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Billerica 911 dispatcher’s cool head saves choking girl

9-1-1 in the News, Calls | | March 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm

03192013aBILLERICA, MA — Matthew Leung, who has worked as a public safety dispatcher for ten years, has seen a lot on the job.

When a certain 911 call came in from Lauren Dechayne-Donati, he could hear the despair in her voice.

Her 10-year-old daughter was choking on a grape and she couldn’t breathe.

“We’ve all been scared before. This was terror. Sheer terror,” said Dechayne-Donati.

Dechayne-Donati said she was in the kitchen getting coffee at around 4 p.m. on Jan. 24. Her daughter, who wanted to remain anonymous, was sitting at the table doing homework and eating a snack when suddenly she grabbed at her throat. Her mother asked if she could talk or breathe and she frantically shook her head no.

Flooded with fear, she immediately handed her cell phone to her younger daughter and told her to call their neighbor who is a doctor, but then she quickly changed her mind and called 911.

Leung answered the call and calmly told her to stay on the line and that they would work together to help her daughter. Having taken CPR courses in the past, Dechayne-Donati was familiar with abdominal thrusts given to choking victims, but she had never before had to use it.

Putting herself in Leung’s hands, she followed his instructions word for word as he walked her through the steps of saving a choking victim: making a fist and putting it under her daughter’s rib cage, then pushing in and up. After only the second thrust the grape shot out with force, landing in the kitchen sink.

Her daughter looked at her and said, “Hi Mom”.

Dechayne-Donati called those the sweetest words she ever heard.

Within a few minutes, emergency personnel arrived and the little girl greeted them at the door telling them she was fine except for a slight sore throat and after they left, mother and daughter cried with relief.

“She did great,” said Leung. “I felt good. I helped a woman and her child. I felt good about myself.”

Leung’s boss, Lt. Greg Katz, Communications Manager for the Billerica Police Department, said that the brain can only go for about 4 to 6 minutes without oxygen before it starts to shut down.

“It’s a critical window,” said Katz. “We’re proud of our EMS department having such a quick response time. We try to get these folks recognized. They do an important job. When you see a child in distress, you have a tremendous amount of anxiety. Matt was able to verbally prompt her, which created focus on her part. It worked out well. Matt’s a cool cucumber. He doesn’t get frazzled easily.”

Katz wrote a letter commending Leung’s actions and sent it to Police Chief Daniel Rosa, who publicly recognized Leung at Selectmen’s meeting on Feb. 25, attended by Leung’s family members and Dechayne-Donati and her daughter, who hugged him and offered their sincere thanks.

“I can’t say enough good things,” said Dechayne-Donati. “You can’t underestimate how important the training is for these folks. Matthew was fantastic. He was phenomenal. He erased the panic. He said he was just doing his job but to me he’s a hero. He’ll always be a hero.”

Katz said that when he first started working for the Billerica Police Department in 1995, police officers were doing the job of 911 telecommunicators, but since then it has become very specialized. After receiving initial emergency medical dispatch training, telecommunicators are also required by the state to keep up at least 16 hours of training each year – training that is mostly funded by the state 911 department, said Katz, adding that every month they do evaluations and his department keeps improving.

“It really is its own profession at this point,” he said. “They’ve worked hard and are highly trained.”

Leung worked as a 911 telecommunicator for the Dracut Police Department for five years before joining the Billerica Police Department in 2007. There are eight full time and two part time 911 telecommunicators on staff in the Billerica Police Department and Police Chief Rosa said the state mandates that all 911 medical calls must follow standardized emergency medical dispatch procedures.

When an emergency call is received, the telecommunicators follow a flip chart of instructions which contains protocols for choking, CPR, and other medical situations. Over the years the state training standards have gotten higher and higher, said Rosa, adding that it’s a stressful job and they must learn to multi-task in a sometimes very fast-paced atmosphere. He said they receive medical calls every day but they are not always life-threatening.

“Matthew followed protocol and did what he was supposed to do,” said Rosa. “He calmed her (Dechayne-Donati) down so that she could handle the situation.”

Leung agreed that it can be a stressful job but said that it’s important to not get personal and to not take your work home with you. He said that sometimes he can go a whole shift without taking a call and other days he’s inundated.

Leung said that if someone is choking it’s best to call 911 right away, even if you already know how to perform abdominal thrusts. He also recommends that parents always cut up their children’s grapes and hot dogs and other types of food like that, to try to prevent choking.

Read the story here.