Saturday, June 27, 2009

Complaint Department

I've heard from some that I need to keep writing. I'm not sure why as I think I live a very dull life now.

I've gotten a few weeks of rest now and that has helped me to feel a little more sane. The last few weeks of school were just nutso. I just operated out of some kind of obligation and don't have any idea where I got the energy from to manage those last weeks.

I just heard that my dear friend in Richmond, is in the hospital after a fall today. She has a "minor" hip fracture. That's an oxymoron like "Gigantic Shrimp." "Minor Hip Fracture." Nope, that's an oxymoron. I hope to hear what's up with her tomorrow. I hope it's so minor they don't have to operate. If you're a praying person, please remember Lucille and her family and physicians.

Tonight I was reflecting back on my days as a Mental Health Provider on a homicide / suicide hotline. I was remembering this guy that called in and said, "If you want to tell something to God, tell me and I'll relay the message because I'm blowing myself up at Midnight." Now, I don't know about you, but for me those words made my heart skip a beat. This was way, way back in the day when caller ID was just coming out and we didn't have it. In order to get a trace on a call, took about 15 minutes that I had to keep the person on the line.

He explained that he was a munitions worker in Vietnam and that he had all the ingredients for Napalm and was planning to blow up his house. Now, I'd grown up watching the nightly news and seen what Napalm could do. Do you know, off hand, what the ingredients are? I sure didn't. I figured worst case scenario he could have gasoline, and that wasn't a highly controlled substance. So, I had to believe him. Now blowing up a city block ... that also got my attention, and it was about two hours until Midnight.

With five incoming lines, I walked to another desk, called the hotline myself, and when the phone rang I asked Mr. Napalm if I could put him on HOLD. Being the polite homicidal maniac that he was, he allowed me to put him on HOLD. Whereupon, I immediately called the operator, asked for a supervisor, and informed her I had a homicidal person on X phone line and was requesting an emergency trace. Naaaah, that didn't take long.

Thankfully when I went back to line X, he was patiently holding. I now had two phones with two different people talking to me: one phone applied to each ear. This was going to be a LONG night.

So the phone company traced the call, and then transferred me over to the police who were using me to funnel information to them from the caller. They'd ask me questions like, "Can an officer come to the door?" I'd then turn around and ask my caller, "So look, I'm thinking this isn't the greatest plan you've ever had. So, what about surrendering to the police?" His reply back to me was, "If someone comes up to my house the whole thing will blow. I have booby traps all over the yard and house." So, then I'd repeat what he just said, "So the yard and porch are covered with booby traps." And the caller would feel affirmed that I was listening, and the police would get the information on the other line.

What made me think of this experience today was watching a hospital show where a guy was clearly nuts. You see, at the time I'm talking to this guy, I don't know he's nuts. I think he is homicidal and has the stuff to make a bomb and blow a city block to kingdom come. I've often thought of him because he and the police frightened me so much that night.

After an hour or so of phone and verbal juggling, the police asked me to get him to show where he was in the house by turning on a light. I worked a "No." into my conversation. They were incredulous, and asked me again to get him to turn on a light to show where he was. I worked another "No" into the conversation. The police officer asked me, "Are you saying 'No" you won't get him to turn on a light and show us his position?" I worked a "Yes" into the conversation.

I couldn't be directly responsible for his death, and I had visions of a sniper trying to get a "bead" on him. I couldn't be on the phone with this man and hear him get shot. I just couldn't do that.

After about another 45 minutes of wrangling with him, we'd found out more information about him. The police tracked down his parents and he'd been thrown out of the Army as unfit for service (because he was nuts) and he had no knowledge of how to make munitions. (Big sigh.) I'd also talked enough to him to find out he'd been in jail before and was scared of men. So THE only female officer on duty that night in a rather small, rural county got her to drop writing a ticket to some schmuck on the highway, and she went over to, what by then was, a BIG deal. By now the police had blocked off his whole neighborhood. The bomb squad was there, and pretty much every officer in the entire county. I'm still talking to two people on two different phone lines.

I got to listen as the female officer carefully came to the door and knocked. Loudly knocked, I might add. I encouraged him to open the door and let the female officer (I promise) in to arrest him. I got to hear as he was taken down, as the phone went klunking across the floor, and finally as an officer picked up the phone line and said they had things under control now. And he was alive. Sick. But alive.

That is probably one of the most scary times I've ever had in my life. With five incoming lines, there were calls I ignored. Were any of those calls people who were genuinely suicidal in that moment? Whatever happened to that poor guy? Was he taken to a hospital where he belonged or was he charged with something like a "false police report" and sent to jail? Or both?

I talked and trigaged lots and lots of calls over the three years I worked on that job, but this was one of two really memorable calls. I have since talked to officers that were in the field that night and remember that call, from the police side of things, and yes -- there was a sniper there. For a woman that follows the "rules" and does what the nice officer instructs, it was also scary to me to defy the instructions of the officer who was attempting me to get the caller to turn on the lights. It was frightening to me to think I might be listening on the phone when some guy got his brains blown out. It was two hours of terror. At least one of those hours, I was fearing for the lives of many. The other hour (it was about 11:45 by the time all this ended -- I didn't get my message through to God via this guy) I was terrified for one man's life. I don't think I can ever forget those two hours.

But you know, when a kid shows me a tiny dab of blood and begs to go to the nurse, "It's an EMERGENCY!!!" I can't help but think, "You have no idea how NOT an emergency this is."

It's been 18 years since that event. The mentally ill don't live as long as the rest of folks. If I was a betting person, my bet would be that he's no longer with us in this life. I hope in the next life, if there is one, that he is relieved of his illness and the chaos it brings into his life.

Yup, an EMERGENCY is definitely not defined as a drop of blood or a scratch or a blister or a bloody nose. You have to think really big to get my attention and have ME call it an emergency.

5 comments:

Watercolor said...

Wow. What a story and a night of terror and great courage. hugs!!

csmith said...

Joann, I am glad to hear from you. I was getting concerned about you as you had not posted for a while. Was just getting ready to email you or write. Glad you are fine. Enjoy your grandchildren this summer, and rest. Take care of yourself. Sending love and prayers -- Blessings, Carolyn Smith

Calypso said...

Wow, when you come back, you come back with a dozie. Great story. Albeit scary. Welcome back!

Anonymous said...

Ah,the trip down memory lane. Whew, when I think of some of those calls and how really unprepared I was... Now I am not sure I would want to do that job again. I wonder how many times our voice aided someone to calm the chaos in their head and to get some sort of peace. Missed your posts. So when are you writing a book? Love, R

Amber said...

Did you know that just as many mentally ill people call funeral homes in the middle of the night as call mental health help lines? The couple of years I worked at the answering service answering phones all night for funeral homes was interesting, too. We should share stories - I have a few that will make you laugh so hard that you pee your pants!

I know what you mean about the kids at school and their "emergencies." When one of our colorguard girls hit herself in the head with a flagpole and was spurting blood from her eyebrow, I classified that as an emergency because of the high rate of blood loss. You'd be amazed at how many kids realized that a papercut is not an emergency after that day. And SAID that to me.