CLEVELAND — The right place, the right time, and a thank you to last a lifetime: a mother’s quick thinking and even quicker action saved the life of a veteran Cleveland police sergeant on Saturday, setting the stage for a tearful reunion earlier this week.
On Saturday, Cleveland police sergeant Ray O’Connor and his partner, Officer Brooklyn Barnes, attended a community back-to-school event hosted by Ward 5 Councilman Richard Starr in the city’s Central neighborhood. While at the event, Sgt. O’Connor was stung twice by a bee — once in each wrist. O’Connor, who has a severe allergy, normally carries an epipen in event of an allergic reaction.
On that day, however, he had forgotten it.
“I normally have one in my pocket; that morning was a very busy day. Officer Barnes and I had four events to cover and I was kind of running through everything in my head,” O’Connor said. “I forgot to stick one in my pocket.”
Thirty seconds after being stung, O’Connor knew he was in a perilous predicament. He could feel the allergic reaction moving up his arms, across his shoulders before spreading across the rest of his body. His throat began to close. His mind began to lose clarity. He suddenly had difficulty speaking. Everything was about to go dark, he said.
O’Connor had just enough time to grab the attention of Barnes.
“I think I started to realize that it was more serious when he fell to the ground. He put his arm around me and we kind of helped him to the car. Once he fell, I knew I needed to get someone here now,” Barnes said. “As a policeman, you’re put into a lot of scary situations. But when it comes to one of your own, a brother in blue, to see him unconscious and his life is literally in your hands, it’s terrible. I wouldn’t wish it on any policeman or anyone as a matter of fact.”
In a severe allergic reaction such as the one O’Connor was experiencing, every passing second is important. As a crowd began to form, the commotion grabbed the attention of Tomika Johnson, who had been attending the community event. Initially, members of the crowd thought that Sgt. O’Connor was experiencing a heart attack or severe dehydration.
“He said, ‘no, I don’t want water, I can’t breathe. I’m allergic,’” Johnson said. “I heard it and before I knew it, I ran home.”
Without an iota of hesitation, Johnson bolted from the park back toward her house, roughly 100 yards away. Her son, Zaire, has a shellfish allergy and needs to have an epipen available in the event of a reaction.
Johnson flew open her front door, grabbed an epipen off the living room table and sprinted back to the park.
“I didn’t wait for a response. I just ran home and got it,” Johnson said. “It’s that motherly instinct. I can’t help it. I’m human. I would hope someone would do the same for me or my babies if they were in that situation.”
The epipen made its way into the trained hands of Officer Barnes, who jammed it into her partner’s thigh, buying precious and crucial time for paramedics to arrive and transport Sgt. O’Connor to the hospital. O’Connor, who was treated and released the following day, doesn’t speak in hyperbole when he says Johnson’s actions saved his life.
“There was a reason that [Johnson] was there. Without her being there, I wouldn’t be standing here,” O’Connor said. “I remember asking Officer Barnes to take care of my dog. I didn’t think I would be here to take care of him anymore and this was it.”
Then and now, Officer Barnes said the only way to explain what happened on Saturday is to call it divine intervention.
“The best way I could put it is it restores my faith in humanity. I truly believe that God sent her to us,” Barnes said. “We were all one team, one community. It didn’t matter what race you were, what gender you were. She came and she saved his life. I owe her everything in the world for saving my partner. I think her human instincts kicked in, her motherly instinct kicked in. She has just a high regard for human life.”
After Sgt. O’Connor was released from the hospital, he and Officer Barnes made a special trip back out to the neighborhood. Upon learning that Johnson’s son, Zaire, had celebrated a birthday a couple of days prior, the two officers made sure that they didn’t arrive empty-handed.
In the back of their patrol car were several wrapped birthday gifts.
“I told [Sgt. O’Connor] on Wednesday, I’m glad you’re here to tell the tale and not in an obituary,” Johnson said.
Although the two officers brought gifts to Johnson’s son, she provided O’Connor the ultimate gift: tomorrow.
“I know we don’t always take the initiative to help, especially the police, in my community, but it’s okay. I gained two new friends,” Johnson said. “That’s all I can say. Our community can come together and be the best people that we can be.
"Just be kind to one another, be kind to people, and hopefully I get the same in return.”