The other night I was parked in the rear alley of the police department when I heard dispatch broadcast a medical aid call over the radio reference a possible drowning. At first, I wasn’t sure where the address was, but a quick check of the computer showed it wasn’t far from where I was. I was on the phone at the time and told my wife I’d call her right back. I then drove off with lights and sirens.
As I drove off, I had prepared myself for a positive ending. I didn’t expect anything else because the last drowning call I had involved a child, who had lived. I raced to the address and arrived as I saw a woman waving her arms at me in the street. I exited my car as she pointed to the house and said, “He’s in the back.” I ran into the house and went straight to the backyard where I saw him on the concrete pool deck with people around him. He was a 16 year old. The entire backyard was dark, even the pool didn’t have a light on.
I hurried to his side, expecting him to be breathing because people shouldn’t die on you like this. Not on me like this. We’re the good guys and we’re supposed to win.
The look on his face told me a different story than I expected. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. I touched his chest and was shocked by the sliminess that I felt. The chest did not rise, nor did I feel a heartbeat.
I then started giving chest compressions as I waited for the fire department to arrive. As I pushed down on his chest, I kept expecting to the kid to wake up, cough or do something. I hadn’t prepared for death tonight. It seemed to take forever for help to arrive, but it was probably a minute before another cop went on scene. I touched the kid’s neck to check for a pulse and felt the same sliminess that had been on his chest. I wanted to feel a pulse so bad that probably I imagined one was there as I asked the other officer, “Do you feel a pulse?” He replied, “No.” Crap!
I kept pushing down as I did the compressions, still waiting for a positive outcome. The compressions finally stopped when the paramedics arrived and took over. It had been dark the entire time and I didn’t know what the sliminess feeling had been on his chest. It wasn’t until after the firefighters had used their flashlight that I knew it was vomit.
As the firefighters started working on the kid, I walked over to someone and asked where the bathroom was so I could wash my hands. I washed them twice. Once for the slimy vomit on my hands and probably the second time, to wash the death off of them.
I walked back outside and watched as the firefighters continued CPR. I wondered if I had done enough. I wonder if my chest compressions had been deep enough. If I had done all I could. I watched each chest compression that was done by the paramedic and I compared it to how I had done it.
I spoke to a witness and took his statement before leaving. I stood out front with two other officers as we talked about the call. Before I left, I learned that the kid had been pronounced dead at the hospital.
I got into my car and drove to Starbucks for a drink. As I drove away, I could still see the kid’s face in the dark as I gave him the chest compressions. The first thing I thought was, “I don’t want to see that when I go to bed.” Every cop knows what I mean because they have all seen the faces of dead people when they have closed their eyes at night.
As I stood inside Starbucks, I was in a funk. I looked around at the people inside as they went about their lives without a care in the world. None of them knew I had just kneeled beside a dead kid, with vomit on my hands, as I tried to save his life. None knew I had a moment of self doubt, wondering if I had done everything I could.
I took the drink and walked back to my car, stared at my computer screen and pushed the 10-8 button, putting myself back into service. Part of me felt weird when I pushed the 10-8 button because now it was time to move on to the next call, which was dispatched to me within minutes. Death is part of the job, but this felt different tonight. I felt bad for the family, who would soon learn the news of a child who would never come home. As a father, I could never imagine that, but the phone call would soon come to those poor people.
I handled two more calls after that and was still in the funk. At each call, I dealt with people who had no idea what I had just seen and done. I completed the calls and then went back to the traffic office to do paperwork. Within a few hours, I felt better because I had been busy with stuff that needed to be finished.
As I walked out to go home, the watch commander stopped me and asked about the drowning call. We talked about it for at least a half an hour. I told her how the call had come out and what I had done at the scene and how I had felt afterward. She was very comforting and told me a story about how she and another officer had saved a woman’s life with CPR, but who died three months later. She also told me how she had been invited to the funeral by the family, who had been so grateful to them for what they had done.
She told me some details about the call that I did not know about, which had been learned after I had left the scene. I walked out of the building feeling rejuvenated and feeling better. My thirty minute drive home had no feelings of self doubt any more as I listened to George Lopez on a comedy station. I walked in the house grateful to see my family safe. I climbed into bed and played a game on my phone for a few minutes to relax. Thankfully, the kid’s face did not appear when I exhaustedly closed my eyes at 5:30AM.
I really think talking with the WC before I left helped me feel better. Her comforting words probably chased away the image of the kid’s face, that surely would’ve been there when I closed my eyes for bed, had she not caught me in the hallway before I left.
The next night I spoke to friends at work about the call and I felt better inside. I even got an email from a lieutenant to call him. We had only spoken on calls or during training and we had never had a phone conversation before.
I called him up and he told me about a call he had twenty years ago. He said, “I once pulled a kid out of a pool.” He told me a very personal story about how the child had died despite his efforts to save him with CPR. He told me about the self doubts he had immediately after the call and the feelings I had afterward were normal. He told me about how he had felt at the scene when the sergeant basically told him to suck it up and how he went 10-8 right after that call. He told me how he felt all these years since that drowning and to talk about it with other officers to help get it out of my system.
Another friend told me about a fatal they had driven up on while still in training. Their description of what they had seen was very vivid, despite it happening 19 years ago. It was nice to see other people at work with similar stories and how they felt afterward.
And finally, my role on this drowning call was best described to me by another friend at work. In the past, my role at fatal collisions had been as an observer. On the night of the drowning, I had been a participant and that’s what made it different. Bingo!
With the help of my peers, I am happy to say I have not seen the kid’s face at night, nor have I had a dream about it. This incident has made me wonder how many of my co-workers have had similar incidents and feelings, which were just bottled up inside?
It was a good lesson after all these years to talk about it with your peers because they have all been through it,