Location: Grants Pass, Oregon
Date: March 13, 1992
On March 13, 1992, Joetta Sharrard of Grants Pass, Oregon, learned how vulnerable children can be to injuries that cause severe, life-threatening bleeding. That afternoon, she uncharacteristically left her three sons and one of the boys' visiting friends alone in the house, watching cartoons on television, as she went to run an errand. "I normally don't leave my kids at home alone," she said, "but I had to do this errand, and none of the kids wanted to come with me. I thought to myself, 'They'll be okay here, and I'm only going to be gone a few minutes.' " "I don't want any rough stuff while I'm gone," she cautioned them, leaving her 11-year-old son, Michael, in charge.
Soon after she left, Michael, his friend Evan, and 7-year-old Ben, Michael's brother, decided to go outside and play tag. "I told Evan that I wanted to do something else because the cartoons were getting boring," explained Michael. In the yard next door, 45-year-old John Miller heard the excited sounds of the boys playing as he watched his father, Clarence, repair a wound in an old tree. "My father had asked me to come over and help him do some odd jobs on some of his rental houses," John said. "I listened to the horseplay, and it wasn't anything that alarmed me. I'm used to boys carrying on like that."
"We were playing tag and I was it," remembered Michael. "I went after Ben, and it just happened, real quick." Ben had run up the steps leading to the back door. Ben lost his balance and his arms went crashing through the nonsafety glass of one of the door panes. Reflexively pulling them back through the jagged glass, he slashed both of his arms badly.
The Millers heard the sound of breaking glass, and then terrifying screams. "I'm dying, Michael!" shrieked Ben as blood streamed down his arms. "All I saw was blood everywhere," remembered Michael, "and then I started screaming, 'Oh, my God! Oh, my God!' "
The Millers ran next door to help, and John instructed Michael to call 911. "I rushed to Ben," John said. "I had never seen such an ugly cut in my life. I had received a lot of training in first aid in the navy. And so we elevated his arms and applied the pressure. I knew that if we did not stop the bleeding, this boy was going to die on us, and I was not going to let that happen." John and Clarence each took one of Ben's arms and, raising it above the level of his heart, applied direct pressure to the wounds and pressed on the axillary pressure point above the elbow, pushing the artery against the bone to cut off the flow of blood to the rest of the arm.
"In the back of my mind, I was afraid that this lad was not going to live," John said. "In a way, I was angry about that thought. I've always thought it unfair of fate to arrange it so that a child has to die. I decided that fate was going to have a fight."
Sue Illions, the dispatcher who handled the response to Michael's 911 call, heard the heart-rending sound of a child, helpless with fear. "The first thing I heard when the call came in was a child screaming 'Oh, my God!' " she said. "That sets our blood going. You want to reach out and grab this child and say 'It's going to be okay. I'm going to help you through this.' "
As John and Clarence tended to Ben's wounds, Sue tried to get more specific information about the situation from Michael. Then she told him to wrap his brother's wounds with a towel or other clean cloth and apply direct pressure to the cuts by pressing the cloths down on them, but not squeezing too hard. Michael left the phone for a minute to relay the message to John. John went into the house, got some towels, and told Michael that Ben was gonna be okay.
Back on the phone, Michael continued to sob hysterically, while Sue tried to comfort and reassure him. "Michael, Michael," she said, "you're doing okay. Your brother's not going to die. He just cut his arms and we have an ambulance on the way. I know blood is a very scary thing," she told Michael, "but if you get upset, your brother will get upset."
"Imagine being 11 and seeing all this blood covering your brother's arms," Sue later said. "I was really scared," Michael said. "I was in so much shock, I couldn't move. I just didn't want him to die."
Just then Joetta returned, and heard in a panic Michael's account of what had happened. Sue told Michael repeatedly and insistently to put his now-distraught mother, who had run out to be with Ben, on the phone. "There were two men standing out there and they wouldn't let me see him," said Joetta, referring to Clarence and John. "That was real hard for me. I just wanted to hold him, but they wouldn't let me see him."
Michael finally persuaded his mother to come back in the house and get on the phone with his dispatcher, who tried to calm her down and give her a realistic assessment of the situation. "Hi!" Sue said, counteracting Joetta's hysteria with a firm, matter-of-fact manner. "You're okay. Let's not get all excited here, or you're going to scare Ben. Listen to me! Listen to me! Listen to me!" Sue said emphatically, over Joetta's sobs. "You're doing just fine. Michael called 911, and we've got an ambulance that should be there any second."
"I can't breathe," gasped Joetta. "You need to slow down. Do you hear the ambulance yet?" Sue asked. "I hear it, but I'm don't think they can find my house," said Joetta, still in the grip of panic. "You need to calm down, because this is not going to help anyone. The ambulance is right on the corner. Now they're right there," said Sue.
"Will they let me go with him?" Joetta asked, desperately. "Sure they will," Sue told her. "They're on the scene now. I'm going to keep you on the line until I'm sure that you're calmed down a little. It's not going to help the paramedics if you guys are all upset there. Everything's going to be all right. What's your name?" "Joetta." "Okay, Joetta, you need to calm down for everybody. How's Ben doing?"
"He's calm," Joetta replied. "he looked really pale, though." "Okay," Sue said. "But there's so much blood on the table!" "Okay. A little blood goes a long way," Sue said knowledgeably. "We've got the ambulance there, and they're going to check on him. I don't want you to get upset, because that will upset Ben. You're the mom, and Mom has got to be strong right now."
"I'm a wimp!" sobbed Joetta miserably. "No, you're not!" argued Sue, both emphatically and sympathetically. "Will you be strong for me now?" "Yes," Joetta answered, more calmly. "Will you take care of yourself?" Sue asked, unwilling to end the conversation until she felt certain that Joetta had regained control of herself. "I'm able to," Joetta said, still a little unsurely. "You're not a wimp," Sue repeated. "You be strong. Okay?" "Okay," replied Joetta, more assuredly. "All right. Go for it!" Sue said, and hung up.
"When you hang up after a high emotional call such as that one," explained Sue, "the frustation is so high that you want to just unplug and go over there and make sure that everything's okay. We just have to hang up the phone and wonder."
The paramedics on the scene assessed Ben's condition. They discovered that the wound on his left arm was particularly bad, and that Ben had no sensation in the fingers of his left hand and was unable to move some of them. "Usually, children don't handle injuries of this nature well," said paramedic Marvin Aaron. "Because Ben kept a cool head and because he was such a nice boy, my heart just went out to him."
"He didn't have any color to his face at all, and his lips were white," remembered Joetta. "And he just kept saying to me, 'Mom, I can't feel my arms. I can't feel my arms.' While he was telling me that I was wondering, 'God, will he ever be able to use them again?' "
Ben was taken to the hospital, where he was examined by plastic surgeon Ronald Worland. "When Ben came in the hand was alive, so I knew that one of the arteries at least was functional," Dr. Worland said. "The surgery involved repairing nine tendons to the hand, both of the major nerves, and of course, the skin defect, which had occurred when he fell through the glass. The work of the surgery is done through a microscope. Because the stitches are so small, we never know if the nerves or the tendons will work. We had a probable 70% chance of the nerves functioning."
"I didn't think he'd ever be able to use his arm again," Joetta said. "You know--do those things again, be a little boy, jump and run and swing on monkey bars. I never realized until that point how you take for granted being able to do things like that. An arm is a precious thing."
After a year of grueling physical therapy, Ben completely regained the use of his arms. "It was really scary," Ben said. "I didn't think I'd be able to use my arms again, but I feel fine. I can use my hand and can swing on the monkey bars."
"The first time he ran and grabbed a monkey bar, and swung on it, all of us cried," remembered Joetta. "It was a magic moment. When I see him out playing, my heart just leaps--and the phrase 'Hold me, Mom' takes on a whole new meaning. Just give me a hug--with both arms. That's all I want."
"When he got home, every night I slept by him on the floor because I wanted to be with him the whole time," Michael said. "I love my brother a lot. I'm just glad he's alive. If he was dead, I wouldn't know what to do. I don't know if I could live if he died. I would hope that nothing else bad will happen, and everything will go good in our lives."
"He could have died--he could have bled to death," said Charles, Ben's grateful father, "if it weren't for Michael and the Millers and 911 and the paramedics and the doctors. I just thank them very much, because they helped save Ben's life. He's a walking miracle."