EVERETT — Around the time Matthew Teague first saved his mother’s life, she’d bought a car.
The second time, he smashed out the window.
The car was gray, with four doors. Later, he learned it was a 2002 Toyota Echo. That seemed important when Teague had the window repaired. It seemed less critical to him when he thought his mother was going to die.
Theresa Jones woke her son at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 11 to tell him she was going to the doctor. Teague went back to bed in the fourplex on Rockefeller Avenue. The mother of his child arrived about an hour later. She banged on the door and alerted Teague that his mother was in the driveway, barely breathing, slumped over in the locked, running car. Teague grabbed a coat hanger and called for an ambulance.
Teague began in a calm voice, in 911 recordings obtained by The Daily Herald through public record requests.
“Um, my mom is in the car, passed out,” he said.
“Who is?” the dispatcher asked.
By the end of the conversation Teague, 34, was yelling, cursing and telling the dispatcher he didn’t have time for “stupid” questions about the car, or how to spell his name.
Instead of medical aid, the dispatcher first sent police. She’s since been disciplined for how she handled the emergency.
Caution: Explicit language
“A bad medical history”
Precious minutes passed, 20 of them, from the moment the call started to when the ambulance arrived. Teague has dialed 911 for his mother many times. Usually paramedics show up in less than three minutes, he said. A fire station is blocks away. Teague has never had a problem with a dispatcher.
Three years ago, Jones underwent spinal surgery. For a while she couldn’t open a bottle of water by herself, or walk to the bathroom without help. Around the same time, she’d bought a box spring mattress from Walmart and cut herself badly when she tried to open it with a knife. She slipped on her blood and crushed a vein in her hip, a hidden wound doctors didn’t find for a year, her son said. The injuries affected her blood pressure and left her prone to fainting.
Jones, 68, has the frail body of a lifelong smoker. She keeps oxygen tanks in the home. She quit cigarettes in the fall, after a scare when her son found her unconscious, hardly breathing. He didn’t know how long she’d been there. Teague gave her CPR. He was grateful when a dispatcher, from the same 911 center, kept him on the phone to give instructions for how to help. Jones didn’t wake up for hours. Her breathing was so faint paramedics weren’t sure if she was getting oxygen to her brain. Teague asked if she would live. He recalled the reply: “Would you like us to have a chaplain meet you at the hospital?”
The color of the car was not the main thing on his mind a month later, on Dec. 11, when the dispatcher asked.
“It’s gray,” he mumbled, as he tried to break in with the hanger.
“Gray what?” she asked.
“It’s a gray — ” he trailed off.
“I don’t know what the (expletive) this car is, woman.”
She asked again for the make and model.
“I don’t (expletive) know.”
“Is it a passenger car, an SUV, or pickup?”
He gave his address again and cursed.
“Is it a passenger car, an SUV, or a — ”
“What the (expletive) you asking me all that stupid (expletive) for, man?”
The dispatcher has 14 years of experience taking emergency calls, and a good track record, said Kurt Mills, director of the SNOPAC 911 center. Dispatchers tend to stick to a script. About 90 percent of questions on these calls are prescribed in writing. Local call takers started to use a new software in December, to help them ask the right medical questions.
“I’m required to ask these questions, sir,” the dispatcher told Teague. “Have you tried to wake her?”
“Jesus, it’s some stupid (expletive), though,” he said. “Yeah, she won’t wake up. … She has a medical history, too. A bad medical history, OK? Emphysema. All type of crazy (expletive).”
Teague kept fiddling with the door, but couldn’t unlock it. He explained on the phone that Jones had been in the car for an hour. He tapped on the window. He could see his mother breathing.
“Time is steadily ticking,” he recalled, days later at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. “My mother is in critical condition. I just gave my mom CPR last month. They had to stick a tube down her throat. So you’re asking me the make and model of a car? After I told you that my mother’s in it, slumped over? You’re wasting time, valuable time, that could be the difference between life and death.”
Two minutes and 50 seconds passed during the call. Dispatch logs show Everett aid crews were silently notified, but the dispatcher had advised that the caller was belligerent. (After hearing the 911 recording, Teague agreed it was a fair way to describe his demeanor.) So the aid crew was going to “stage” — to head that direction but wait for police.
“Even when I do start getting a little bit irritated, or very irritated at you, you’re in this field where you’re a medical dispatcher,” Teague said at the hospital. “I know people call you frantically all the time. You’re supposed to be trained to deal with frantic people.”
What really set him off that morning was when the dispatcher asked him to spell his name.
“What the (expletive) is you asking all these questions for, (expletive)? Just bring the (expletive) ambulance, (expletive)! (What the) (expletive) you want to know my name for?”
‘Did you already call us?’
Teague grew up poor, staying in shelters with a single mom. The home on Rockefeller is low-income housing. Teague does not feel the call was handled differently because of his background or his race. Teague has black skin. His mom is of Tulalip heritage. He directed a racial slur at the dispatcher three times. Twice it was met with stunned silence on the other end.
He doesn’t see his criminal past as the reason police showed up before paramedics, either. He served prison time for the murder of an Everett boy, 15, in a marijuana ripoff in November 2001. He’d helped plan the robbery. Prosecutors wrote in court papers there was no evidence Teague came up with the idea, or that he touched the boy. He and three friends met the teen at a play field at Evergreen Middle School. One of his friends hit the boy in the head with a souvenir Mariners bat until he collapsed. They heard sirens and ran off with $12 from the boy’s wallet.
On the news later, they found out he had died.
Teague was “the least culpable of the four defendants,” according to the prosecutor’s sentencing memorandum. He was 18. He had no criminal record. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and served a 10-year sentence. Since his release, he said, he has struggled to rejoin society. His recent arrests were for driving offenses. DUI. Misdemeanor hit-and-run. Driving with a suspended license. Police reports suggest he has been uncooperative with authorities, but not violent.
His record appears to have had no bearing on the 911 call. Dispatchers can easily look up past convictions, and a history of murder would catch anyone’s eye. Nothing in the police reports or the dispatch log suggests past violence at the residence. However, the dispatcher typed the address incorrectly, and the dispatcher failed to verify it with Teague.
The call was placed at 10:23 a.m., records show. Police arrived a block down the street just before 10:38 a.m. In the meantime, Teague couldn’t wait any longer. He grabbed a rock and shattered the car window. He freed his mother, carried her to another car and got ready to take her to the hospital himself. He called 911 back and told another dispatcher what he’d done.
“Did you already call us?” she asked.
“Yeah, and they haven’t come yet!” he said. “Where the (expletive) are they at!”
“So I need to get that dispatcher again for you, stay on the line,” she said. “Is it a gray car?”
Caution: Explicit language
“He’s just scared”
Dispatchers never told Teague help was on the way. State law restricts them from doing so, Mills said.
“That’s the one thing the callers want to hear,” he said. “Our protocol is to say: ‘We’re going to notify police and fire.’ ”
The dispatcher didn’t follow the protocol. “She could’ve done that,” Mills said.
Local dispatchers have training in techniques to de-escalate tense calls. Mills did not hear those strategies being used on the recordings with Teague. On the second call, the dispatcher told him he needed to calm down. He replied that she needed to send the ambulance. She told him he was being aggressive.
“We’re waiting for the police to show up, to make sure you’re not going to create a problem for the fire department,” she said.
Jones was still unconscious. Teague handed the phone to the mother of his son.
“He’s just scared,” the woman told the call taker. “He’s really scared right now.”
The dispatcher told her, too, that Teague was being aggressive, and she explained twice that the police would have to arrive first. The caller cut her off the second time and hung up. Police, now with the correct address, finally arrived at 10:40 a.m., about 17 minutes after the first call. Officers talked briefly with Teague, then radioed for the ambulance. Aid arrived at 10:43 a.m.
Dispatch logs show that, en route to the hospital, Jones responded to naloxone, a prescription drug that reverses opiate overdoses. Tests came back negative for opiates, however, Teague said. His mother was on medication for blood pressure, too, and he believes she fainted when the pressure dipped too low.
‘It’s hard to be down’
Dispatchers have challenging jobs where the stakes are life and death. They are humans, not robots. It is impossible to go through a career without a mistake. The dispatcher made several in this case, but the most critical was advising the aid crew to stage, Mills said. Under the 911 center’s policy, that shouldn’t have happened unless there was a weapon or threat of violence.
To Mills, it was an out-of-character error by an employee who should have adhered to policy. Teague never made a formal complaint. A coworker overheard the call, leading to an investigation. Right away the dispatcher from the 911 call told her supervisor, Mills, that she’d messed up. She felt bad about what had happened.
“Very much so,” Mills said. “To her credit, when I sat down with her, she knew exactly what she’d done wrong. She’d taken steps. She’d reviewed policies. … She wants to put it behind her.”
She went through a monthlong disciplinary process, represented by her labor union. Tapes were reviewed. A letter of reprimand warned her of the “serious” violation.
It seems inadequate to Teague. He thinks she should be fired.
Since the three-day stay in the hospital, Teague and his mother have returned to Providence three times because of her low blood pressure and low oxygen. They try to go pre-emptively, if there’s so much as a warning sign, so they don’t have to call 911 for an ambulance.
Teague has no immediate plans for legal action. He feels he’s fortunate, in a way. His mother doesn’t seem worse off because of the delayed response in December. But he doesn’t want to see it happen to others, who might not be so lucky.
“I’ve been through so much in life, it’s hard to be down,” he said. “If my mom wasn’t breathing, that’d be a different story.”
Rikki King contributed to this story. Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton @heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.