By Amanda Bohman
Published April 29, 2007
Deidre Savarino was wandering the toy aisle, as grandmothers do, at a St. Louis store when she came across a book with a bright red cover and a telephone dial pad.
"It's Time to Call 911: What to do in an Emergency" seemed like the perfect read for Savarino's grandson, Tony, an inquisitive 3-year-old whose mother suffers from asthma. Savarino bought the book and mailed it to her grandson, who is now 4 and lives in North Pole.
The book turned out to be an auspicious buy because Tony knew just how to react when his mother collapsed on the living room floor April 10 and blacked out from what she later learned was a gall bladder attack.
"I didn't even know there was a book like that out there," Savarino said. "It was an impulse buy."
(Listen to 4-year-old Tony's call to 911)
The interactive book rewards its reader with a blast of emergency sirens and a cheery "good job" when 911 is punched into the key pad. It quickly became one of Tony's favorites, said his mother, Courtenay Sharpe.
"You know kids," Courtenay said, "once they latch onto a book, they want the same story read to them over and over again. After awhile, he pretty much knew the book by heart."
The day of Tony's 911 call was like any other day in the Sharpe household, which is located off Badger Road.
Courtenay busied herself scrubbing the bathroom, dusting the living room and looking after her son. Her husband, Tech. Sgt. Robert "Nick" Sharpe, went to his job at Eielson Air Force Base.
But one thing was different. Courtenay's stomach ache, which she had initially chalked up to a bad meal, steadily grew worse, so much so that Courtenay often had to lie down to compose herself. She considered calling her husband at work and asking him to come home and take her to see a doctor, but she decided to tough it out.
By 5:30 p.m., the pain was unbearable. Courtenay was on her way from the couch to the bathroom when she collapsed, she said.
Courtenay remembers that Tony, who is a big fan of Thomas the Tank Engine train, was playing nearby with his train set. The next thing she remembers is a man in a uniform standing over her.
While Courtenay lay on the floor in agony and barely conscious, her son called 911, drawing help from the North Star Volunteer Fire Department.
According to firefighter Dan Shaughnessy and a recording of the 911 call, Tony told a dispatcher: "Mommy is sick. Mommy needs an ambulance. Mommy fell over. She is sleeping. "
Tony confirmed that his mother was breathing.
"Can you call the ambulance?" he asked the dispatcher. "When Daddy gets here, Daddy will see if there's something wrong with mommy," he added.
The 4-year-old described the family's apartment building as white with a blue roof.
Shaughnessy was off-duty and on his way to the bank when the call came in. When he heard the dispatcher say that the 911 caller was a 4-year-old, Shaughnessy abandoned his errand to respond to the call.
"That's a high-priority call for us," he said. "A child at home alone with an unconscious parent."
Courtenay was conscious but barely able to speak when Shaughnessy came in the door.
After the ambulance crew arrived, Shaughnessy took Tony outside to show him the fire department's equipment while paramedics helped his mother.
"He was actually totally calm," Shaughnessy said. "He continued to tell me how important 911 was, and I agreed with him. When they loaded his mom in the back of the ambulance, Tony got to ride up front in the ambulance to the hospital."
Tony said he liked riding in the ambulance.
"The ambulance has lights that go around and around," Tony said.
The fire department was so impressed by Tony's knowledge of 911 that they plan to honor him May 15 with a T-shirt, a plaque and a ride on a fire engine.
"As firefighters, we like to teach kids how to do the right thing. When they actually do the right thing, it gives us a lot of satisfaction," Shaughnessy said.
While remarkable to the firefighters, Nick Sharpe wasn't surprised by his son's quick thinking. He had talked to the boy about 911 before, he said.
"It was something he could handle," Nick said. "I think most 4-year-olds probably could do it."
The Sharpes rewarded their son with a much-wanted puppy, Bear, an 8-month-old golden retriever and Labrador mix, which they adopted from an animal shelter.
As for the book, it remains one of Tony's favorites.
"I totally recommend it," Courtenay said.