At 9:15 that summer morning, the crazy ring tone my granddaughter had installed on my cell phone sounded like an invasion from Mars. “Oh well, what now?” I thought. Then, fear. I heard sobbing and stammered words, “Grandma, come quick! Charlie’s not bre…” Panic mangled my thinking. I slammed my way towards the car. “Where’s your momma? Did you call 911?”
I think I understood that Charlie’s momma and daddy were with him, but I know that I was desperate for help. I hit the emergency call button on my Bluetooth. Seconds were hours; 911 was not answering. I hit it again. “Why?” “What was going on?” Finally, an insistent voice registered; she was telling me, “Ma’am, we are already responding to that call. EMTs are on the scene.” And, they were. Within two minutes of his daddy’s plea to come because his little boy was not breathing, the firemen arrived.
In those intervening minutes, Charlie’s momma instinctively breathed for him. She took heart from hearing one soft moan and feeling the determined clenching of his teeth. Then a fireman gently placed an oxygen mask on that tiny face and a different determination took hold. Professionalism softened fear. “He is unresponsive. He needs respiratory assist.” Those sentences became tolerable only because we realized that the EMTs knew what to do; they cared; they would help.
Other firemen quickly investigated the scene to discover the cause of Charlie’s distress. One found evidence that he had thrown up on a pillow in his favorite big chair where his sister had discovered him minutes earlier. Everyone in the family had been fighting off the stomach virus for days, and so early on the medical team suspected that he had aspirated vomit. The ambulance arrived; a fireman gently picked up Charlie’s limp little body and carried him to a stretcher; more EMTs began assisting and within minutes Charlie was on his way to the ER.
I know it sounds like a cliché, but watching what happened in the emergency room really was like seeing a movie. First of all, I could hardly believe the number of people involved. There were doctors, nurses, technicians, a chaplain, even the chief of the hospital stood ready to save Charlie. They were so fast! And all the while, we could hold on to Charlie’s hands and stroke his little legs. They allowed us to offer him comfort, and even though he was unconscious, somehow he comforted us. Every member of the medical team focused in a specific way on Charlie; they consulted in what seemed like verbal shorthand and decided what to do. I remember that they inserted a breathing tube and suctioned out his lungs. I remember being told that he would remain unconscious because they were sedating him and that because of his complicated medical history, Duke’s Life Flight team was already on the way.
Looking back, I realize that another interesting dynamic was occurring. While the first responders and the emergency room staff cared for Charlie, they were taking care of all of us, too. For example, the chief of staff took one look at Charlie’s father who was struggling with the effects of the stomach virus. Within minutes, he had been placed in a treatment room and was hooked up to an IV. The chaplain circulated among the family offering quiet prayers and reassurance. As Charlie’s condition stabilized, nurses chatted with his mother, reinforcing her strength that always normalizes desperate situations. I remember looking at a Golden Hour chart and having one nurse assure me that Charlie was not only within the Golden Hour, the first responders had been so fast, he was within the Golden Minutes. I was so grateful for the medical expertise and the caring attitude of everyone. No one intruded on our private agonies; yet, they gave us support to move on to the next steps that we would need to take to help Charlie survive.
Duke’s transport team arrived. Everything about them is always so smartly professional. Charlie spent the first four months of his life in the care of cardiac surgeons and doctors, so for me Duke is a synonym for hope. Now, on this morning, to watch the interaction between them and the local hospital team was to witness the best in coordinated medical care. Then, we were off to Durham.
I can share this story because of its happy outcome. Charlie recovered. After exhaustive testing, Duke’s doctors decided that indeed the first investigation by the Danville firemen probably revealed what had happened. Enveloped by his comfy pillows in his favorite chair, Charlie was suddenly struck by a wave of nausea. It seems so impossibly ordinary. He became sick, threw up, and simultaneously inhaled. But, it was not ordinary. He lived because his sister and parents reacted so quickly; the fire department responded so quickly; the ambulance EMTs stabilized him so quickly; the emergency room medical team made the right decisions so quickly.
To the First Responders of Danville (911 Dispatch, Danville Fire Department, Regional One Emergency Medical Services and Danville Regional Medical Center’s Emergency Room): thank you for saving Charlie.