The 911 Operator Who Needed Her Own Lifeline
Years of fielding constant calls from strangers in harrowing situations left one first responder stricken with PTSD, attempting suicide and wondering why there’s no safety net for the people who talk others back from the edge.
* * *
Two days before her suicide attempt, Denise Mercer had cooked chicken wings for the kids, staying a long time alone in the kitchen, staring at the low clouds rolling over Westchester County by the open patio door. She followed her mother’s old recipe: crispy wings and zesty horseradish sauce, a dish that comes straight from blazing Alabamian summers, a reminder of oily fingers and backyard brawls for the best hiding spot.
The kids had rushed to the table when she called them. They hadn’t said much during dinner but that was an old habit by now.
“I know I’m not really a good mama,” Mercer said to me that day. “It wasn’t always like that.”
“I like storms. The smell, especially. It makes me feel young again,” she had joked when the first lightning struck the sky, bringing gusts of rainy air inside the house.
We hadn’t talked in a few weeks. She was looking tired, as she always did after working night shifts at the Brooklyn 911 call center.
“Maybe we’ll go to my sister’s this summer.”
A glass of juice, a pill, and a TV show before sleep.
“It’d be good for us. See something else.”
Every free night after dinner, in the silent house after her husband had gone upstairs and the dishes were done, she had the same routine. A glass of juice, a pill and a TV show.
And then the dreams would start.
* * *
Denise Mercer, whose real name has been changed here at her request, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012. She often says she went to the doctor’s appointment with a cold and came back with a depression.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a relatively newly studied condition, only added to the DSM-III in the 1980s after a wave of Vietnam veterans began reporting similar distressing troubles to their physicians. While not completely understood yet, it is known to affect 7.8% of American adults, with women about twice as likely as men to experience its effects.
Anger outbursts, flashbacks, emotional withdrawal or concentration troubles, the symptoms are many and sometimes surface years after the triggering incident.
PTSD is more often associated with military and law enforcement, but research has shown that a much larger panel of the population is at risk of developing chronic issues from it. Rape or domestic abuse victims are as likely to experience anxiety disorders as front line personnel, natural disaster survivors or victims of other violent crimes. Many police officers, EMS first responders and even social workers have been diagnosed with PTSD.
“We are the true first responders,” says Mercer of her job as a 911 call operator. “We’re not physically at the scene but we’ve already been with the caller for fifteen minutes when the cops show up in person to help. We’re the first ones to establish contact. But to everyone, we’re just call center employees.
“Some deal with this better than others, I suppose,” she continues, “but when you’re on the scene there are things you can do. You can try CPR, you can take someone in your arms, you can actually help. And that’s what’s difficult about my job. You’re helping, that’s what supervisors keep telling you — and of course you are, but at the same time you are not.”
The feeling of powerlessness is one of the most prevalent causes that leads 911 operators to quit their jobs, and also a reason why many will face survivor’s guilt at some point in their career. Their high levels of responsibility and very limited ability to influence the outcome add up to extremely pronounced stress.
Operators are rarely kept informed about the case after authorities are involved. They take a call, send help and stay on the line until the situation is sorted out. They are not allowed to hang up until the caller hangs up or an officer on site lets them know everything is under control. After that, their work is done. They seldom know what happens next.
They don’t know if the firefighters arrived on time.
They don’t know if the man with the gun is gone.
They don’t know if the person died or if she’s alive.
“It makes you angry and bitter. You yell at your kids at home. You get road rage,” says Mercer. “You want to slap everyone in the face for being so dumb.”
A common complaint among Police Communications Technicians is the lack of support from their management. Between severe understaffing, constant overtime requests, an absence of guaranteed psychological follow-ups and criticism of day-to-day policies shortfalls, New York City’s 911 operators regularly report feeling left to themselves. (The NYPD, which oversees the call centers, did not reply to a request for comment as of the time of publication.)
“It’s like if you’re not in the field, you must be immune to everything,” says Mercer. “You’re just working the phone, right? How could you be affected?”
Still, she was the first to question her doctor’s diagnosis. There was a lot going on in her life at the time and she wasn’t sure the bad dreams, constant frustration and startling responses were really due to her work.
The bank was calling weekly for payment updates on the house. The school board had decided not to take action on a girl who bullied her daughter. Her husband was often traveling for business and she had to take care of everything.
She knew something was wrong.
She just didn’t know what exactly.
“It’s a whole different world out there. People live their lives. They don’t think about the things happening a few blocks down the street,” she explains. “They don’t think about the twelve-year-old with the tweaker mom who gets beaten every night by his stepfather. They don’t want to hear about the girl who choked on her own vomit after she was roofied and raped by three guys behind a gas station. Can’t blame them, though. They think if they can’t do anything about it, they’re better off not knowing about it.”
Mercer understood early in her training that helping others would come at a price. She wouldn’t come out unscathed.
“I don’t think there’s a choice here. Sometimes you get yourself involved more than you’d like to. It’s human nature. You do what you got to do.”
This is why her medicine cabinet is full of brown bottles, of carton boxes and torn tablets of prescription drugs. This one is for the backaches. This one for the migraines. Those are to help sleeping. Those to balance the Zoloft-induced nauseas.
Those are to keep living.
* * *
The nightmares started soon after a call she received in early 2012. The week had been calm up to that point — only a few regulars complainers and calls in error. A naked woman flashing her boobs from the eleventh floor of an apartment building. A dog shitting on a guy’s yard. A neighbor playing his music too loud. A distraught elderly man looking to reach his grandson.
“You wouldn’t believe the things people call us for. I’d say seventy-five percent of incoming calls are for non-emergencies,” Mercer says.
Of the average 120 calls she gets per regular shift, she estimates only ten are really for life-threatening matters.
The worst are when children are involved.
A child was involved that night.
Mercer could hear screaming on the line, screaming and crying coming from somewhere in the background, echoing through her headset as she spoke into the void, reciting the scripted questions she has been trained to ask. She could hear sobbing between the shouts but her questions remained without reply. “Help is on the way,” she kept saying. “Help is on the way,” like a slogan — supervisors insist that call-takers use the phrase at all times, says Mercer.
The location confirmation came in and Mercer started dispatching real-time info to the police and EMS, relaying electronic data through the center’s system. The situation was bad, but nothing she hadn’t already faced in her four years of service.
Then the screaming stopped.
There was a moment of silence followed by the muffled sound of someone getting hit repeatedly, and the tiny voice of a little girl emerged, barely audible, the tiny wailing voice of a kid who should have been playing with dolls and toy tea sets, and who instead had found herself crying the same string of words over and over — But I love you daddy? But I love you! I love you! — until there was nothing and the line cut off.
Mercer remembers removing her headset and leaving the room, going straight to her car and straight home, where she stood by the closed front door until the night fell and her husband came back with the kids.
“I just couldn’t take it,” she recalls. “You have to be strong and stay calm and composed on the phone when someone in distress is talking to you. But nobody can be that strong.”
The first dreams had her waking up in the middle of the night crying. She could feel the pain growing in her stomach, preventing her from finding sleep again. She started having panic attacks. She didn’t allow her own kids to go out in the street anymore.
“I couldn’t keep it together. This was a problem because I had already taken all my sick days and so I had to keep working and it only made me worse,” Mercer says. “It could happen at any time without warning. One minute I could be doing the laundry and the other I could be curled up on my bed. I couldn’t watch TV. Cop movies, I couldn’t watch them. I still can’t. It just makes me freak out. I’m completely powerless.”
She has an open tablet of Zoloft 100mg in her hand and shows me the oblong white pills.
“It’s frightening to see yourself like that. Like a ghost, […] you see yourself but you can’t control what you’re doing. You just keep imagining the scenes and hearing the voices.”
This is the blessing and the curse of 911 call-takers. Witnessing a violent incident firsthand can be harrowing, but keeping one’s mind looping in hope to fill the blanks left by a phone conversation is not much better. Imagination becomes more acute, struggling to explain the unexplainable — was the victim conscious when the operator talked? How did she put up her hair that morning? Was she more afraid than this guy in the fire the other day? At what temperature does skin start to melt? What was that crackling sound before her voice fainted? Was it her last breath? Her soul escaping her body? Was the dispatcher the last thing she heard before dying?
“You’re taught a lot of stuff,” Mercer says. “But not how not to get caught up in it.”
There is also another risk of being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder when working in an emergency call center: according to Mercer, supervisors are often unwilling to assist less efficient operators, occasionally resulting in resignations or terminations. “Suck it up, brush it off, go back in and take another call,” some even say to their employees when they express the need to rest after distressing cases.
“Our job is not recognized so it’s no wonder our PTSD aren’t recognized either. They can hire 50 new guys every day if they want to. But maybe they should ask why the turnover rate is so high,” Mercer says. “Coworkers leaving the place and never coming back. People burning out. Would you want to get yelled at by the people you’re trying to help all day?”
Mercer thought of attending a Northern California retreat for first responders dealing with trauma, but her schedule didn’t allow it and she abandoned the idea.
The nightmares continued.
She lost 55 pounds in one year.
“You’re supposed to call 911 on the worst day of your life. Well for me, the worst day of your life is every day I work. It takes a toll.”
At one point Mercer tried to find out what had happened to the little girl that night. She had the address and looked it up. The police report didn’t mention a child on the scene. The words simply said 1 DOA, for dead on arrival, and 1 MISSING.
She doesn’t want to talk about the research she continued after that.
The nightmares became worse.
When she met her therapist for the first time, in a nice Park Slope office, she told her she was afraid of sleeping. The therapist proved very valuable but the Mercer family was running on tight money and their insurance plan had been downgraded, not covering much of the practitioner’s fees. Mercer says she had to choose between keeping the kids in their school or going forward with the therapy. The kids stayed in their school.
“I became resentful of them. Sometimes I still go straight to bed when I come home. I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to play with them,” she lets out.
Her crises usually begin by a re-experiencing of the violent scenes she’s been indirectly exposed to. She relives the scenario as it unfolded on the phone line. She can be anywhere. In the street, in her car or in her backyard — and a rush of images made up in her head will overcome her without warning, making her gasp for air and grimace in pain, occasionally making her curl up on the floor. Her ears will start buzzing. The world will become darker around her.
But I love you daddy!
But I love you?
I love you.
* * *
There is a rest area on the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where Mercer sometimes goes for a moment on her own when things are bad, driving her car all the way from her Downtown Brooklyn call center to watch the coastal winds break the waves in the dusk.
Tonight, things are especially bad.
One of the paramedics she had dispatched earlier to a shooting scene near the Pink Houses public housing project in East New York was injured by an unknown male subject. Mercer had to call for backup on the radio to help the evacuation while the police secured the area.
“EMTs are the most vulnerable in the field. Their only weapon is the oxygen tank they carry with them in the ambulance,” she explains, nervously chewing gum.
Behind her car, headlights are fading into a mesh of nightly reflections engulfed by the harsh rain. Water is pouring on the windows, battering the metal and the glass and filling the cabin with sharp crashing noise.
“Fuck this city.”
She tries to see out, catch the shape of a tanker ship maybe, or the silhouette of the soaring bridge towers, but the storm is too heavy and the only thing she can see is blackness, blackness and choppy rain flooding the world.
“Fuck this piece of shit car.”
An angry sea sprays over the walls 50 yards away, making the air saltier and heavier at each foaming upsurge.
“Fuck these people and their fake-ass families.”
She looks straight ahead in silence.
“Fuck all of this.”
She punches the steering wheel, intensely, forcefully, her fists landing hard on the dashboard and the doors, making the car bounce on its springs in cadence with the storm, her face distorted by a cracked rictus and a long yell coming out of her mouth, rising from way down there, a deep and raucous animal scream howled at the voices and the dreams and the words from strangers twisting in her head.
* * *
“Driving helps me cope,” Mercer says, dashing at 65 miles per hour under the deserted expressway’s amber lights at two a.m.. “It soothes me. It helps me forget about all that’s wrong in my life for a while.”
She commutes every day for 45 minutes each way, from her home in The Bronx to Downtown Brooklyn, along with 1,500 other 911 call-takers employed in the same building.
“It’s like therapy except I only have to pay for gas.”
For 45 minutes, each way, every day.
The house is silent when she arrives back in the Parkchester neighborhood of The Bronx.
Mercer applied for her Police Communication Technician position twelve years after her own mother’s death. She had just been laid off from a menial clerk job and saw an ad in the paper. The written test was simple and she passed the psychological evaluation without issues. She was eager to work.
“You could say it was a coming to terms with things I had lived when I was younger,” she says, evoking a difficult past marked by an absent father and a heap of familial obligations after her mother died, struck by a drunk driver as she was coming out of an Atlantic Avenue convenience store. “I thought I could use my background to help others,” she adds. “God was I wrong.”
She abruptly tenses up, startled by a sound coming from the yard. I can see her hands shaking before she hides them under her thighs. I can see the anguish in her eyes.
“My training was just completed,” she later relates, calmed by the comforting effects of chemicals in her brain. “I had received a couple of disturbing calls already, in tandem with an instructor. An older man fighting for his life during a heart attack. A boy, he couldn’t have been much older than fourteen, who called bleeding from his stomach, asking me not to tell his mother he was in a gang. Thirteen, fourteen years old, tops.”
She carefully avoids looking at her reflection in the nightly windows. There are no mirrors in the house.
“One day I get a call from a beaten wife in Queens. I follow the procedure, and the procedure tells us to keep asking questions, and while I do that I have an odd feeling — this is not good, I think, not good at all, and I make a sign to my boss so he comes over to listen, and just when he takes the headset we hear a gunshot. We ask for two patrol cars to be dispatched on site and there’s a second gunshot. And all I do is keep asking if anyone hears me. Then I hear sirens and a cop takes the phone and just says ‘You can hang up now, it’s over.’ That’s when I knew that whatever help I would give, it wouldn’t be enough.
“You have to be a saint to keep at it.”
Sex used to make her feel better for a time. Now she just can’t stand the idea. She thought her marriage could use some kink. She even thought an affair could help her unwind, think other thoughts, feel free for a minute. She didn’t go through with any of it. The difficulty of being intimate with people, including her own family, is too great.
On nights like this one, she just stays on her sofa with her eyes closed.
A glass of juice, a pill and a TV show.
“Sometimes you get a bad string. Any of my coworkers could tell you, they usually happen in a row. It’s like you can’t take a break.”
According to a 2012 Journal of Traumatic Stress study, one-third of the emergency dispatchers included in the study reported having experienced fear, helplessness or horror in reaction to potentially traumatic calls. An older paper from the CDC showed that 33 percent of NYPD’s 911 call center employees regularly showed major depression signs — three times more often than the general public. Over sixteen percent agreed that the injury or death of a child was the first cause of emotional distress. Thirteen percent said suicidal callers were the next source. Another 10 percent said calls resulting in unexpected deaths or serious injuries were the third most common reason for trauma. In her seven years of being a 911 call-taker, Mercer came across each of those instances, on multiple occasions.
* * *
At dinnertime, the kids never talk about their mother’s job. Born two years apart, her son and daughter both understand the fine line their mom is walking on and keep silent when she has had a difficult day. They always know when she’s tired. They feel the tension.
“I used to cook a lot, before,” she says. “Now it’s harder. I thought it would get easier with the kids growing up. I didn’t think I’d still be doing that job, you know? I thought we’d have more time for ourselves. But here we are. Microwave platter paradise.”
Her son looks at her with a sigh. “I like microwave platters,” he says, his sister nodding at him in approval. Mercer smiles and chuckles.
Today is a good day.
Mercer got a suicidal call this morning, a few hours before the end of her shift. A man who called after having doubts about jumping from his building in Washington Heights. He stayed on the phone for 30 minutes, enough time for a patrol car and a fire truck to arrive at the scene and prevent him from dropping to his death.
“He wanted to live,” she says.
Her husband puts the kids to bed and Mercer draws thick curtains in the dining room, like a shield against the outside world.
She talks about weird stories from her job. Robbers blowing a tire on a car they just stole and requesting assistance from the NYPD. A homeless man thinking he was a pigeon and cooing every Wednesday at rush hour in the middle lanes of the West Side Highway.
She seems happier, even if she knows her respite won’t last. Things never stay good long in her life.
A few days later, Mercer answers a call from a woman in the South Bronx and everything goes back to where it was — the pills, the anguish, the anger, the guilt and the loneliness.
911, where’s your emergency?
Tell me your name. Cómo se llama?
Okay. Press against the wound, Elena.
Help is on the way.
Keep calm. Stay upright on your sofa and press against the wound.
Help is on the way.
Did you see your attacker? Are you alone in the house?
It’s okay. It’s okay.
Stay with me.
It’s all going to be over soon.
Stay with me, Elena. La ayuda está en camino.
Mercer knows full well that helping distressed people for a living is rubbing salt in her wounds. Having to identify her mother’s body at seventeen made her highly vulnerable already, but her late career was undoubtedly the trigger that worsened her PTSD symptoms.
“What else could I do? I don’t have any degree. I’m underpaid but at least I’m paid. Finding a new job ain’t exactly easy when you’re in my situation.”
At about $43,000 annually, her salary allows her and her family to keep the house from foreclosure.
And so she watches herself falling deeper, pushing her loved ones further away, becoming more hostile and alienated every day, in fear and pain.
All she needs to tumble is a call.
One of the 120 she takes daily.
* * *
The hospital room is small and filled with medical equipment. A nurse has changed the bed sheets, asking Mercer to stand up for a minute, there by the window overlooking the gray waters of the Harlem River, with a drip in her arm and pain medicine in her veins.
The stomach pumping was effective. The activated charcoals removed most of the sedatives in her digestive system and the ureteral stent cleared what was left in her kidneys. B vitamins are giving a boost to her liver functions.
Walking hurts a lot. Breathing too.
All these drains and fluids.
“I’m on the other side, now,” she says. “I’m one of them.”
She didn’t call 911 after she emptied the Oxazepam bottle. Her husband did. He found her on her bed with her clothes on and no note, nice and quiet, turned on the side so as not to make a mess if she threw up.
She woke up in the emergency room.
“You won’t die tonight,” she remembers someone saying as she was being intubated; maybe a doctor, maybe an EMT, maybe her husband.
Tomorrow there will be insurance forms to fill. The kids to bring to summer camp. The guest room to prepare for her sister who will drive up from Alabama. The new human resources employee to deal with. The practitioner to follow up with.
The long way to recovery.
Mercer says she won’t talk about it anymore. She needs time.
“Some people are made tougher than others,” are the last words she says to me.
Her husband comes in. He took a family leave and brought the kids along. Weak smiles on their faces and no questions asked — wasn’t this bound to happen?
We look at each other for a long time.
“I love you, mama,” Mercer’s son says as the door closes.