On a late April evening, San Clemente residents Bob and Beth Fate were eating dinner with their niece and nephew on Harpoon Henry’s patio in the Dana Point Harbor when Beth started choking.
Bob, upon seeing that his wife was gasping for air, pulled her away from the table and tried to perform the Heimlich maneuver; however, it was difficult to maneuver around Beth’s wheelchair.
Beth, who has Multiple Sclerosis, was slumped over and was losing consciousness. The couple’s nephew dialed 911.
After Bob tried to find a more effective angle to keep performing the Heimlich maneuver and did a finger sweep to see if he could manually dislodge any stuck food, Orange County Fire Authority paramedics and deputy sheriffs arrived on the scene.
Deputy Joseph Hodges of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said deputies arrived on the scene at the same time as paramedics.
“As soon as we saw her, you could tell right away that she wasn’t well,” Hodges said.
OCFA Capt. Corey Gallup noted that often when he’s responding to calls for choking, the person is able to clear the obstruction before paramedics arrive.
“I’ve gotten hundreds of those calls over my career, but literally, only two of them have resulted in real, legitimate choking,” Gallup said. “It’s only been twice in my career that we’ve had this severity of it.”
“When we got there, she was outside, and the family was attempting to do the Heimlich maneuver on her, which was difficult due to the fact that she’s in a motorized wheelchair,” Gallup continued. “It’s pretty cumbersome.”
Gallup added that the family had responded calmly to the emergency.
Bob, a retired homicide investigator for the Costa Mesa Police Department, noted that his training kicked in, and though he did not feel calm on the inside, he was able to stay calm to assist in the moment.
“It really made a huge difference in the call and possibly the outcome,” Gallup said. “I think for any general person walking past our scene would never have known how dire the situation was just due to the calmness of everybody on team, from family to law enforcement, to my staff on the fire department.”
When Gallup reached the patio dining area, he locked eyes with Beth.
“I actually spoke with her about this (later); she doesn’t remember it, but we locked eyes and she gave me this look as though ‘I fought as long as I can; thank God, you’re here. Please take it from here.’ And with that, she went unconscious immediately after that,” Gallup said.
Beth had stopped breathing and was turning blue.
“So they removed something, but unbeknownst to us and even the paramedics, there was still something further down her throat, and then, talking to the husband and the family to try and figure out what’s going on,” Hodges said. “Just by looking at her, you could tell that she was still struggling.”
Hodges helped to take Beth out of her wheelchair, and Deputy Joseph Weimann helped carry her and place her on the ground. Paramedics started conducting CPR, while Weimann supported her head.
In a letter to Dana Point City Councilmember John Gabbard, an OCFA board member, Bob wrote that as one medic conducted chest and diaphragm compressions, “a Deputy reached down and put his hand under her head to protect it from bouncing off the ground as the compressions were being done.”
“As this was going on and still the object was not dislodging, the other medic did a head tilt and with a flashlight and approximately a 6-inch hemostat pliers went down Beth’s throat, and within seconds pulled out the obstruction of meat,” Bob wrote. “As he did this, Beth took a deep breath and began breathing.”
Hodges noted that when he was on the scene, he was worried that it would not end in a favorable outcome.
“She went pretty limp for a while, and that’s when I thought that it was going to go in the wrong direction,” Hodges said. “But once we actually saw that the object was removed and that she was actually able to breathe again, that color was being restored, then it kind of put ease into our minds that she was going to be OK … she was in good hands.”
Beth was released from Mission Hospital Laguna the next day with “a couple of cracked ribs, a chipped tooth and a sore throat,” Bob said.
“She has healed from her life-saving injuries and is beyond grateful to the OCFA for saving her life and the OCSD in their support role in the call,” Bob said in his letter.
Speaking with the Dana Point Times on Wednesday, Sept. 27, Beth said she had wanted to find out who had helped save her life and to thank them, so she asked her husband to write the letter.
From his time on the police force, Bob noted that he remembered the difficulties of not knowing the outcomes from calls to which he had responded.
“There’s times when you leave a scene like that that you always wonder what happened,” Bob said. “Did they make it when they got to the hospital? Did they make it? And it eats on you a little bit, but it’s nice to find out what happened, and they definitely deserved to be thanked for what they did.”
Beth added that was one of the reasons she had Bob write the letter, “because Bob and I had been married for so long, and I know what he’s gone through; he has that feeling … he wonders what happened,” she said.
Dana Point Police Services Chief Capt. Todd Hylton noted that deputies don’t always see the positive outcomes from calls for service, so “to receive this letter and be able to share that with them, to let them know the impact that they made on the Fate family, it’s a sense of pride that you have.”
“It made me feel good to be able to share that story with the guys that were involved, because they probably did not know the outcome of this whole thing,” Hylton continued.
Like Bob had pointed out, Hylton noted that a tough part of the job for law enforcement is that they “may not know how the story ends.”
To receive the letter from Bob and Beth “really puts closure for the guys, but it also brings back like, ‘Hey, we made an impact,’ and I think that’s all we want. We all want to make a positive impact in our community, and these guys got to see it firsthand.”
Weimann added that receiving the letter was heartwarming.
“We do this every day, and to actually receive a letter from someone that lives in the city, it’s more heartwarming—I’m getting goosebumps right now—it’s hard to describe,” Weimann said. “It definitely makes us love what we do even more.”
Hodges added that for the officers, it was just another call, “but to this family, it was everything.”
“Once we were notified about the letter, it kind of just put everything into perspective,” Hodges said. “It’s the little things that you do. You don’t realize how much of an impact it has on someone else.”
Receiving the letter, Gallup said, “reminds us of why we got into this business in the first place.”
“We wanted to help people, and we wanted to save lives,” Gallup said. “We don’t always get an opportunity to do that. A lot of our calls are mundane, and you do this job long enough, you tend to get jaded, and so it’s a stark reminder of what we’re here for, that we’re appreciated and that our training works. It feels good to get a notice like that.”
In response to the letter, Dana Point City Council on Sept. 19 honored the paramedics and deputies who responded to the call, dubbing the group the “Harbor Heroes.”
Mayor Mike Frost noted that he was impressed with the emergency response time.
“The moment they got there, they had to obviously understand exactly what to do; time was of the essence,” Frost said. “Thank you, guys, for what you guys do.”
During the council meeting, Bob tearfully told the story of that late-April day, when OCFA and OCSD worked together to save his wife.
“We were running out of options,” Bob said. “I just want to thank you guys.”