Next to Last Epitaph

At least three times in a particular two day span at our workplace, someone’s death has transformed the lives of those around them.  We’re not really in the position to know the extent of transformation that occurred, but we know that it happened.  As police 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers, we cannot remove ourselves so completely from the human element of our job that people’s deaths mean nothing to us.  I’m not suggesting that any of us actually view their deaths as nothing, but I am hoping that we remember the people, at least for a moment, as having once been living, thriving, breathing, needing, despairing people who probably had someone, somebody, or something loving them, somewhere.  I want to believe that we really care, in spite of our gallows humor and what we say sometimes.

There was a collective, genuinely sad “Ohhh” as one of us announced that a teenager was just found who had overdosed and was alone when he died.  Fire gave us the call.  How they got it before we did, if they did, I don’t know.  At any rate, I was touched that we would suddenly, as one being, feel for that moment, the sadness or despair that the grown child had felt before he took his life.  If, indeed, that was what we were all feeling. 

And nobody was home.  Rather, no parents were there.  Where were the parents?  Did only Mom, or only Dad live there with him?  Had there been family problems, things that only the parents could reveal to us if they had the opportunity?  Had he been to counseling?  Had the parents been to counseling?  Was the kid just off his medication and this was a freak thing that happened?  The incident-history on the call said that a friend was in the house.  Was it a girl-friend, or a boy-friend, or just a friend-friend?  Did that friend get there before it happened?  Did the friend find him dead, or did he sit there with him while he passed-away?  Were the parents at work, school, at one of their friends’ house getting high?  We aren’t going to know these things.  It isn’t our place to know them, but they are still significant factors.  They are still things that have contributed to the one line that we have on our call page – “JUV OD’D NO PARENTS AT HOME”…even our remarks don’t end with a period…it’s like we know the picture isn’t finished with our meager description.  Well…that’s the way it seems to me, anyway.

And then there is the one that gets really wordy: “COMP SAYS HUSB’S FRND JOHN L. HAS HANGED SELF IN BKYD…SUBJ HAD DUI & WIFE LFT HIM…FIRE 1017 (enroute)” – again, with no period for an ending.  I know that periods are not our normal fare given the peculiarities of our computer-aided dispatch system, but here it is again, that ending without an ending.  Our ‘Unknown-Trouble’ had a name, he wasn’t just a third-person entity swinging from a branch…there was someone who might have loved him…or maybe not.  Why did he have a DUI?  Why was he drinking?  Was his father or mother an alcoholic?  Was he drinking last night or early this morning when he slipped the noose around his neck…or was he sober when he took the final step in trying to right his problems? 

We can imagine the body swinging from a branch that may or may not be creaking under his weight.  We can imagine that the face on his oddly tilted head is all purple with old, deoxygenated blood and that his body may be starting to stiffen a little already…but we don’t know.  The two lines dedicated to JOHN L.’s death don’t include that type of information.  They don’t tell us if the complainant and her husband saw him do it, or whether or not they had a suspicion that he was going to do it.  The call doesn’t tell us whether or not JOHN L. had children at home who may or may not miss him tonight.  Maybe he was saving the children from repeating some of his mistakes by removing his bad example.  Maybe he was tired from a long list of failures and now couldn’t bear to live without the one thing, or person, who had stood behind or beside him through all of those failings.  Maybe…again there is just too much that we aren’t going to know…that we don’t need to know to do our jobs. 

“There’s a body swinging from the complainant’s tree in her back-yard and we need to get our officers over there to get it down so she can have her yard back from that nasty bitch named death.”  Did someone possess those thoughts, maybe, but probably not.  Did our complainant’s morning routine of drinking coffee on her back porch get messed-up by her husband’s friend JOHN L. hanging himself in her tree?  Are the birds still going to alight and sing in the drought-bare tree after the sirens and lights and activity have ‘died’ down?  They probably will.  They’re probably there now, sitting in the upper branches looking down at that bit of frayed, yellow rope or sun-bleached, green garden hose that is still attached to that one limb down there. 

And what about us?  What about the operator who typed the keys for the radio code of the unknown-trouble?  What is that person thinking, right now, about the information they tapped into the computer and sent on its way?  Did they go home and share the story with one of their family members?  Did the Tactical-channel operator who hit the ‘Alert 1’ button to summon the officers go home and mention it to anyone?  Did they think about it while they drove home from another night on the ‘graveyard’ shift?  How about when they stopped at Fry’s to pick-up some milk for their kids’ breakfast?  Did it intrude into their thoughts as they were considering that they could buy two gallons for three dollars even though they only needed one gallon but the sale would end by the time they needed another?  And did they already forget about it by the time they dried off from the shower and climbed into bed?  Was it still in their mind?  Was their heart saddened with the despair that this JOHN L. must have felt as he stepped onto that milk crate or discarded dining-room chair, hooked the noose over his neck, and then kicked the crate or chair out from under his feet?  Did the operator feel that despair?  Did the call-taker have to pause a moment after completing their two-line hot-call to collect themselves after their in-calls button was free again?  Did they think about what the wife might be thinking?  Is she relieved?  Is she sorry?  Could she and JOHN L. have worked things out?  “How am I going to tell the kids?”  Or is it one of those ‘Thank God’ situations?  Is she thanking her guardian-angel for rescuing her and the kids from the monster who hung himself? 

Yes, as 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers we have to remove ourselves from the crushing despair, but to what extent?  Isn’t life sacred?  Aside from what our Sunday school lessons or catechism taught us, even removed from God or religion, isn’t it still sad?  But what if he needed to die?  Is it still sad then?  And what about his last thought – was it “Oh, shit!” or “Thank God” as he swung there from the creaking or non-creaking limb on that drought-bare tree? 

And finally, what do we do about the five year-old who drowned in his own vomit?  How do we deal with this?  And how did we present it to ourselves in the line of our work?  Again, we only needed two lines.  From our colleagues at Fire, the call very succinctly described this lasting picture: “5YO CHILD IS 901H (dead) SPAN SPKG FATHER SAID HE VOMITTED [sic] IN SLEEP: FIRE ALREADY 23 (on scene) NEEDS US THERE – right, and with no period, again.  This story won’t end.  It cannot end.  The emptiness in someone’s heart will not be filled.  Ever.  Never, will this problem be fixed.  The smell of vomit will forever bring to mind the quiet face of their baby.  They won’t be able to wash his sheets and put them on the bed again.  His little tennis shoes, the ones sitting near his closet door, blue, or black, or white, little tennies that won’t be handed down to his younger brother or sister, or cousin…they will remain empty, the way this little one has left them.  Why didn’t the child turn on his side when he threw-up?  Why did he just lay there?  Why didn’t the parents hear him getting sick?  Why was no-one watching him…didn’t they know he was sick?  Couldn’t they hear him gasping, gulping, inhaling, and aspirating his vomit down into his lungs?  When you picture that, can you see his horror-stricken face, knowing that everything was happening all wrong and that he couldn’t stop it?  Can’t you almost see it?  Oh…what a horrid thought!  There’s no romance in this death, is there?  And is there peace, knowing or thinking that he’ll be in a better place?  No…there is no peace here, not if we understand that he’s just gone – simply not alive anymore, and not even if we imagine that he’s in our Savior’s arms, not really.  Right now the thought is that he’s gone – without a period, just gone, and forever.

The call-takers did their job.  The dispatchers did their job.  The officers and paramedics did their job.  And the episodes are essentially done – for those of us who were externally involved in the situations.  And we can go on.  We will go on.  The tone will beep in our ears, or over our radios, again and again.  Each following call will help remove the one we just completed, or cleared from our stack, or frequency…and we’ll go on.  Our hearts are already hardened; our attitudes are somewhat jaded or cynical.  Or are they?  Maybe, and maybe not.  Will we remember these people – the overdosed teenager, JOHN L., the five year-old?  Will we honor their existence with a moment’s thought, or more?  Or have we become immunized to the pain and ‘not care’ about what happens on the other end of the phone, or radio waves? 

I believe that the bottom line, in the end, is that we only do our jobs, on the 9-1-1 phones and police radio, because we DO care.  We want to help people; we want them to live to be happy another day; we want everyone to go home safely at the end of the day.

10 responses

  1. Nathan

    In some part of the world far away from our own, is a child dying from hunger, AIDS, malaria, or some other pernicious disease. The parents of this child see him wasting away, and can do nothing to stop his impending death. When he passes, there is no 9-1-1 dispatcher to hear the trembling voice of the mother as she screams that her child is dead. There is no one on the other end of the phone telling her that help is on the way. This child may be lucky to even have both parents there at his side as he takes his last breath, but is likely missing one of them due to the same set of fucked up circumstances.
    This piece is touching beyond words, and so beautifully illustrates the compassion and empathy that I think any human not devoid of a heart would have to feel if faced with the stench of real life on a daily basis. I think it is an anonymous gift that you give to those helpless souls, and if in fact no one else cared in their life about what happened to them, you certainly did…….

    September 14, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    • seekraz

      I think you’re right about about those kids dying from largely preventable and mostly treatable diseases or conditions in those other parts of the world…they are often without any parents, and when their sole remaining parent has to care for them, the loss that the parent must feel is likely similar to a crushing despair and utter failure of hope, if that can even begin to describe what they are feeling. I’ve never looked at what we do in 9-1-1 as an ‘anonymous gift,’ but that is a very moving way of describing it. I hope we can continue to deserve such warm praise. Your words are certainly an inspiration for us to strive to keep that humanity about ourselves when the people who really need our help call us…. Thank you, Nate.

      September 14, 2009 at 6:13 pm

  2. Nathan

    Ditto to Krista’s thoughts as well. There’s a lot more behind the scenes to the thousands of calls that make their way to the call center. Very good worth-while read for your co-workers as well 🙂

    September 14, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    • seekraz

      True, there is much more that goes on beyond the audible scene of a 9-1-1 call than many people realize, including the thought processes and emotional responses of the people answering the phones and working on the police dispatch radios. A few of my co-workers have read the article, and so far the feedback is all positive. I’m sure they’d enjoy reading the comments that you and Krista provided in your own contemplation of our work. Thank you again.

      September 14, 2009 at 8:30 pm

  3. byronHj

    I confess, I am no longer surprised at your eloquent and moving observations, but I am very moved none the less. Thank you for sharing so eloquently.
    I have, in previous job and circumstance, as with this one, dealt with death on several levels, including face to face. At the untimely death of a loved one in a hospital emergency room, or at a funeral, too many of children, I have been pressed for explanations that are no where to be found. Words of comfort never sufficed, not even close, but they would have fallen far shorter of the mark than they did, had they not been spoken with a broken heart.
    A great beauty of humanity is the ability to share in another’s moment. Moments of joy, flowing like a fountains, (to steal a phrase), out of a heart and spilling like a tide onto the faces of a group. (I love weddings; it is why I have had so many ;-). Beautiful women, all dressed up, handsome men, forced into tuxes and cumber buns, and everyone smiling.)
    It is also humanity’s lot and horror to share in another’s seemingly bottomless grief.
    We have an opportunity as 9-1-1 call takers to give a gift to those who are in need of it. We get paid to listen, to send the appropriate measure of help, to do our jobs. We have the opportunity to care.

    Jeez I can ramble

    September 14, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    • seekraz

      Byron, I love your rambling, if that’s what you want to call it! Your comments are also eloquent and moving and speak of the observant mind and gentle heart that you possess. Being only a little familiar with your former occupations and what must have been your attendant experiences, I can only imagine the number and types of death in which you shared. I think your embrace of the human existence in its most joyous and most profoundly sad situations have likely contributed to the mature and natural empathy that you share with your own callers. And you are right, Byron, as 9-1-1 operators, we have the opportunity to care, and to show it. Thank you for your kind words about my observations, and thank you so much for sharing yours, too. And please keep rambling here…. 🙂

      September 14, 2009 at 9:44 pm

  4. “JUV OD’D NO PARENTS AT HOME”…even our remarks don’t end with a period…it’s like we know the picture isn’t finished with our meager description”.

    This is a brilliant observation.

    The unfortunate truth in all of this is that we often rely on humor and off color jokes to hide our “desensitization” to the events of our day.

    I shut it off. I don’t share what I hear with my family. They don’t need to know.
    It’s good for business.
    It’s good for job security.

    These are things I have been known to say to justify the unimaginable horror that is flashing in my head about the situation I just heard about. The cops have it good, at least they get to see the reality of it all. We don’t get that luxury.

    Oh no…
    We get the unique opportunity to allow our imaginations paint pictures for us.
    Shut it off.
    But sometimes you can’t – especially when you drive past an area where you know a guy was just found hanging in a tree (getting alot of these lately) minutes before the end of your shift, like it did for me this very morning.

    YOU know why the cops are there, the rest of society can only guess.

    Oh well….

    It’s good for business.

    September 14, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    • seekraz

      No, we don’t get to actually look at the physical scenes or the crimes and events that we get to listen to on the phones and radios. We only hear the screaming and crying for help and the shouting of the combatants from both sides or none…our imaginations run wild with possibilities…but unlike the officers who are out on the street working the incidents, we don’t HAVE to look into the eyes or at the faces of the victims’ sadness or of the suspect’s rage…we don’t have to carry those images with us for the rest of our lives or for the numbered years of our memory. But I don’t think it’s good to turn it all off…I think we need to have a vent for our anger and sadness at what we hear…gallows humor is good, it cleanses our immediate memories and makes them ok…and another but…I’ve seen the sadness in your eyes, too, Jay…so I know you don’t turn it all off…there is the survivor’s desire to look past what was just endured, and the occasional visual reminder of what we’ve only read about that awakens what we tucked-away and allows us to be drawn to the reality of someone else’s life. Thanks for being here, Jason, for visiting the blog and sharing…I appreciate your thoughts. 🙂

      September 15, 2009 at 6:43 am

  5. I’ve been the one calling 9-1-1 on more occasions than I care to remember. I can still hear the voice of the woman who stayed with me on the phone during the awful minutes before the ambulance arrived. Aside from the practical assistance of sending help, that calm voice steadied me like a caring friend and helped me through the ordeal. I can’t imagine – I don’t want to imagine what it might have been like if there wasn’t a 9-1-1 to call on. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be that voice. On occasion, in our small community, we actually know that voice as well as the EMTs who are our neighbors. I wonder if that makes the job even more difficult.

    April 11, 2012 at 1:33 am

    • I’ve not had your experiences with calling 9-1-1, Gunta, and can’t answer to what that must be like…but from the other end of the call, I have heard the desperation and heartbreak in the voices of those asking for help. There have been times that the experience was rewarding because we were actually able to help and things turned-out well…and many times that we had to listen to horrible things and not be able to do much about the outcome, knowing that the buttons we pushed and the electronic signals and messages we sent would do absolutely nothing…and in those instances, most of us, many of us were those kind voices that you heard on the other end of the phone…we did and do care and our hearts break with yours, many times because our lives have been touched in a similar way. I’ve not taken a serious call from someone I knew, but have had several co-workers over the years take calls for something happening at their house…or their parents’ house…or they worked an armed-robbery call where the bad guy ended-up being their son…or the officer that was shot was their husband. I would imagine that it raises the level of difficulty a bit to know the caller and/or the people involved. Thank you for your comment, Gunta….

      April 11, 2012 at 7:07 am

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