Saving lives a call at a time

She watched some segments of “Cops” on TV as a child and wondered how the officers got all their calls.

During high school in California, she toured the police department and watched 911 operators directing officers to people who needed help.

It was then, Amy Breitenbach said, that she knew what her life’s work would be.

“I saw working in 911 communications as a great way to help people,” she said as we talked at a coffeehouse about the challenges of the 911 position she’s held with Las Vegas Fire and Rescue for the past four years. “Helping people is something I’ve always wanted to do. I got that from my mom. She’s a nurse. I saw her come home tired every night, but she was happy helping people.”

I first talked with the 36-year-old Breitenbach, the mother of a teenager, during research for a feature on CPR that appears today in the Health section. She’s barely 5 feet tall, but comes up big under pressure.

Charlette Sanders admired how, after she dialed 911 in June, Breitenbach managed to talk her through the lifesaving measure that kept her husband alive until paramedics arrived.

“She was so calm,” Sanders said. “She really knew what she was doing.”

Before landing her dream job that saw her trained in emergency medical procedures, Breitenbach was a dispatcher for five years with the Nevada Highway Patrol, often quickly getting help to people who had been in gruesome accidents.

It was there, she realized, that she would have the grace under pressure — what Hemingway defined as courage — to deal with crisis situations day after day without losing her cool.

She believed she could be part of a unit that is actually often the first of the first responders.

The job she cherishes isn’t easy. Time and again she’s heard the agony in voices of parents who’ve found their children face down in swimming pools, listened to the cries of husbands and wives who’ve found their loved ones dying of a heart attack, given a desperate suicidal man or woman a chance to vent.

But she never allows herself to get caught up in the emotional chaos of wails and howls and calls for God. “If I get that way, they’ll never get the help they need,” she explained. “I make sure I get their address and what the problem is so I can send appropriate help and then I do what I can.”

It’s not always enough to do what she can, but sometimes it’s enough to mean life over death.

And she’s justifiably proud of that.

Sometimes calls stick with her.

She’s never forgotten the grandparents who called for help after their granddaughter gave birth in her bed.

Sobbing and gasping for breath, the grandfather who made the call couldn’t tell Breitenbach what happened. His wife came on the line.

Though she, too, was crying, she did manage to give their address and say that their granddaughter, who was bleeding slightly but seemed to be OK, had given birth to a premature child so small that “it could fit in the palm of your hand” — a little one the grandmother said she could “see through.”

The baby — taken into another room by the grandparents who hadn’t known their granddaughter was pregnant — wasn’t breathing. Grandma speculated the barely formed child might be only 3 months old.

Breitenbach, notifying the dispatcher of the emergency through her computer so paramedics could be sent even as she continued to give advice, told the grandmother that she would guide her through CPR that would include giving a gentle “poof” of air into the baby’s mouth.

“I felt so bad for her,” Breitenbach said. “Usually with an infant under one year we have someone use two fingers for the chest compressions, but this baby seemed so small I had her use just one middle finger tip. Grandma said the bones didn’t seem developed and the chest seemed almost gooey.”

A couple of minutes after Breitenbach took the call paramedics arrived, who took the mother and baby to UMC. The baby never had a chance.

“I really wanted that preemie to make it,” she said. “I’ve heard miracles happen. That call stayed with me for a few days. When she said she could see through the baby, that it was transparent, I think she knew there was no chance, but she didn’t want to give up. I didn’t either.”

If Grandma was right and the baby was only about 12 weeks old — 39 weeks is the preferred term for newborns, though some have survived when born around 22 weeks — there really was no chance at life.

“I had no way of knowing how old the baby was and never found out,” Breitenbach said. “It probably was a miscarriage but only a doctor can determine if there’s a chance. Even with hangings, we have people cut them down and start CPR. We don’t know how long that person’s been there. It’s our job to try to save lives, not decide who can be saved.”

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.