By John Koopman
The San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — It was the middle of the afternoon on Sept. 25, a Tuesday, when Officer Philip Welsh heard a priority call come over the radio: attempted suicide in a Chinatown apartment.
Welsh has responded to a lot of suicides. It's almost never a good call, mostly just finding bodies and waiting for the medical examiner to show up.
He drove his patrol car to an alley off Pacific Avenue and found a group of people milling about and crying. Among them were a toddler and several other children, all 6 years old or younger. That was tough for Welsh. He knew what he was likely to find inside the home, and what that would mean to these kids. His kids have had to grow up without a mother, and Welsh knows how hard that is.
No one in the group spoke much English, but they pointed to a door leading to a basement apartment.
Police Officer Philip Welsh works in Chinatown, near the home where a young woman attempted suicide. Chronicle photo by Brant Ward
Welsh walked down the steps into a large room. Fluorescent lights and a linoleum floor. Lots of big tables with green felt on them. Welsh thought it might be a gambling room, but he had no time to look into it. A woman Welsh guessed to be about 80 pointed to a doorway leading to a small bedroom. Inside was a bunk bed and dresser. A fully dressed woman lay in the lower bunk.
Somebody's mother; someone's wife.
Even as he stepped toward the woman, Welsh could see a tie hanging from a fixture overhead, and a chair lying on its side on the floor.
"I tried to wake her, but she was unresponsive," Welsh recalled. "I called for an ambulance to get over here Code 3.
"She had no pulse. I couldn't see that she was getting any air."
Welsh, 51, is a native San Franciscan who got a degree in economics from UC Berkeley. He worked in the financial industry for a while and had his own moving company before joining the SFPD in 1995.
Now he finds himself working full-time as a cop out of Central Station, at the juncture of North Beach and Chinatown. His wife, Kimberly, died of cancer five years ago, so he spends his free time taking his kids to sporting events, helping with homework and all the thousands of chores parents take on in any given week.
"My son told me, 'Poppy, you have three jobs: You're a cop, a mommy and a daddy.' "
And now, the cop part had to kick in. He had to save someone else's mother.
Welsh had never performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He got training at the Police Academy, as a recruit and a year or so ago when he last attended the advanced officer course. But that was on a dummy.
This was for real.
"I tried to remember what they taught me," he said. "I just knew keep the head up, airway clear. I don't know if I did it by the book or not. It probably wasn't pretty."
He knew to compress the chest and blow air into the mouth. And he did. Over and over again for about an hour, or maybe it was really just two or three minutes before the Fire Department showed up with all its high-tech lifesaving gear and elbowed him out of the way.
Welsh extricated himself from the now-very-crowded bedroom.
"All I could think about were those kids outside," he said. Welsh went up the stairs and found the woman's children still crying and wondering about their mother. Welsh was told the kids were in the house when their mother tried to hang herself, and most likely witnessed the whole thing.
"I just got down and hugged them and said, 'It's OK. Mommy's going to be all right,' " he said.
Moments later, the firefighters brought the woman outside and into an ambulance.
The woman was treated at San Francisco General, and survived.
Reporter John Koopman and photographer Brant Ward are focusing on the San Francisco Police Department. Their stories appear weekly in the Monday paper. To see more photos, additional Badge stories and the Badge blog, go to sfgate.com/thebadge.
Copyright 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle
The Badge — Attempted suicide, the phone call police dread