by Deborah Burton
February 4th, 2003, I received a phone call from a friend who lives in France. She was in the middle of a very messy divorce. That day her soon-to-be ex-husband had removed every penny from their bank accounts — including the account set up for her small business. My friend felt she couldn’t go on, told me she’d just taken 60 sleeping pills, and said she loved me.
I got nowhere talking to her, and knew I needed to get help, so I got off the phone. I was panicked. She’s an Internet friend, so her home address wasn’t at hand. I found her web page, but it was in French.
My husband asked, “Didn’t she just send a package?” I dug through the waste basket and found the wrapping paper.
I called the long distance operator, and said I must have the police in a small town in France for an emergency. There were two towns with that name, but by using the postal code, the French operator gave us the number for the police (gendarmes) in the right town. The US operator stayed on the phone with me until we reached the police.
The first gendarme I talked with spoke no English, and said no one there spoke English. I had two years of French in high school and a year of Spanish in college, so you can imagine how much French and Spanish I don’t speak. I spoke my very bad French, throwing in Spanish in hopes something would make sense, then repeated the address and my friend’s name and address over and over.
My husband suggested finding a French-English dictionary on the Internet. That helped, but not much; it took forever to translate a word. If I was quiet for a few seconds trying to think of something to say, the first gendarme said “Allo?”. Then he put another officer with some English on the line, then a third gendarme who spoke a bit more came on the phone.
It was difficult to explain to him that I was calling from America. When the third gendarme finally understood that we were dealing with a potential suicide, I just about burst into tears. It seemed the phone conversation had taken forever.
Four gendarmes showed up at my friend’s house 25 minutes after she had called me, and took her to have her stomach pumped.
And now? She’s OK. She’s going on with her life and fighting the battles she has to fight. She’s alive, and I am so thankful for the operators and gendarmes who made this possible.
I know these three gendarmes must have been shaking their heads over the “crazy American”, but they never hung up on me. They kept working to understand. I am so grateful to these three men who tried so hard to talk to me, and stayed on the line until they grasped the problem. Thank you all — for getting there in time.