Last time I posted, I blogged about being hooked and the "firsts." There are calls that bond the "team" together. Great arrests, great police work, great out comes - high fives and all. Then there are the calls that break your heart. From the house fire that kills a family to that stuff happens to, but shouldn't happen to, kids or the elderly.
Now, let me warn you, if you are looking for a happy, high five kind of ending, stop reading now. This blog entry will be about the Tragic - about the side of law enforcement and public safety that can or will hit home and make you cry. It also make you second guess your actions...It's heavy. The names and locations of those involved have been purposely omitted or changed to protect those involved.
The date was March 21, many, many years ago. The day was supposed to be a happy one, for it was my 25th birthday. I had a cake, great co-workers (who are actually part of an extended family), lunch plans with a friend and plans for after work, not to mention the weekend. I don't remember the exact time but I do remember seeing, through the security camera, my friend waiting, in the police lobby, to take me to lunch. One partner was, a few minutes late, returning from her lunch break and the other one had to run to the restroom. Just as the latter was headed out the door, a single 911 rang. I said, "no, worries, I've got it." Famous last words, right?
In the background of the call, I heard this earth shattering wail. A kind of moaning, a sound of sheer grief and heart ache. The male caller (a neighbor), appeared to be in shock and said something like, "help...you need to get out here...help!" I had to prod, poke and invade to figure out what was going on and determine what kind of help they need. I was able to hear "baby" and "pool." Many of you have figured it out by now... there was a baby found in the pool. I made sure the baby was pulled out of the pool and connected the call to the San Rafael Fire Dispatcher so they could start paramedics and give CPR instructions.
As I listened to the Fire Dispatcher, I started my two only units on the streets. The baby incident was in East San Rafael. The Fire Station responding was also in East San Rafael. I knew that in order for the Medics to be able to, hopefully, provide life saving actions, they needed to be able to work on their tiny patient without interference from the parents or other bystanders. My officers would need to help ensure this. My two units were motor officers. I think they heard it in my voice and knew some thing was going on. [I've been told that the units on the street can tell when I'm about to give a "major" call out because my voice drops an octave. We are taught to use our voice to calm, to be clear and concise, to not add to the level of chaos because we are "jacked up."] The units went out, Code 3 (lights and sirens), without any question or comment.
My guys arrived to find the Medics already working on the baby. Trying to breathe life back into her tiny body as she was being strapped to a gurney so that she could be transported to the hospital. My motor guys, eventually, rode ahead of the Medics, stopping all traffic, in upcoming intersections, so the transport of the baby could be expedited. The Medics didn't have to worry about cross or on coming traffic; they could focus on the baby and getting her to the doctors. The coordination between the agencies was flawless. This was my first time, I had witnessed and been apart of such a high level of coordination. This little child had all of us working towards saving her life. We were trying to give her all the odds we could. Maybe, just maybe our efforts would be rewarded.
I was unaware of the comings and goings of my co-workers. I didn't know until later that someone gave a heads up to my friend as to what was going on and that as soon as the baby arrived at the hospital, they were going to kick me out of Communications for a breather. [Most dispatchers are pretty territorial about their calls, and will not leave the the "major" ones til it's done.] My friend would keep an eye on me for the next hour. What I didn't know was that my co-workers and supervisor were working on covering the rest of my shift. They knew I wouldn't go home but they also knew that I wouldn't be in any condition to work, no matter how much I protested. Lunch was less than celebratory. My friend and I tried to make small talk but everything ended up circling around to this last call. We ended up calling lunch early and headed back to the PD.
Upon my return, I learned the baby's name was S*(name omitted - she will be refered to as Baby S through the rest of my blog). Baby S was ultimately transported to UCSF Medical Center. Here, she would have the best care and best chance of recovery. I also learned Baby S was fascinated by the pool and water. There was a fence around the pool but someone left the gate propped open. Baby S was left under the care of a family member. The family member had put Baby S down for her nap and ultimately fell asleep himself. While he was napping, Baby S woke up and left her bedroom, eventually ending up outside and then in the family pool. She wasn't discovered missing until her mother came home on her lunch break. Her mother found Baby S lifeless in the pool. Someone pulled her out. No one in Dispatch knew how long she had been in the water.
Shortly after my return, I was called into the Captain's office. He wanted to know how I was doing - I didn't know. Looking back, I was in shock. I remember saying I was fine. I remember trying not to cry. I remember willing Baby S to pull through. I also remember telling God that the best birthday gift I could ever have would be for Baby S to live. I also remember feeling numb. The Captain told me about how this critical incident would effect me. He made suggestions to me on what I should do to take care of myself. I'm not sure of the what else the Captain said except that he was making me come back in two days to talk to the a police psychologist. I told him I didn't want to go but I wasn't given the choice. But he did say I didn't have to talk, I could just listen. And it would be good for me. He went on to explain that he was going to have the two officers there and invite the responding fire personnel. It was something called a debriefing. He then told me Baby S was in very, very critical condition. They don't know if she was going to make it or not. He gave me the number to call at UCSF, if I wanted to check on Baby S, over my weekend.
Back in Dispatch, one of my co-workers had left and returned, bringing her young daughter in. I'm not sure, to this day, what the daughter was told. But she came up to Auntie AD and gave me the biggest hug she could. That is something I will never forget and my healing process began.
Baby S never made it to the next morning. She became an Angel sometime during the night, while I tried to sleep. Once I found out that bit of information, I was ANGRY! Angry at the person who was supposed to be watching Baby S. Angry at the person who propped the gate open. Angry that I was angry at God, at the world; angry that the sun was shining or wasn't and angry that, once again, work succeeded in ruining my personal plans. Then the "what ifs" and feeling of doubts took over the emotional anger. I remember wondering if I caused Baby S's death...When that call came in, I answered it, in the middle of the second ring. What if I had answered it on the first ring? What if I had been able to get information from the caller a bit quicker. What if this...what if that...what... A person could drive themselves crazy what if-ing every little thing. BUT, what if?! Eventually, some of the words the Captain had said came flooding back. Stuff about wondering, if you did everything you could to the best of your abilities, if you do make a difference, about life, about career choice. I remember hearing him say stuff like you do make a difference but sometimes, no matter what you do, things don't turn out the way you want them to....it's life.
The next day, I remember reporting to work as ordered... not wanting anyone to know my part of the call because I was still dealing with the what ifs....was it was my fault?...Did I somehow delay her getting the help she needed? My Captain drove me to where the debriefing. He introduced me to the Psychiatrist and handed him a cassette tape. When everyone else arrived, at the Doctor's request, we introduced ourselves and described what our role was. Nurses, paramedics, firefighters, cops, the Doc and lil ole me were here to talk about the incident. The Doc explained that we would go around the room twice to first explain what we did and the next time what we were feeling or felt. We were told that what was said in this room, stayed in this room and no ones administration would be told what was said.
Doc chose me to go first because I took the 911 call. I told the group, I answered the 911 call, finally determined what was going on and connected the call to the FD and started my motor officers. Everyone else relayed their roles. It was soon my turn again. I remember I started to cry again and mumbled that Baby S would still be alive if I had answered the call quicker, got the information quicker and transferred the call quicker. Everyone protested my remark, but I knew the truth. To my surprise, everyone else relayed the same sentiment regarding their own roles - the what if's - they were all around us. At the end, the Doc played the cassette tape. It was a copy of the telephone and all radio traffic related to this incident. Someone timed it and told me it took less that 30 seconds for me to answer the call, figure it out, connect them to the FD and dispatch my units. I was astounded - it seemed so much longer. The Doc ended the debriefing by relaying that we were thrown together to try and stop a set of motions. We each did our job valiantly and heroically but we could not change the direction of the action. We were told about post traumatic stress, we were told what we were feeling (and probably continue to feel) was normal. I left feeling emotionally exhausted but lighter, as if a 10,000 pound boulder was lifted off my shoulders.
We were also told that our respective agencies would welcome us to attend Baby S's funeral, if we felt we needed to or wanted to. None of us committed to going to the funeral at that point but we were given the information for the services. On the day Baby S was laid to rest, we all showed up, filling a pew in the back of the church. A line of navy blue - our last goodbye to this little one, who brought us all together. I don't remember the services. I remember feeling safe among the blue line. I remember the two figures in navy blue sitting on either side of me, each holding one of my hands. The last thing I remember seeing was her tiny white coffin and the tiny flowers, the rest is just a blur.
Within 30 seconds of picking up that 911 call, my life would be forever changed. Time does help and heal. Talking about this event helps too. Usually, around the anniversary of the event, the memories sneak back up, and fortunately, I know how to deal with it. The first few years after this incident, I would get a bit moody and down, right around the anniversary. I thought it was because I was dealing with getting older, but after becoming a member our the PD's Peer Support and Critical Incident Debriefing Teams, I learned through training, the stuff I was dealing with still had to do with Baby S's event. It made sense. Since this revelation, the emotions don't tend to haunt or bother me - too much. I acknowledge them and am able to put them back in place.
The best way for me to explain this is to imagine your brain is a parking garage. Each emotion, each event, is neatly packaged in to a car. Some of these cars are pristine while others, have seen more than their share of dents and damage. Every so often, the something disrupts the parked cars and triggers one (or more of them) to pull out of their space. The cars drive aimlessly around. The trigger can be something little or something major. My triggers are not necessarily your triggers, but what ever it is, the garage attendant (your psyche?) is trying very desperately to get everything parked again to restore order. Acknowledging and dealing with the "cars" and everything that's packed into them is key. It helps to normalize the things we see no matter how abnormal things are. Avoidance only makes things worse.
In recent years, I really haven't thought about this event. When I thought about sharing some of the 'not so pretty' side of my job, this call came to mind. I didn't remember too many of the details, at first, but as soon as I started writing, the details and feelings came back. The reliving of this call, eventually brought on the waterworks. I cried thinking about the call, I cried during the writing of this blog and even the proof reading of it. But it's a cleansing experience, I guess. I had my little cries, acknowledged them and they're all parked, for now, until the something triggers something else. But hey, it was a good cry and proves, I'm still human and not a jaded call taking machine, right?
I don't know what happened to Baby S's family but I hope they got all the help they needed. I'm thankful for the support my co-workers and I got from the Department. Way back then, it was relatively still new to talk about feelings and the emotional side of the job. Very early, SRPD embraced and recognized the aspects of critical incidents, peer support and post traumatic stress disorder. Today, we have an active Peer Support and Critical Incident Stress Debriefing team that quietly keeps an eye out on the rest of our PD family and have even responded to help others within the city, county and North Bay region. We actively support a County wide team and have a working relationship with Sonoma County's team and have resources to help our people when the time comes.
I know I make a difference. I know I'm damn good at what I do and sometimes, things are just out of my control, no matter how hard I try to change it..and that's life.
Thank you for staying with me this long, it's been kind of therapeutic. Now, be safe out there.