I’ve always known the men and boys in my life have been important to me, but until I sat down to try to write about it, I never realized just how many stories I could tell. One I don’t get to relate very often is how my father and a police officer kept my first near-death experience from just flat-out being my death.
I was only 18 months old at the time, and having a severe asthma attack. I’d had them before, but they’d always been controllable with medicine and home remedies. This one was much worse, and the usual stuff wasn’t working. Mom declared the situation an emergency. This was an area my parents had disagreed on – in 1974, asthma was still thought by many to be a panic disorder rather than a respiratory one.
One thing my father had gotten right was that panic made it worse, and it was his calm, authoritative teaching that helped me, even at that early age, learn to keep my fear response under control, even when I was beginning to suffocate during an attack. That night, part of what helped me survive was that ability to stay calm. Panic always seemed to accelerate or exacerbate the lung spasms, and hyperventilating doesn’t exactly help during an asthma attack. Dad coached me through focusing on my breathing and quashing my initial panic, so that even if it was hard, I was at least still getting air.
Another thing was that my father was willing to defer to my mother’s medical experience even though he’d always been told asthma was imaginary, and when she said we had to go to the hospital, that was that. He piled us into the car and drove. Dad had worked as an ambulance driver, an experience that proved highly useful that night.
I still remember that ride, my mother’s quiet urgency, and my Dad’s calm reassurance. We moved much faster than I was used to. I later learned we’d gone miles per hour up a hilly, narrow, country road toward Lima, Ohio, and the nearest hospital. The whole time, Dad kept coaching me to remain calm and focus on each breath.
Along the way, we met, to me, the most important man I never knew.
We’d passed a speed trap, and the officer came roaring after us with lights flaring and siren blaring. Everything seemed weirdly bright, loud, and yet distant to my oxygen-deprived senses, but I could see that he pulled up so close behind us that the back of the car blocked his headlights from my vision.
I heard my Mom tell my Dad there was “a cop” behind us, and Dad replied, “He can ticket me at the hospital.” He didn’t even slow down.
After a moment the lights pulled up beside us, and I looked over to see, through the wall of burned-out spots in my vision, the police officer’s face as he sternly stared into our car. He looked at me, and his expression went from stern to worried. He pointed at my Dad, then motioned his hand in an arc from the ceiling to the front of his car. Even as a toddler, I understood that to mean, “keep going.” In a split second, he’d assessed the situation and decided to assist in the emergency rather than wield authority against a driver who could have been charged, had he been ticketed, with reckless operation.
The officer pulled his car in front of ours, lights still going, and led us through the city of Lima, Ohio, going farther ahead of us to ensure a clear path. He slowed and sounded his siren at the approach to every intersection, then lead us through without stopping before speeding up to do the same at the next one. When we arrived at the emergency room, there was a crew waiting for us, as the officer had radioed ahead. I remember what felt like a million hands lifting my very pregnant Mom out of the car with me over her shoulder, seeing the officer helping the emergency medical team, before everything went black.
It was years before I found out from my parents that the speed of Dad’s driving and the officer’s response made the difference between life or death for me. My airways were completely swollen shut when the crew began treatment. If we’d been five minutes later getting to the hospital I’d have died in the car. The officer’s quick assessment and astute response made that difference, and my Dad’s experience and reflexes made the rest. The two men worked together to give that medical team the chance to save my life, and they did.
Dad spent my entire childhood working with me on physical therapy to strengthen my lungs, encouraging me to get involved in sports, and being present for every moment of that activity, a grueling experience for a parent to watch. He was a constant mentor in my development of as much control as I could have over that health condition, and without him I am certain that, as predicted by my childhood asthma specialist, I wouldn’t have survived to become an adult, even with all of the medical care and maternal nurturing in the world. It was his analytical approach to the problem and his diligent coaching that gave me a chance at life, and then went on to help me prevent my medical condition from disabling me. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank him enough.
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