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Wise County 911 dispatcher helps dad save choking child

Stephen Igo • May 12, 2007 at 11:33 AM

WISE - At the bright-eyed, rambunctious age of 4, Maggie Dean could charm the socks off a crabby old curmudgeon, but there are no crabby old curmudgeons on the Wise County Board of Supervisors.

All eight supervisors were thoroughly charmed by Maggie at their meeting last week. She was there because the county's 911 Emergency Dispatch Center was being recognized, and a dispatcher had helped save her life.

First up on Thursday's agenda was a presentation of full state accreditation of the Wise County Sheriff's Department 911 Emergency Dispatch Center by Ken Wheeler, a regional director of the Virginia Department of Health's Office of Emergency Medical Services. Wise County Dispatch is now one of only 16 jurisdictions to receive state priority dispatch accreditation.

Maggie didn't have any say about that, of course. But while bequeathing state accreditation, Wheeler also paid special state honors to Billie Jo Laney, a Wise County dispatcher for just nine months who proved to be Maggie's guardian angel on March 30.

That's when Maggie's father, Fletcher Dean of Big Stone Gap and communications executive at Eastman Chemical Co., called 911. Maggie was having a frightening encounter with a small chocolate Easter egg, and her father was close to a meltdown.

"She had been playing with an Easter basket. I turned my back just for an instant, heard her cough, turned around and saw her with that classic hand around the neck, looking panicked," said her dad. "I didn't know what she had in her throat. I tried to do the Heimlich (maneuver) twice myself. She's a 4-year-old, and I wasn't at all forceful, and I couldn't dislodge it. I decided I needed some help and called 911."

The call went straight to heaven for the Dean family. Laney would be the last to claim halo status, but she was on duty. And did it very, very well.

"(Laney) was great. She was calm. She asked me the typical questions in that situation. I could hear her ready to dispatch the Rescue Squad to us, but while she was doing that she was also talking me through the Heimlich maneuver," Dean said. "She told me, ‘You need to pull up on her diaphragm just as hard as you can.' I put the phone to my ear and really pulled up hard on Maggie, and just like that, it worked. It popped out, and she started breathing again. It still scares me how hard I had to pull up on her. But the dispatcher told me it would be fine, just do it. And that was the trick."

Maggie's mother, Jane Meade-Dean, is the director of college relations at the University of Virginia's College at Wise. She was on the road returning home from a business trip when her husband called.

"He said Maggie wanted to talk to me to make her feel better. Then I knew something was wrong," said Meade-Dean. "That's when it all came out what had happened. It kind of stops your heart to think how close (Maggie) came to probably not being there. I don't like to think about it. It's why I got a little teary-eyed (at Thursday's board meeting)."

Wise County Sheriff Ronnie Oakes told supervisors the county's 911 dispatchers "are the unsung heroes" of the local network of emergency response personnel. He is proud of Laney and all his dispatchers. Being one of just 16 jurisdictions with state priority dispatch accreditation reflects the dedication of all dispatch personnel, he said.

"All are certified emergency dispatchers. We just have to do so many different things to get accreditation, like 40 hours in-service training each year, the list goes on," Oakes said. "We're so thankful, and our dispatchers have a right to take pride in this recognition. We do feel we try to be in compliance with all the guidelines, but the accreditation is an accomplishment."

Oakes said Laney "is great. She's tremendous. I could say that about all (dispatchers), because they are. Billie Jo is humble and easygoing, but dedicated. That's her priority and goal, to help people. That's why she told me she wants to be a dispatcher when I hired her, to try to make a difference for people. That's what it's all about, really."

Oakes said Laney made a big difference in the lives of the Dean family.

"She's a crackerjack," said Meade-Dean of her delightful dervish of a daughter. "It's scary. We're so thankful to 911 and Billie Joe Laney. And no more little chocolate Easter eggs at our house."

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