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Medic-deputy thwarts teen's suicide attempt

The boy was in a car with a hose attached to the exhaust pipe; the deputy broke through the window and got him out during a 4 a.m. neighborhood patrol

By Ben Lockhart

FRUIT HEIGHTS, Utah — Davis County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Sorensen was patrolling Fruit Heights where the small town converges with the Farmington Canyon area. It was 4 a.m., and traffic was mostly non-existent. 

But Sorensen's job is to be alert while the neighborhoods around him sleep, to look for anything out of the ordinary. On this particular night, Sorensen spotted a car parked at the side of the road with its parking lights on.

Approaching the car, he was surprised to find a teenage boy reclined all the way back in the front passenger seat. Sorensen, concerned, motioned for the boy to roll down his window.

The boy refused.

"It caught me off guard when he said no," Sorensen said. 

Sorensen repeated the request but the boy continued to refuse. The deputy grew wary and began looking around for signs of suspicious behavior. However, both the street itself and the inside of the car were almost entirely dark. 

"It's a dangerous spot for an officer to be in," he said.

Sorensen walked around the car, looking for clues that might tip him off. And then he saw it: A garden hose attached to the exhaust pipe and threaded into the passenger side of the vehicle. 

The teenager was attempting suicide.

Sorensen took the hose off of the pipe, but didn't know how long the boy had been breathing in the deadly fumes. He called for medical backup and pleaded with the boy through the closed window.

"I tried to just be caring. ... I said, 'Listen, I don't want to break your window, but I will if I have to,'" Sorensen recounted. "He said 'No, I'm not opening the window. I've been thinking about this for three years.'"

Sorensen, himself a trained paramedic who has worked with the sheriff's office for 17 years, broke through the front driver's side window, careful not to spray the teenage boy with glass. He removed him from the car, checked him for symptoms and helped responders get him into a rescue vehicle.

The teenager, a 16-year-old, was rushed to the hospital and ultimately survived the ordeal. Sorensen spoke with the parents while the boy was being treated.

"They were very appreciative. They didn't even know he was out of the house," he told the Standard-Examiner in an interview Wednesday.

Sorensen quickly brushed off suggestions his actions that early morning were heroic.

"It's something we all do all the time," Sorensen said of his patrolling effort. "Maybe we don't always come across something like a hose attached to a tailpipe, but we do it every day."

Regardless, the deputy's timing and alertness provided an alternate ending to a usually dismal and entirely anonymous story played out every day. 

For many attempting to take their own life, there is no such serendipity in the form of a passing police officer. Suicide remains a substantial issue in the Top of Utah, and the tragedy occurs disproportionately in secluded areas, say Davis and Weber County officials. 

Suicide threats, attempts and completions are a regular response for law enforcement in Davis County, says sheriff's office spokeswoman Susan Poulsen. But it's not so simple spotting a distraught person while on patrol, she said.

"Normally we're called to (suicide threats)," Poulsen said. "We don't typically happen upon them."

Poulsen didn't have detailed data immediately available, but said dispatchers respond to a suicide threat "almost every day" during busy weeks and about every other day in a slow week. If the agency is lucky, one of its officers may be able to individually spot the threat once or twice per year, she said.

The Standard-Examiner does not individually report the large majority of suicides, in order to discourage "copy cat" attempts.  

Because of its seclusion, Farmington Canyon is a problem area for people who are suicide threats, according to Poulsen.

"It's certainly one of the most popular places to go for people when they're feeling despondent," she said. "Every place has those areas. In San Francisco it's the Golden Gate Bridge, for example."

In last Thursday's case, the teenager's car was on a frequently traversed road, albeit at one of the most secluded times of day.

Since he additionally works on medical duty, Sorensen sees a larger than usual share of suicide calls. 

"We go on a lot of bad, tragic calls," he said, giving the same conclusion as Poulsen's: "That is where people do those types of things," Sorensen said.

 Weber County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Lane Findlay said the thinly populated Upper Valley accounts for disproportionately high instances of suicide threats, attempts and completions.

"There's not a lot of population there but it certainly seems there are a fair amount of calls in the area," Findlay said. "It's just a little more secluded. It's just a little bit of a draw for them, getting out of their (usual) environment."

The Weber's Sheriff's Office doesn't include incorporated cities in its data, but the Upper Valley reports similar numbers of suicides as some suburban towns. From January 2012 through December 2013, five people committed suicide in the Upper Valley, the same number as reported in Washington Terrace and one more than in West Haven.

Findlay said the sheriff's office carefully analyzes which areas suicide calls come from because data about people's family background and other socioeconomic factors rarely serve as a reliable predictor. "There's no demographic for it," he said. "It's people from all walks of life." 

About the only strong predictor for suicide risk besides location is age. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Utahns aged 10-17, according to data released by the Utah Department of Health.

"In that age group it's very prevalent. I don't know if that's because it's a tough time of life, if it's pressures from school or trouble with friends," Sorensen said. "For some kids, it's a minute event that (puts them over the edge). And for other kids, you can't imagine how much pressure they're under."

The sheriff's office reported 305 threats of suicide, 125 attempts and 22 completions in 2012 and 2013 combined, meaning about 17.6 percent of attempts resulted in the person's death. In the Upper Valley area, five suicides were the result of 14 attempts, a 35.7 percent completion rate that is more than double the county average.

Weber County will be holding a voluntary Crisis Intervention Team certification training for police officers from the surrounding counties April 3-7. A major objective of the training is preparing officers to interact with suicidal and homicidal individuals.

"It helps officers help those who are dealing with an emotional crisis," Findlay said.  

Anyone who has contemplated taking their own life, or knows somebody who is, can call the suicide hotline at 800-SUICIDE. In emergencies, call 911.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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