When you hear a 911 caller's last breath
I have been told that I don't have PTSD since I've never been threatened or witnessed these incidents in person
By Anonymous Calif. dispatcher, 20 years on the job
As a young teen, I was never victimized by someone breaking into my apartment and sexually assaulting my younger sister while I slept next to her. I didn’t have to wake up and call 911 for help after I awoke to find a strange man in my apartment, on top of my sister and her being injured. I didn’t have to live through this personally, I just took the 911 call, and kept the child on the line until help arrived. Both girls crying hysterically, terrified, helpless, injured and alone except for a stranger’s voice on the phone.
I was not beaten as a 3-year-old by parents who appeared to hate me, while showing my siblings love and affection. I was not whipped with computer cords, beaten with broomsticks, until I stopped breathing and the people who were supposed to protect me became afraid I would die and finally called 911. I was not airlifted to a local children’s hospital where I remained for over six weeks, with bruises too numerous to count, according to the nurses.
I was never involved in a car accident on Christmas Day. Where, speeding along the road, I lost control with my family in the car, killing my wife and child, flinging a fire hydrant 100 yards away from the scene. Their bodies lying in the vehicle for hours while officers investigated the accident.
I was never a 16-year-old who called 911, terrified as my uncles and cousins forced their way inside my apartment, and started beating me with their fists and a bat while I was screaming for help. I never had to beg the 911 operator why didn’t she send help and save me after they fled, leaving me bleeding on the floor.
I never had to arrive home to find my adult son hanging in the garage, unable to get him down, crying hysterically asking why. Or to be with the police when they find my adult daughter in her closet after hanging herself, because she’d had a fight with her boyfriend the night before.
I have never called for help because my 2-year-old son was missing. I never had to hear the voice on the phone ask ... "Do you have a pool?" And knowing that my child may be floating face-down in it. I was the voice asking it and hearing her cries as she found the lifeless body of her son two feet under water.
I have never been involved in an accident on a backcountry road, miles between cross streets, when I crashed my car and passed out. Awakening to find myself trapped, unable to get out and find help, praying the voice on the other end of the line could figure out where I was, because I didn’t remember what road I was on, or even where I was driving from, I only knew I was bleeding and trapped.
I have never been a police officer dispatched to a minor disturbance, only to find myself in the fight of my life. I was not the officer who had an open carrier, actively struggling with a large male who was on meth, trying to pound me into the ground as I hollered for help from surrounding cities and county units. It took four agonizing minutes that felt like four years for that help to arrive.
I was never a firefighter who was called to the scene of a SWAT assistance on a search warrant, and never had to give CPR to a 13-year-old boy who was shot in the back accidentally, lying on the ground while his hands were behind his back. I didn’t have to see that 13-year-old boy bleeding to death, just hear about it on the telephone after the firefighter called, fighting the tears.
I have never been afraid that a spouse/lover/husband would kill my children or pets if I told the police about the abuse. I have never had to return to an abusive partner knowing he/she would beat me and/or my children for my betrayals.
I have never called 911 for help for a gunshot or stab wound, only to have the dispatcher ask who did it and where are they now. Losing blood on the sidewalk waiting for the dispatcher to receive enough information to transfer me to an ambulance.
I have never woken up next to my loved one to find them cold, unmoving, unresponsive, gone. I have never found a loved one dead only to be asked by the dispatcher to touch their stone cold, frightening body for a pulse.
I have never called 911, unable to speak or understand English, while my father was dying of a heart attack in front of me. I have never had to wait while the dispatcher guesses at what language I might be speaking. Spanish? Hindi? H’Mong? And when I gasp at the language yes, yes … wait for six minutes for a translator to be found. Only to watch my father die, as I was unable to tell the dispatcher what sort of help I needed, and my call was entered as a security check on a law board that had over 20 calls waiting to be dispatched due to a lack of officers.
I have never held a gun to my head and made a call to 911. Not to ask for help, but so that my family would not come home to find my body lying lifeless on the floor. I have never pulled the trigger, life ending in a millisecond. But I have heard that gunshot in my ear, knowing that I was the last person to speak with this father, husband, son, uncle, cousin, friend … human being. Hearing the last breath leave his body.
I have never found the lifeless body of one of my fellow officers on the ground, bleeding out from a gunshot wound. I have merely “heard” it on the radio. And while locking down the emotions of knowing one of “ours” is dead, not knowing who it is, dispatched medical assistance, set up perimeters, assisted other units onto the call, and then went onto answering the next 911 call. Not allowed any emotion in my voice, required to simply take the next call and move on.
As a dispatcher for 20 years, for an agency that served seven law and 14 fire departments, I may have never seen these incidents in person, but I have lived through each and every one. And tens of thousands just like them. I have been told that I don’t have PTSD as I’ve never been threatened or witnessed these things in person. I have been injured by these incidents ... heart, mind and soul.