It's 5:00pm on Tuesday night. I'm not on call until 6:00pm, but I've already strapped on the pager and charged up the cell phone. Tonight I plan on going out with some girlfriends that I have been neglecting for the past, oh, year or so. It's always a roll of the dice making plans on nights that I'm on call. I guess we'll see.
HELL! My pager just went off. It's Nancy, my boss from the ME's office. Nancy is a very busy woman, so I've offered, on occasion, to take call early if she should get stuck with anything an hour or so before she's off for the evening. Unfortunately, Nancy more than took me up on the offer so that at least half the time I can expect to get a call or page before my shift starts.
I ignore the page. My pager is not officially on yet, I tell myself. Then my phone rings. I ignore it, too, knowing that if I take an early call I will never make it back in time to go out with the girls. Pretty soon my cell phone starts beeping at me, letting me know I have a message. What if a plane crashed or a chemical plant blew up and all hands are needed? What if the call is for somebody that Nancy knows and she just can't handle it?
DAMN! I open the phone and dial in my code for messages. "Um...Polly? It's Nancy. Can you please call me when you get this message? Thanks." Click.
I look at the phone and scowl. "Coward." I mutter. I walk back up to the bedroom and put the phone back on the charger. LHM is snuggled up under a blanket taking a nap. He stirs and turns to face me as I swear softly under my breath. "Whaa? Everything okay?"
"No," I snap. "Nancy is trying to get me to take call early again but I'm not going to do it. I have plans tonight. If it's my scheduled shift and I get called out, okay. But this isn't mine."
"Hmmm," he mutters and turns back toward the wall.
My pager goes off three times and the phone two more times without Nancy bothering to leave a message. Finally, on her third call (at 5:30pm) she leaves another message. "Polly, I was hoping you could take a call for me. It's a 20-month-old baby that was brought into the ER pulseless and not breathing. I've been holding off the hospital and haven't gotten anymore information than that, but I know this is going to be a long one and I just can't take it."
A baby. I close the phone without bothering to erase the message. I immediately start asking myself questions I don't have answers to. How did a baby end up dead in the ER? Was it a boy or a girl? Was it abuse? Neglect? An accident? I can feel my anxiety level rising. As soon as I start asking the questions, I know this is my case. I am now vested and need to get the answers.
I dial Nancy back and she answers on the first ring. "Hey, Nanc. What's up?" She gives me the few details she already has. A roll-over death. Dad was taking a nap with the little girl and when he woke up she was behind him, face-down between the couch cushions.
I call the ER and get further details from the nurse. She doesn't know much, either. She tells me that there are cops swarming the place and that the father is in the room holding the baby. "He's been holding her since the doctor pronounced. We can't get him to let go." I swollow a lump in my throat imagining this man rocking his dead baby. When you get right down to it, a body is a piece of evidence. We (and hospital staff, for that matter) are strictly instructed to prevent anybody from handling it after death. On the other hand, this father's baby just died. I reason that the damage is already done. "Just make sure that only the parents handle the body and that they know not to remove any tubes or alter anything. "They know. I already told them." The nurse assures me.
I head to the ME's office right away. I pick up an infant death questionnaire and a special doll that we use for reinactments. This is an invaluable tool when trying to determine what position a baby was in at the time of death because when a baby is found unconscious adults invariably move them.
Twenty months, I think as I drive to the hospital. That's really old for a roll-over. She wasn't a helpless infant anymore. You would think she would have struggled or screamed loud enough to wake dad.
I arrive at the back entrance and am greeted by two security guards in scarlet blazers. We chat as we take the elevator up to the first floor. They tell me there are at least twenty family members gathered in the ER and that they are very emotional. I walk down the long hallway that leads to the "family room", a place designated for those who just lost a loved one or who are waiting out an emergency situation. A crowd of people are loitering in the hall outside of Room 1. Room 1 is where ER staff always put bodies before transferring them to the morgue. It's right across from the family room and is out of the way of the rest of the ER. As I approach, Det. Port sees me and begins walking my way. We whisper greetings and he tells me what he knows..which isn't much.
"This guy is a piece of work. He won't tell us jack about what happened. We've got cops outside his home but he won't allow us entry. The DA is getting a search warrant as we speak."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. A search warrant? I thought this was a roll-over."
"Yeah. Well, things aren't adding up. Seems he fell asleep on the couch with the kid on his chest. Less than an hour later, his girlfriend showed up at the house and woke him up. No kid. He pulled back the blanket and she was lying there by his feet with her face in the cushions. They thought she was sleeping so they covered her with the blanket and went into the kitchen to make dinner. About an hour later, they went back into the living room to wake her and dad noticed that it smelled like vomit. He picked her up and saw she was blue in the face. They called 911 and did chest compressions and breathing as instructed by the dispatcher until rescue arrived."
I note that CPR was performed. This is very important because many times adults who are trying to save a child do chest compressions and inadvertently break ribs or cause bruising...injuries that look very much like child abuse if not documented.
A short, squat man with a gravely voice approaches us. He's wearing a ratty sweatshirt, jeans, and is carrying a gym bag. I figure he's a family member, but then he reaches out his hand to shake mine. "I'm Assistant DA Tate." Oh. Well. That'll teach me to judge a book by its cover. I grip his hand and introduce myself. He tells me that he wants the doc out here, stat. He wants her to examine the body and then come to the residence after the warrant is issued.
"Well, Dr. Frank is aware of the case as we understood it. A roll-over. She generally relies on my incident reports in these cases and, though I already invited her to accompany me to the home scene, refused the offer. So, before I really piss her off by calling her out in the middle of the night, can you enlighten me as to why this is potential criminal investigation material?"
"Sure." He says. "The father was on anti-psych meds. Really strong ones. To the point where he couldn't function on a job or drive a vehicle. Family said his speech was slurred and he got so off-balance that one time he fell down the stairs into the basement and broke his collarbone."
"Where's the mother?" I ask. "Is there anybody who was helping him care for the baby?"
"Not really. The girlfriend worked during the day, so he was the primary caregiver. The mother is currently in jail on drug charges."
"So, what are you thinking? Neglect?" I ask.
"Well, he mentioned to one of the nurses that he left his little girl and an open bottle of meds on the kitchen counter when the phone rang."
"Possible accidental overdose."