Mother's instincts answer call for help when 911 fails

Rescue: After receiving a busy signal, a nursing student rushes her 5-year-old - injured by a stray bullet - to a nearby hospital herself.

April 01, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Tamyka Felder's mind reeled when she saw the blood covering her little boy, shot on an East Baltimore street on Wednesday night.

Should she call 911 or drive him to the hospital?

Five-year-old Dagod Darby had begun crying as soon as a bullet ripped through his hand. In a panic, his mother tore off his jacket, searching for the wound.

Felder, a nursing student, recalled that she and other students once debated the textbook advice of waiting for an ambulance if a hospital were nearby. However, when she saw blood all over her only child, she reverted to her training and yelled for a friend to call 911.

"It was a lot of blood, but I couldn't find where he was shot," Felder said. "I said, `If my baby dies, I'm going to die too."

What happened next was something no textbook had prepared her for: The 911 line was busy. After she and her friend made three frantic calls and got through only to a recorded message, Felder said, she got into her car with Dagod in her lap and sped to Johns Hopkins Hospital, a mile away.

A 911 operator did call her cell phone back eventually - after the boy had been examined by doctors and a gunshot wound to his hand had been treated, Felder said.

If it had been a more serious injury, "that little boy could have died," says Vernetta Lomax, 25, the friend outside whose home the boy was shot. "I was very disappointed in 911."

Baltimore police spokesman Matt Jablow said it is possible the women's calls were not immediately connected to an operator because other people in the area called at the same time to report hearing gunshots.

"It simply floods the system," Jablow said.

He said police records showed at least eight calls about the shooting. The first came at 7:30 p.m. from neighbors. Thirty seconds later, police records show the first call from Lomax's home. The call was answered with an automated recording because operators were busy fielding other calls, Jablow said.

"Typically the wait is 10 seconds," Jablow said. "They weren't on the line long enough to even register their number. I imagine they just heard the recording and thought they'd be on hold indefinitely and hung up."

Police said a man shot at someone in the 600 block of N. Bouldin St., and that a stray bullet struck the boy as he walked with his mother two blocks away. Police officers were immediately sent to investigate the gunshots in the Ellwood Park/Monument neighborhood, Jablow said.

Police say they have recovered a gun from a house on the block where the shots were fired. "We are optimistic that we will make an arrest in the case," Jablow said.

The bullet that pierced Dagod's right hand about 7:30 p.m. abruptly ended what was to have been a typical evening.

He and his mother had arrived by car to the 400 block of N. Bouldin St, where Lomax, a friend from nursing school, lives. Felder was carrying a pizza and three sodas. The friends had planned to eat and chat about school and life, turn up the music player and sing R&B songs.

"Everything was normal, and then I heard `Boom! Boom! Boom!'" Felder, 29, said yesterday. "I grabbed him and started running up the steps. But it was too late."

After Lomax ran out and saw what had happened to the boy, she dialed 911 on her home phone and then called on her cell phone, but only got through to a recording, she said. She also called using Felder's cell phone.

Jablow said 911 operators answer calls in the order they are received and cannot determine which are the most urgent. "We return every 911 hang-up," he said.

Unable to get through to an operator, the women decided to drive the boy to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where both work as clinical associates. As Felder drove, hugging Dagod to her chest, her friend called the boy's father and relatives. Doctors told the mother the bullet shattered a bone in the boy's hand, but probably did not cause permanent damage, Felder said.

Both women said they blame themselves for what happened.

Lomax said she is afraid the boy will associate her with the shooting from now on.

"If she wasn't coming [over], that wouldn't have happened to her baby," Lomax said. "I can't even explain to you how messed up that makes me feel."

In the living room of his Belair-Edison home yesterday morning, the diminutive boy played quietly with toys and treats from a large Easter basket, his right hand wrapped in a small cast and bandages.

"I felt like I was not protecting him," Felder said. "He just got shot, and there was nothing I could do about it."

Felder, whose 18-year-old brother was fatally shot eight years ago, said she has been able to shield her son from violence until now.

Dagod is rarely allowed to play outdoors - she prefers to take him to the library or Chuck E. Cheese's - and he is familiar only with nonviolent video games.

When his mother asked him what he remembered of the incident, the child said: "We were going over to Miss Vernetta's house and then you screamed ... 'cause I got shot."

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