Elizabeth Voce is spending a sunny afternoon in the front yard of her east-end Toronto home with her two little girls and her mother on Wednesday.
Just three houses away, a fallen tree is blocked off with yellow police tape.
For the Voce family, it serves as a reminder of last Friday’s powerful windstorm that ripped through the Greater Toronto Area, but for reasons other than the havoc wreaked by the weather.
“We were just sitting having dinner when all of a sudden my daughter started coughing,” Voce told Global News. “And then she stopped coughing and she started gasping.”
The mother, who was at home alone with her daughters, did what many other parents would do — she reached for the phone and dialed 911. She said she was shocked that no one answered.
“I was on hold for five minutes — five agonizingly long minutes — while my daughter sat and gasped in my arms,” she said, eyes wide as she remembered the terror.
“I was infuriated. I was so upset that I had to wait this long,” Voce said.
“I needed someone to coach me and tell me what I was doing.”
Rather than continue to wait, Voce hung up the phone and called a friend, who works as a paramedic.
“Because I didn’t know how long I would be on hold. It had already been five minutes and that was the marker I had set for myself that I just need answers right now,” she explained.
As it turns out, while 14-month-old Felicity Voce was choking, Toronto’s 911 communications centre was bogged down with calls because of the weather conditions and dozens upon dozens of downed trees.
Toronto police even issued a public advisory over Twitter.
“The Toronto police are experiencing a very high call volume. Please only call 911 for emergencies. For any wires down or fallen trees please call 311,” the tweet read.
“If nobody’s hurt and the tree is down and it’s not in anybody’s way, you can call 311, you can also call the 416-808-2222 number,” Const. Caroline de Kloet told Global News on Wednesday.
In the meantime, paramedics called her back about two minutes after Elizabeth hung up. By then, Felicity’s breathing had returned to normal. But an ambulance was dispatched just to check on her, although it was delayed.
“At the eight-minute mark of me waiting for an ambulance they said, ‘Oh we’ve redirected it to someone else, so we’ll just wait for another one to become available,'” Elizabeth said.
That ambulance came 25 minutes later.
Twenty-four hours later, yet again the Voce family sat down for dinner and Felicity began to choke.
“Instead of coughing this time she just starts gasping,” Elizabeth said. “She started turning blue, she became clammy right away. So again we call 911, I was reluctant.”
She said she was reluctant because she did not want to waste the precious resource that is 911, and because she feared being put on hold.
Fortunately this time, her call was picked up and within minutes paramedics arrived.
“They had to start working on her right away because she was already turning blue and by the time she got to hospital it was Code Blue so that was absolutely terrifying,” Elizabeth said
As it turned out, Felicity aspirated the previous night during dinner.
“She was eating and what we believe happened is maybe she coughed and in that inhale, she aspirated,” Felicity said.
Elizabeth now has a container with the tiny crumbs inside.
“The food particles ended up blocking her right lung entirely and that’s why she was gasping for breath, it’s because she was only able to use half of her lungs,” she said, pointing to the tiny particles inside the container.
Felicity made a full recovery and is back to being her active, energetic self.
Her family hopes by sharing their terrifying tale, others learn when it is appropriate to call 911 and when there are other alternatives, like 311 or the Toronto police non-emergency line.
“Lots of branches were breaking, there was a lot going on and I understand it’s terrifying for a lot of people, it’s overwhelming. But there are people who need to get through right away,” Elizabeth said.
For her daughter, it was a matter of life and death.