Friday, October 24, 2008


as dispatchers, we dealt with a lot of emotions. we heard the worst in people, realized there were far too many awful things going on in the world that never made the papers. we walked and talked people through the most awful, scary, terrifying moments that they may only have once in their lives, and we did it over and over, ten or twelve hours at a time.

at first, parts of the job were difficult to get used to. you hear people's children stop breathing, feel the terror in a woman's voice as she whispers for help while her abusive husband sits unaware in the next room. you hear detailed accounts of sex abuse against someone's own child. you, through a phone line, sit in a room with someone who recounts as they are alone and a prowler is trying to get through their front door, or try to talk someone out of suicide knowing that you could say the right, or wrong, thing at any moment and change people's lives in a word.

after a while, each of us learned to cope in our own ways. we used laughter (as odd as that sounds) and each other. we couldn't think too much or dwell on anything, because it would slowly erode us as people. we did our best to keep people safe while they were in our care, often feeling like we were right there with them, experiencing things as they did. and often, when the responders took over and our part of the job was done, we didn't want to know how things turned out. sometimes, it was easier to disconnect emotionally when that phone line did and move on to the next call.

still, there were calls that each of us took occasionally that we couldn't shake, either because we had been there before, or that subconsciously the subject hit a nerve we would never be able to identify. for some, it was unbearable to listen to the sound of a parent's voice as their child clung to life. for others, a friend warning us of a suicide attempt from someone they loved was too emotionally staggering. and during those times for each of us, we turned off our thoughts and pulled out everything in our bag of tricks we could think of to save people, in often unusual and creative ways. and once it was over, we tried not to let the surge of emotion swallow us. because if we did get immersed in every situation, none of us could return to work for hours, days, or years at a time. we became the masters of being emotional people that could turn it off when needed. but it didn't always work.

late one night, a dispatcher of mine, and good friend besides, and i took a medical call. it was nearing the end of our graveyard shift, and we were the only two working until 7am. when a major event happened with two of us there, one would take the call as the other dispatched law, fire, and ambulance (as well as handling any other 911 calls that came in as a result, unrelated radio traffic, and any other 911 calls or holdup/burglary/fire alarms that happened simultaneously - coincidence, and poor timing, reigned at that job more than one might imagine.)

a woman called about her husband. they had been on a 40th anniversary vacation in vail and she woke to find him not breathing. as my friend walked her through giving him CPR, i alerted everyone in the area from police to paramedics and updated them on the caller and the victim's progress as they responded.

continuing to dispatch, i listened closely to the call and read the call-takers notes as she typed to get an idea of what was happening on the other end of the phone. the woman was continuing to administer rescue breaths under the direction of my friend, and excitedly exclaimed, "i think he's breathing - he's making noise!" to which the dispatcher on the phone said, "you're doing great, just keep giving rescue breaths," as she looked at me and shook her head.

there's a sound that a person makes in that situation that sounds like a lot like life, but it's not. it's an indescribable noise, often called a 'rattle' or 'gurgle', and for those who have heard it, know exactly what it means. my friend kept this woman's spirits up and commended her efforts as she continued CPR until the paramedics arrived and took over.

not too long after, one of the officers who met the woman and the ambulance at the hospital came into dispatch to catch up with us, as her shift would be ending as ours did. she looked ragged and tired, and had spent the last hour talking to the 60-something woman on an anniversary trip who had just become a widow.

the woman was as you might imagine. inconsolable, lost, bewildered. she was in a strange town that she had spent the last few days in with the love of, and the only person left in, her life. they had gone out to dinner, seen the summer beauty of vail mountain, spent two days enjoying life as any happily married duo should. and now, this lovely vacation town turned into a city where she was a stranger, knew no one, and felt utterly alien and alone.

i couldn't help but imagine what the next week of this woman's life would be like. she would return to the hotel they shared as she left it, with items belonging to her husband scattered through the bathroom, folded in the drawers, hanging in closets, items set neatly before bed on the nightstand. she would have to pack all of these items up and load them in into the car that belonged to her and her husband (and that most likely he probably drove while she sat in the passenger seat) and drive back to their home. and even there, returning to it as they left it for a wonderful journey away, all items put into their places - books hugging the bookmark at the bedside where he left off reading, sweater draped over a chair, coffee mug still in the sink.

and more than anything, i could imagine the feeling she must have had leaving town to return home, a feeling that many of us get while traveling - the sinking feeling like we had forgotten something or left something behind. and how the feeling she may have had was similar but magnified a thousand times, like she was leaving vacation and leaving the most important thing to her behind but not being able to do anything about it or erase the feeling away.

it's all part of the grief process, i suppose. but it's something you want to save people from, to help them fast forward through. because without those necessary awful moments, people might never make it through - those parts of life that feel unbearable at the time and that never seem to get easier. and through them somehow we hope that on the other side, no matter how far away that seems, things will eventually be okay.


Rita said...

I took a call like that, and for the life of me I can't remember who was working with me, so it might have been you, and this blog might be about that very call. It's hard to know, since it wouldn't surprise me to learn that more than one man died on an anniversary trip to Vail. You stop being surpised by much when you work as a dispatcher.
Anyway, I remember leaving that day with an overwhelming urge to go to the hospital and sit with that let her know that someone cared in a town where she knew no one. I ended up driving home and feeling somewhat guilty about it for several days. I thought many of the same things you did, although not in such vivid detail.
I suppose I was afraid she would ask me about the details of the CPR again, that maybe she would be one of those details people, and I didn't want her to know that I knew her husband was dead from the moment she called me. Maybe I didn't want her to thank me. It's hard to feel good about something when someone else is feeling such incredible pain. In the end I think I was afraid that my need for sleep after a 10 hour graveyard shift would render me less than capable of being helpful, or that it would keep me from being graceful about it if she was horrified by seeing the person who couldn't help her get her husband back.
I remember one of the officers who had been a dispatcher coming in and offering to take over the phones for a bit after the call was over. I turned her down. I didn't feel like anything was different right at that moment, and often the easiest way for me to deal with things is to just keep on living life as usual. Later, I had the realization that I had been the only one with this woman as her husband died, as she trid desperately to save him. Six years later, I'm not sure what to make of that. I guess I don't think about it much. As difficult as that job could be, I loved it, and still miss it sometimes. I felt lucky and humbled that I was allowed to help people in such difficult times. So, thanks for writing that Sharon. It's important. I think we became so good at internalizing and shutting off when we left work that the people who cared about us never really understood what we did all day (or night). :)

May Love Hold Us said...

Wow, Sharon. You and I should write a book together. I have a post on my blog that's similar, but you said it so much better than I did.

Dispatching is such a unique, blessed position. I can think of no other job with its qualities. How many other jobs do you constantly remember individual days, years after you leave it?

Thanks for writing this.