Toledo, Ohio --
“9-1-1 what’s your emergency?”
“I’m here at Laskey and Oakridge,” a woman replied, her words spilling out in a panic. “A little boy ran across the street and I didn’t see him and I hit him with my car and I need someone right now. Please send someone right now.”
“Slow down,” The operator said in a soothing tone, attempting to calm the woman on the other end of the line. “I’ve got someone on the way. How old is he?”
“How old is he, honey?” the woman asked. After a short pause she answered the operator. “He’s thirteen.”
Shortly after 8 p.m. on Nov. 21, 2017, as that call went through, Staff Sgt. Tara Zuber, a command post controller assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, was driving home from dinner with her mother and grandmother when she saw a car stopped in the middle of the road, hazard lights flashing. The sun had set and a light rain was falling, reducing visibility. When she got close enough to see what was happening, she saw a person lying in the road. She pulled over, turned on her hazard lights and began assessing the situation.
A young boy, Israel Olan, was kneeling in the street supporting his friend, Keenan Harris, who had just been hit by the car. Two women stood by the other car, one of them on the phone with 9-1-1. Zuber laid Keenan down so he was flat on the ground, checked his breathing and checked his pulse. Using a first aid technique called c-spine, Zuber immobilized Keenan’s neck to protect his spine from injury.
Keenan was unresponsive when she spoke to him and he was bleeding from his ears. His leg was broken and blood soaked his jeans.
Although he was unresponsive, Zuber did her best to comfort the boy, reassuring him that help was on the way and that he would be okay.
Zuber wasn’t the only person to stop. As Zuber kept Keenan immobilized, Paula Okuley, a surgical technologist from Mercy St. Anne’s Hospital, pulled over to help as well. Okuley placed her coat on Harris to help keep him warm and dry. Zuber told Israel that she had a blanket in her car, gave him her keys and told him to get the blanket from the trunk. She instructed Israel to cover Keenan with the blanket to help prevent him from going into shock.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do in a situation like that, but to make sure they’re breathing, make sure that you have good c-spine precaution, and treat for shock,” Zuber said.
A man without any medical training stopped and told Okuley that nobody could see them, and then used his vehicle to block traffic to help keep Zuber and the others safe as they treated Keenan. Two nurses from a local hospital also stopped to help.
Jonathan Curtis, a patrolman with the Toledo Police Department, arrived on the scene next and began blocking traffic. Curtis got a flashlight from his car and they used the flashlight to check Keenan’s pupils in order to determine whether he had suffered a brain injury.
“We knew he had head trauma,” Okuley said. “That was the part that was scary. I was holding his hand, and there were a couple times when he stopped moving and we all got really nervous, but the nurse monitoring his pulse would tell us she could still feel his heart beating.”
After securing the scene to ensure everyone’s safety, Curtis retrieved medical gloves from his car and offered them to Zuber, but she already had blood on her and refused to let go of Keenan to take the gloves.
“When the officer offered us gloves, she looked at him and said, ‘I’m not moving my hands,’” Okuley said. “She was very focused on keeping him still.”
“This was Laskey Rd. at night. It’s dark and people drive like maniacs. She had no regard for her own safety.” Curtis said of Zuber. “Her focus was on that kid. For her to do that, that’s brave. For her to have the courage to do that, it was impressive.”
“That night she was more of a hero than we were,” said a firefighter on scene that night. “These people put themselves in danger just by stopping, and they got involved when they didn’t have to, and that is courageous.”
As they monitored Keenan and did their best to keep him still, they finally heard sirens. Zuber said she felt relieved to hear the sound, because help would be there soon and she knew every second mattered, but the ambulance wasn’t coming for them.
“We heard sirens, and the police officer who was standing there said, ‘they’re not coming for us,’” Zuber said. The sirens belonged to another officer responding to another call at the intersection of Laskey and Bowen. “That was the worst feeling. That moment when you think help is finally there and you’re not going to be responsible anymore, and then you find out they’re going somewhere else and we’re waiting on another station.”
“It was a busy night,” Curtis said. “We were responding non-stop to accidents, domestics and all kinds of calls. We actually had two calls for pedestrian struck. There was one on Laskey near Oakridge and another one further east on Laskey.”
The initial call came in as a pedestrian struck at the intersection of Laskey and Bowen, but there was nothing at that location.
Moments later the call came in correcting the location of the accident to Laskey and Oakridge.
“Somebody driving past saw this and reported a pedestrian struck on Laskey, but they told the operator the wrong road.” Curtis said. “Another crew went down Laskey and cleared it all the way down to Jameson”
The police officer who responded to the misreported call at Laskey and Bowen turned around and headed back to the corrected location and helped Curtis direct traffic away from the scene and clear the way for the Toledo Fire Department.
When the Toledo Fire Department arrived, Zuber began telling the others what to do, and she relayed information about Keenan’s injuries to the firefighters.
“She was calling out what to do,” Curtis said. “When she was doing that, I almost thought it was her scene for a minute.”
The firefighters took over, placing a neck collar on Keenan, transferring him onto a backboard, getting him on oxygen and loading him into the ambulance; and Zuber gave them as much information as she could about Keenan’s injuries. They loaded Keenan into an ambulance and took him to Toledo Hospital.
When Keenan arrived at the hospital, the trauma team was activated. The team evaluated his injuries, a closed head wound and an open leg fracture. The team alerted the neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery teams, and began preparing the operating room. The head wound was determined to be catastrophic and life threatening. The doctors needed to remove part of his skull to relieve pressure on his swelling brain. The doctors performed the surgery in time to save Keenan’s life, but no one could predict whether he would survive the night or how he would recover if he did survive.
As Keenan was recovering after surgery, Zuber was at home thinking about the accident. Zuber said she would run through the whole scenario from start to finish, and questioned whether she had done everything she could have done to give Keenan the best chance to survive.
“I spent a solid 24 hours running through it over and over again, trying to make sure there wasn’t anything I missed,” Zuber said. “I ended up not sleeping that night. I laid in bed, but every time I tried to go to sleep I kept hearing his breathing, the way it sounded at the accident.”
Zuber had learned Keenan’s name from Israel at the accident and decided to search the name online. Her search led her to Facebook, and that was when she first realized Keenan was the son of one of her co-workers, Master Sgt. Doug Harris, an armament systems mechanic and assistant shift leader assigned to the Aerospace Control Alert mission at the 180th Fighter Wing. Not only were they co-workers, but they were even teammates on the base softball team.
The realization that she was personally connected to Keenan added even more significance to the night.
“It was a whirlwind of emotions,” Zuber said. “It was a lot to process for a few days.”
The next morning, Alina Fuller, Director of Psychological Health at the 180FW, called to check up on Zuber and to tell her that Keenan was the son of an Airman at the base, which she already knew. Fuller asked if she could pass Zuber’s contact information on to Keenan’s father, and Zuber agreed.
“I didn’t know she was the first one on the scene,”
Harris said. “When Alina told me that it just floored me.” Harris called Zuber the next day to thank her for all she had done and to update her Keenan.
As Keenan began to recover, his dad would text updates to Zuber. He told her when Keenan would make progress, and when Keenan would backslide in his recovery.
While Harris and Zuber had known each other before, they hadn’t known each other well. Zuber said the accident brought her and the Harris family closer together and created a life-long bond between them.
“I don’t care how cliché it is, at the 180th we are a big family,” Zuber said. “We take care of one another, we come together when things are going wrong for someone and we help support each other. It’s a huge situation and it’s had a ripple effect. Doug and I are bonded now.”
After three months, Keenan had fully recovered from his injuries.
“I didn’t think we’d get to this point, because of his head injury,” said Dr. Aaron Buerk, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and chief of staff at Toledo Children’s Hospital. “He had a catastrophic head injury and the most likely outcome was that he would die that night. He made it through that night which is pretty impressive, but the second most likely outcome was that there would be significant cognitive damage. His recovery is as good as can be. It’s been a miraculous recovery.”
“It’s such a relief,” Zuber said. “It was a situation that could have gone completely wrong and devastated a lot of people.”
While most people wouldn’t have been able to help in that situation, Zuber was different. Before accepting a job at the 180FW, Zuber had planned on becoming a firefighter. After completing basic Emergency Medical Technician training, she went on to medic school, completing the course in 2014. The course included clinical experience with TFD.
The same day she was told they would start the background checks necessary for her to work with the fire department was also the same day she passed her last test for command post technical school. She had to make a decision for what she wanted to do. She decided to accept the position at the 180FW.
“If I never use those skills again, at least that training wasn’t for nothing,” Zuber said. “I don’t know if what I did made a difference or not, but to me it’s like all that training was worth it to be able to be in that situation and do what I did. Something good came out of it and it wasn’t just something small.”
While Zuber doesn’t know whether she had that much of an impact on that night, others say she did.
“You see kids come in with these catastrophic injuries and nine out of 10 times they don’t recover, but every now and then one does, and he’s that one,” Buerk said. “If you can help slow down the shock response, you can slow down the blood flow to the brain which is what causes the damage.”
“With this particular injury, less than 5 percent survive. I didn’t think we’d be out of the hospital in three months, but here he’s fully recovered in three months,” Harris said. “I owe that to Tara. What she did allowed the paramedics to do less, and got Keenan to the hospital that much faster.”
Nobody can say for certain what the outcome might have been if Zuber had not been on the scene immediately after the accident occurred, if she had stayed just a few minutes longer at dinner or had taken a different route home that night, but one thing is without question: her decision to stop has forever altered the lives of everyone involved.