The Memories the Emergency Scanner Stirred


It was quiet in the newsroom after a particularly rowdy editorial meeting, and the warmth of laughter was still fresh in my gut as I set to work on my next assignment.

Before the meeting, Ms. Jean, our editor, had used the office line to set up utility services at her new apartment. The phone call had started with — “Yes, hi, I’m calling about a hookup … I mean, a service” — and we couldn’t stop laughing and making jokes (“that’s not how Tinder works, Ms. Jean”) once she’d hung up. She knows better than to make personal calls in a bullpen full of reporters who possess the collective comedic maturity of 12-year-olds.

We spent a good portion of the meeting that followed her call with me reading from the list of editorial quotes similar to Ms. Jean’s statement about the hookup. I’d started the list three years before, quietly collecting the strange things we said in the office. We were in the business of quoting people, but we said some quoteworthy things. Most of them were courtesy of Ms. Jean herself, whose rough-around-the-edges phrases made up most of the quotes that sent us into hysterics. Such as:

  • “Hey, everyone! I got a hole that needs filling!” (Asking for more press releases or photos to fill empty space in the paper.)
  • “So I ran into the mayor, and one thing led to another.” (It was just an interview, dear reader, but I’m sure you raised a brow too.)
  • “You can lead a fish to water.” (She had the delightful habit of butchering proverbs.)


She was a good sport about laughing at herself. Every time someone said anything worth adding to the list, we’d waste at least 15 minutes of me rereading the ridiculous quotes from over the years and making everyone guess who said it.

Eventually, we had to be productive. It’s weird how you can go from laughing at your boss’s apparent attempt to schedule a Tinder date to digging through Census demographic data to highlight how much funding is going to school districts with a higher percentage of white students compared to communities of color.

Suddenly, Q’s scanner breaks the silence in the room for a medical call.

It’s usually shortness of breath, which he ignores. Sometimes a shooting or a fire, which he covers. But this time it’s a child having a seizure. I suck in a breath and hold it. My eyes squeeze closed.

I’m back in February of 2014, parked on the side of the road, pulling ragged breaths through my wide open mouth as a primal ugly scream-cry attempts to escape my lungs. I am painfully unable to make a sound as agony stews in my gut. There’s only horrible silence and tears pouring down my face as I gasp for air.

In a way that pregnancy and labor are sealed into your being, I suppose the same is true for parents who have ever worried about their child’s life from the back of an ambulance.

It was the first time in four days that I’d been alone after spending three days in the hospital and one day locked in my home. I’d finally gone out for coffee, and the solitude barreled over me. I couldn’t cry before. I was being strong.

But four days before that, I’d woken to find my 5-year-old baby boy having a seizure in my bed. It had lasted for 30 minutes. He’d defecated and was unresponsive.

The paramedics let me ride in the ambulance because I “wasn’t hysterical,” so I knew that was my ticket to staying by his side. I needed to be with him every second. I was stoic and numb as much as I was terrified through four days of never leaving his side, sleeping in the hospital bed with him, waking whenever someone checked him in the night. Listening to him scream in agony as they stuck a needle in his spine. Waiting for too long for him to speak again, wondering if he ever would. Wondering if I’d lost him forever.

My wild, hilarious baby in the first half of his kindergarten year had seized for 30 minutes and went silent for hours, and no one could explain it.

He had a tall, thin African nurse. She was quiet but somehow filled the room with a soft, subtle warmth. She kept her hair in long braids with blondish brown highlights. Her slender hands were gentle as she checked his cords and things that beeped in the middle of the night. I found myself waking up frequently and smiling to see it was her there. She would smile back and leave as she had come, in silence.

A Black American woman with a heavy-set build and jovial demeanor named Christian was our other nurse. She filled the room with a different energy. But it too was welcome as I felt drained of everything and left with nothing to offer. The room craved energy, and I supposed that’s what nurses provide.

When my baby finally awoke, they’d torn him away from me so he could go for a walk with his father in the hallway. Christian sat in the room with me as I packed our things to leave, and it made me pause. I stopped packing and sat. It was the first time I’d seen her seated; I felt like I was being supervised, like it was some kind of discharge interview. I needed to hold it together, so they would let us leave.

She started off looking out the window. Oakland skyscrapers filled our view. There wasn’t much to see. I expected this bit of conversation to be the warm-up to a deeper dive about my stability. I hadn’t cried or fallen apart. But maybe they’d seen through my hollow stare and lack of consuming food. My jaw tightened as I watched her cautiously. I wanted to shout, “I’m fine!” But that doesn’t do much for your credibility, so I didn’t utter a word.

She kept talking, though, like we were just two strangers waiting for our drinks at Starbucks in the same vicinity and had found a tolerable topic for small talk that didn’t feel like work.

But finally, I got to the point when the knot in my throat was too large to ignore. Our eyes locked. I drew a breath. I’d talked to the doctors. They’d explained what they did and didn’t know. Largely, they didn’t know, and it wasn’t enough for me. But here with this nurse, I wanted to fall to pieces. I wanted to ask her through a desperate, broken sob, “What’s wrong with my baby?” But I knew it would break me, and that I’d finally fall to pieces right before my son was sure to walk in the room, and that ultimately she couldn’t tell me anything different from what the doctors had said.

So instead, I saved the breakdown for the drive home from the coffee shop days later and hoped other drivers wouldn’t notice me writhing with the type of hysteria the medics said I couldn’t enter when they first strapped my baby down in a gurney.

The scanner buzzes with static and falls silent. I’m back in the newsroom.

Q, our breaking news reporter, didn’t cover this type of incident, so there’s no rustling of his coat and backpack to pair with a rush out the door.

Everyone keeps typing as though nothing happened to someone who’s going through hell somewhere in town, because they can’t possibly know.

But I do. And I let out the breath I’d been holding.

I will never see an ambulance parked outside a house and not think of that day. I will never forget what it feels like to sit in the back and watch helplessly as nothing short of teenage medics earning something close to minimum wage attempt to resuscitate my child.

I take in another long breath.

In a way that pregnancy and labor are sealed into your being, I suppose the same is true for parents who have ever worried about their child’s life from the back of an ambulance. It seeps into your bones in a way you’ll never forget.

The moment passes, and I pray for the family. I’d like to think that it means more for someone like me to pray — as though it’s somehow more potent if you’re not the type to throw prayers around every time you lose your keys.

But the truth is, I don’t claim to know how that works, and it doesn’t really matter either way. I do know this: God or no God, I want the parents of that child who’s having seizures somewhere in my town to find comfort and for the child to come out okay in the end. At least I know this to be true.

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