July 1999. I had been a police officer for about three years now, and I was working a DUI shift, when at about 1:00 AM, my police radio blared, “Motorcycle crash, with injuries.” I was in the area, and responded with my lights and siren.
When I pulled up on the seen, I observed a Ducati performance style bike on its side with the headlight still on. As I approached, I identified a man in his early 20’s sitting on the curb sobbing uncontrollably. The man was wearing a sharp black suit, and had stylish black hair, cropped on the sides and long on top. It’s strange the things you remember. I asked him what I believed to be a logical question at the time, “Are you okay?” He began yelling at me and said, “I just killed my best friend, fuck no, I’m not okay!”
I then realized I had completely overlooked another person lying at the man’s feet. He was face down and positioned in what I refer to as the Superman pose…wearing the same black suit.
I immediately checked for signs of life. “Yes!!!” I thought to myself, “he’s breathing and he has a heartbeat.” I thought that maybe he just got knocked out from the crash. That’s when I noticed his breathing pattern was not right. A gargled, labored breathing that sounded really really bad.
This was the first time I experienced what I now know as ‘Agonal Respiration’, or the ‘death rattle’. Agonal breathing is an abnormal pattern of breathing and brainstem reflex characterized by gasping, labored breathing, accompanied by strange vocalizations and myoclonus.” Bad news.
As I started to sweep the coagulated blood from his mouth, I noticed little balls of yellowish-white stuff in his hair and ears. Then I saw he had a defined imprint on his forehead from the impact of the fall.
The agonal breathing continued, and because no one had ever told me about this before, I assumed his breathing was simply inhibited or obstructed from the blood in his mouth. So, I continued to sweep the blood from his mouth with my gloved hand, and began reassuring him that help was on the way.
The horrible gurgling sound began to slow, and then stopped altogether. This silence was quickly replaced with the sound of the ambulance arriving at the scene. As the ambulance arrived, I realized the young man died…he died as I talked to him, willing him to hold on, as I held his head in my hands. I had just witnessed death…up close and personal, and unfortunately, this would not be the last time.
I remember asking myself, “What the fuck just happened?!” I was overtaken by my emotions, I mean, no one ever told me death was like this. I had no clue it could be so drawn out and graphic. Death was no longer just a word in my vocabulary…it was real now, and it lives within me. It haunts me and gets replayed through my memories at the most random times. Sometimes, when I get into bed I’ll naturally stretch out in the superman position, and that is all it takes to spark those memories, and I find myself instantly taken back to that night. The sounds and smells are still so real…17yrs later.
Graphic, I know. But this is the direction I must travel with my blog to illustrate how real these situations are, and the emotions people are faced with. For there are only two ways to gain true perspective on a situation: 1) Experience it firsthand, and 2) Learn from someone that has.
My hope is to spark a conversation around the emotional survival of our nation’s first responders and warriors. If I am doing this right, you should be asking yourself, “So, how the hell do cops, warriors, paramedics and firefighters deal with this shit?”
Honestly, we don’t…I truly believe we have a learned defense system…kind of a personal process we go through to avoid accepting the realities of the trauma we are faced with. I call it “Conditioned Apathy”. It’s a practice of consciously and subconsciously decreasing our capacity to experience empathy. By compartmentalizing and suppressing these types of memories, as well as unintentionally dehumanizing people, we enable ourselves to operate in these crazy situations without making an emotional connection. We become desensitized.
To finish my story, I thought it necessary to share some background information about the scene I witnessed on that warm summer night. The driver of the motorcycle was the best man at his friend’s wedding earlier in the day. The passenger who died was his childhood friend. The wedding party had just gotten back to the house when the passenger had asked to go for a ride around the block. They had been drinking, and the driver had overshot the corner. When they hit the curb, the passenger flew over the driver, hitting his unprotected head center mass on a tree, six inches in diameter. Those little balls of yellowish-white stuff in his hair and ear…you can imagine my pain when I found out what that was. The driver later plead guilty to DUI, and also to killing his friend.
Next week, I will tell you some stories about “Little Philip”… a kind and compassionate kid. Maintaining my commitment to transparency, I’ll even tell you about that time I cried in Marine boot camp… yeah… that happened.
Until next week…less screen time and more face time, my friends.