The call I am going to write about is a difficult one for me.  This is, honestly, the one call in my history of dispatching that I have questioned myself as to whether I did the right thing or not.  It is not easy to write about, and I wonder frequently how my decisions affected the child who reached out for help on the most tragic night of her life by calling 911.  I carry her in my heart to this day and hope that she is doing well and somehow managed to make it through this tragedy.  I know she is an adult now.  I hope she has found happiness in her life in spite of the difficult times of her childhood.  The following is what I remember, to the best of my recollection,  from this call that haunts me even today. 

I was not the original call taker when this call came in.   I was working part-time as a dispatcher at Huntington Memorial Hospital for their EMS units as well as Samaritan Air Ambulance, a medical helicopter out of Fort Wayne, Indiana that covered the tri-state area.  To be honest, due to the circumstances of this call, it probably never should have been transferred to me to begin with for EMD (emergency medical dispatch) prearrival instructions.  The dispatcher on duty at HCSD (Huntington County Sheriff’s Department) was very new to the job and I’m sure transferred it to me for prearrival instructions in the hope that a life could be saved.  I am not, in any way, faulting that dispatcher for transferring the call to me.  In this job, we make split second decisions and I’m sure he had his reasons.  I never spoke to him about the call, therefore I can only guess at what he was thinking.  I am confident that he did the best he could at the time.

The call came in to me on a transfer with the dispatcher at the sheriff’s department stating that a woman had possibly been shot and the daughter was on the line.  Calls requiring prearrival medical instruction were transferred to the EMS dispatcher at the hospital.   The daughter was approximately 12 years old (I can’t recall her age exactly).  I don’t remember the conversation word for word, but I remember that she was hiding in a closet in her bedroom.  Her older brother had told her to stay upstairs and not come downstairs regardless of what she heard going on.  She told me she heard a lot of yelling and an argument between her brother and her mother…   And then she heard a gunshot.  She feared her mother was injured or dead.  She also heard what she thought was her brother leaving in his vehicle and believed he was gone from the residence.  

She was terrified.  She was crying, but able to communicate well enough.  I asked her if her mother was still breathing and she said she didn’t know.  She was still hiding in the closet, afraid to venture downstairs.  In my mind, because I had taken two other calls on gunshots to the head where the subjects survived within the past month, I thought her mother may have a chance of surviving if she had been shot.  At my console at the hospital, I could hear the deputies that were en route to the call on the sheriff’s department radio channel.  I knew they weren’t close by and I knew my ambulance wasn’t either.  I made a decision (after this child verified the vehicle was gone) to ask her to check to see if her mother was breathing.  To this day, I don’t know if it was the right decision.  Children are so brave when it comes to these kinds of things.  As terrified as she was of what she might find downstairs, she wanted to help her mother if there was any way possible.   Had I known what that child would see when she entered the living room, I never would have sent her there.  She sobbed as she told me her mother wasn’t breathing.  When I asked if she was sure, she confirmed it for me by telling me that her mother’s head was no longer attached to her body.  I found out later that the weapon used was a shotgun and it had done a lot of damage.  It was a gruesome scene.  Swallowing back a few tears of my own as I imagined what she saw,  I got her outside on the deck and focused on the description of the vehicle her brother was in and what possible direction he went or destination he had in mind.  There was nothing I could do to help her save her mother. 

 I immediately fell into a police dispatcher role instead of the medical dispatcher I was supposed to be that night.  This child, numb from shock,  did an amazing job and gave me good, solid information that was critical to finding the suspect ~ her own brother.  Because I worked full-time at the sheriff’s department and knew my way around those radio channels,  I got on their main channel and dispatched what information I had about the suspect and the vehicle to the units responding.  I think I may have even gotten on the other radio channel used to call surrounding agencies to relay the information to state patrol.   I know at some point during the call another dispatcher at the hospital stepped in the room to assist me.  I don’t recall who it was, but he was helpful and may have put some of that information out on the air for me.   Did I step on the toes of the sheriff’s department dispatcher by doing that?  Absolutely.  Did I care at the time?  No.  Looking back, I hope I didn’t offend the dispatcher working at the sheriff’s department that night.  Because I could listen to the sheriff’s department main frequency, I knew what they had going on.  I knew this was really the only call they were dealing with at the time and I knew the deputies were desperate for information imagining the horror they would find once they were on scene.  I decided to relay that information on their channel myself rather than taking the time to relay it to their dispatcher and have him put it out.  I did it to save time.  My concern was that there was an armed teenager (barely legal to drive if I remember right) out on the roads and I wanted those deputies to have that vehicle description.  I wanted to relay every possible detail that might help them in locating the suspect if they came across him while en route to the scene.  Because this child gave me such incredibly GOOD information in the midst of such an extreme situation, her brother was found in that vehicle within, I believe 30 minutes of the call.   I believe it was State Patrol who located the suspect and vehicle. Considering all the back county roads, it really was quite outstanding that he was found that quickly.  He was found before he could injure anyone else and thankfully he didn’t open fire on those officers.

I remember after I disconnected with her once the officers were on scene, the dispatcher that had stepped in to assist me asked me if I needed a minute or two to step outside and get myself together.  I remember immediately saying “No, why????”  I think I was so focused and in the zone of finding that suspect and worrying about those officers that I completely buried whatever I was feeling emotionally so deep that I was numb.  It took a while for it to sink in and when it did, I just felt stunned.  My heart ached for the daughter that would remember her mother in such a horrifying state.  The guilt that I had asked her to check on her mother, forcing her to see her in that horrible state, made me physically ill.  To this day, I don’t know if I did the right thing. 

There is a saying that hindsight should never be allowed in the court of self-judgement.  Knowing what that child saw, it is difficult for me not to judge myself.  There are those of you that will think “why on earth would you ask a child to do that?”  And there are those of you that will say “you had no way of knowing what condition her mother was in.  If she could have been saved and you didn’t send the child to check on her and she died, you would have to live with that too.”  I go back and forth.  I can tell you that there is no amount of money that can compensate for the heartache I carry with me day to day from some of the calls I have taken.  Sometimes the calls end better and a life is saved.  Those are the calls that make this job worthwhile to me.  The problem remains that I never know what is on the other end of the line when that 911 line rings.  That being said, I know someone has to answer that call.  Someone has to remain calm enough to think clearly and make split second decisions.  Someone has to bring order to chaos.  Someone has to get through the hysteria to get the information needed to get the caller the help they need.  Not every call is life or death, thank goodness.  If it was, I’m not sure I could do this job.  Anyone that has been in this profession long enough will have stories like the one I just described.  Calls they carry with them from day to day.  Heartaches that never leave.

Because I worked in dispatch the next day at HCSD, I had the ability to see the suspect in jail through the camera system located in dispatch.  It was difficult to look at him knowing the heartache he caused his family.  I remember the jailers telling me that he had said the devil made him do it.  I know he got a hefty sentence and might still be in prison for the crime he committed.  I’m not sure.  It isn’t him that I think about and carry with me.  It is his sister who was forced to swim in that sea of terror the night he decided to take his mother’s life.  It is his sister that I hope with all my heart is doing well today in spite of what she went through.  Although I know I did the best I could at the time when I asked her to check on her mother, I hope she can forgive me for giving her such a horrific last image of her mother.  That was never my intent and I am so very sorry she lost her mother in such a violent way.  I don’t know if she ever thinks about the person who took her call that night.  In many ways I hope she doesn’t.  I hope somehow she has moved on and put it behind her.  I carry her with me and say a prayer for her each and every time I plug into my console and answer that 911 line.  I pray that no child will have to endure the horror of what she experienced that night.