As a State Patrol 911 operator, Marty O’Hehir is used to getting calls from people who need help with flat tires, have run out of gas or simply need directions.
Sometimes calls are more serious, such as those that come from motorists involved in crashes or domestic situations.
But halfway through his day shift on April 16, O’Hehir got what he called the most intense call of his career. A man in his mid-30s, driving 100 mph on eastbound I-94 in Minneapolis, called and told O’Hehir that he was going to drive off the side of the road and take his life.
“He made it very clear to me that he had rock-solid intentions and a plan,” O’Hehir recalled Monday. “I thought, ‘This is not what we are going to do today.’ I was going to prevent that.”
For the next 22 minutes, with supervisors at his side, O’Hehir poured out his heart and listened intently to the caller while developing a rapport that quickly had them on a first-name basis. At the same time, O’Hehir was communicating with the State Patrol, sharing the driver’s location and devising a plan to stop the driver before tragedy struck. The caller, whose name has not been released, stopped in Hugo.
“I was frank in our conversation,” O’Hehir said. “I was pleading with the caller, saying, ‘You need to trust me, slow down and pull over.’ ”
O’Hehir picked up the call about 12:30 p.m. at the Regional Traffic Management Center in Roseville. At times, he wasn’t sure the ordeal would have a happy ending. There are no crib notes or flip charts to rely on in cases like these, O’Hehir said. So he did the one thing he knew how to do: Empathize with the caller.
“You have feelings like I do, and I understand you might be confused,” O’Hehir remembers telling the caller. “He was saying a lot of things and they were from the heart. I knew where he was coming from.”
At one point the caller told O’Hehir he was going to drive to Duluth and into a lake.
“I told him, ‘I’m from Duluth and drive that route every weekend,” O’Hehir said. “I told him, ‘I’m going to go with you. I’m not going to let you go.’ ”
That was a turning point in the conversation, O’Hehir said. The two kept talking until the caller finally pulled over near 80th Street on I-35E. When O’Hehir heard the caller talking with the trooper, “I knew he was in good hands,” he said.
Dr. Stamatis Zeris, a psychiatrist with Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, said the driver did the right thing in seeking help, and that those who have reached a mental breaking point should do the same. With COVID-19 fears and financial stresses growing, Zeris said he’s seen an increase in calls to crisis lines. He urged anybody having dark thoughts such as driving off a bridge or deep depression to call Hennepin Healthcare’s Call Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies (COPE) line at 612-596-1223, or the National Suicide Prevention line at 1-800-273-8255. They also can reach out to friends, family members or clergy for help, he said.
“Call, because we are here to help,” Zeris said. “There is no shame in calling.”
Anxiety or those experiencing blue moods “are the second wave of the pandemic,” he said.
“We’ve seen the flattening of the [COVID-19] curve, but we need to think of flattening the other [mental health] curve.”
Zeris said he’s also seen an increase in substance use since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and is concerned about that, too.
Nearly a month after the call, O’Hehir said he’s still processing that day’s events, adding that they were emotionally draining.
“We are the first responders who are not first responders,” O’Hehir said. “The state pays me to answer the phone and help the person on the other end.”
The day after, the driver called back to thank him.
“Call 911, don’t be afraid to ask for help,” O’Hehir said. “I can mend a broken heart, but I can’t fix a dead body. He lived another day.”