the baby was fine because I don’t really remember any further details. The handful of baby not fine calls that I have taken stay with me.)
Ingestions are a big deal with mothers; it’s upsetting to imagine that your child has eaten something inedible, and nobody wants to be that mother who just stood by while her child died of (fill in the blank) poisoning.
“My son drank some Windex!”
“My daughter ate a funny-looking berry!”
These calls rarely come from dads. This is not a statement that dads are careless or that moms are overly-cautious, but it’s a true statement nonetheless. If a dad is making this kind of call, it’s usually because the mom is too upset about fill in the black poisoning to make the call herself.
I picture my dad’s reaction to my older brother or me upon having eating any inedible thing: “Oh, it’s nothing to worry about. Puts hair on your chest!” (Which, in his estimation, is a good thing. And whatever this thing is, if you want a healthy chest-fulla hair: keep eating.)
As a mother myself, no matter how benign the object or fluid, I always err on the side of caution with these calls. Per protocol, I get an ambulance rolling, then put mom through to the fine folks at Poison Control. Ingestion is their business.
Dispatch: “Poison Control? I have a mom on the line whose 18-month-old son ate a pencil eraser. I’ll stay on the line.”
“Dispatch, do you have an ambulance going on this?”
“Yes, one is started.”
I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t want to be the one dispatcher who didn’t start an ambulance and then the little guy dies of PEP. (Pencil eraser poisoning; I just made that up.) No thanks. “You’ve never heard of PEP? Didn’t you hear about that one case in Florida?”
Let me reiterate, PEP isn’t actually a thing. I Googled it. But we don’t have time to Google stuff in dispatch. And I’m pretty sure confidence in us would decline rapidly if we started dispatching by Google search.
“Sir, go ahead and stick some bubble-gum in that gunshot wound. No, it’s cool. I Googled it. Puts hair on your chest.”
Being a mother and a dispatcher can be a challenging combination as well. I know all the worst possible outcomes of any situation. I’ve never owned, operated or even been a passenger on a snowmobile, but I’ve only had negative experiences with them, by phone. Nobody ever calls me when they have a safe and successful ride on a snowmobile, just when someone’s been thrown from one, driven one into a lake, or something equally calamitous. As a result, I don’t like snowmobiles. It’s a grudge, I guess … an educated prejudice.
I also don’t like:
Or teenage drivers, or
drunk drivers, or icy roads,
or four-way stop signs, or large crowds or
small crowds or entire parts of cities,
or any city in which a sex offender resides (which is all of them),
or rap concerts,
or country music festivals
or anything that can impale something (which is almost everything),
or disembodied heads (for obvious reasons).
I could go on.
Now imagine that I’m your mom. Actually, imagine that both your parents are dispatchers, which was my daughter’s fate for darn near five years. Most of those years as a high school student.
“Hey, can I go to Suzy’s grampa’s cabin with her this weekend?”
“Where is it?”
“I don’t know. Like up by McGregor?”
“I’m going to need an address and what county it’s in. And preferably what agency patrols it.”
“I’m also going to need Suzy’s grampa’s full name and date of birth. Has he always lived in Minnesota?”
“How would I …”
“And what are you going to do at this alleged cabin?”
“Well, her grampa has snowmobiles and stuff …”
“You don’t know how to operate a snowmobile. I’m pretty sure nobody does.”
“I drove one at Jenny’s house!”
“You … what? And didn’t ask me?”
“You would have said no.”
“Damn right. And now you’re grounded.”
One afternoon, three weeks after my daughter got her driver’s license, I get a phone call at home.
I had planned to take a nap with Jim, but instead stayed up to tinker. The number on the caller ID was not one I recognized. When I picked up, he just said, “Are you Mariah’s mom?”
“She’s been in an accident. There’s a little bit of blood, but she’s okay.” She was okay enough to give someone our number to call. Yet … there’s a little bit of blood? I hear my daughter yelling and crying in the background.
As a law enforcement major, Jim has had training in driving like a crazed maniac for emergency purposes. The accident was only four or five blocks away, and even though he had woken from a dead sleep just minutes earlier, it felt like he beamed us there in his Taurus. And when we arrived, we were dumbfounded.
Her car was halfway under a school bus.
It was an accident I probably could have had a hundred times as a teenage driver. A little too much speed on a usually open road, a moment reaching for a water bottle, and she had rear-ended a vehicle with a bumper too high to repel her little car. So she was under it, and trapped.
And there was a lot of blood.
Already, there were several squad cars and firefighters on the scene. A civilian, who we later learned was an off-duty paramedic, had immediately placed himself in the backseat of the demolished car, and despite the broken glass, blood and chaos, was keeping Mariah’s neck stable with just his two hands. My daughter was panicked, screaming and stunned all at once.
If there’s a hysterical mother spectrum, 1 being apathetic and 10 being hysterical, I was at 11 on the inside.
I watched in a daze as men and women I mostly only knew from the other end of a radio worked to free my daughter from her crushed vehicle. Firefighters scurried here and there, pulling out equipment, talking about ETAs, extrication, landing zones …
Landing zone? My stomach lurched. They had ordered a helicopter. Logically, I knew a helicopter was appropriate for this situation. But it completely freaked me out that a helicopter was appropriate for this situation.
“They’re going to have her out of there soon,” says an officer from just behind me. I am trembling and crying. I turn to see John Rohow, a cop I had worked with at White Bear Lake PD.
“All that yelling is good. But you know that.”
As I watched, stunned, the men and women of White Bear Lake Fire Department used the Jaws of Life to crack open Mariah’s car like a tuna can. They carefully delivered her onto a stretcher, placed her into an ambulance (the helicopter was canceled), Jim hopped in with her, and they drove away, lights flashing, sirens blaring.
I couldn’t feel my feet.
If I had been in any kind of shape for it, this would have been a terrific learning experience. Here was just about every form of help I could ever need to dispatch, all on the same scene. It didn’t occur to me until much later, how quickly everyone had arrived.
And how many people on how many cell phones had called that one-person dispatch center to report the accident? My head hurt to think of it.
Later, in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit), as Jim and I watched our sedated, bruised, but miraculously whole and healthy daughter sleep, I swore I was going to personally thank the dispatcher who was working that day. I wanted to tell her she was not forgotten, and that her hard work saved my daughter.
I never did, and I really have no excuse for that.
So, if you’re reading this, you freaking dispatch goddess rock star: Thank you. Thank you for sending all the people who did all the things, because today my daughter is a living, breathing, special-ed major with a bright future and a bus pass.
Anyway, this is me sending you an awkwardly long hug. Thank you.
-Just another hysterical mom