It was Tuesday, July 22, the last day of my brother and his kids’ visit before returning home to Germany. We had the good fortune to hire Emily, 22, the daughter of our friends Carrie Boretz and Ed Keating, as our family helper/babysitter for the nearly three weeks of their visit. At 2 pm, I would be picking Emily up at Great Rock Bight for her last afternoon with us. At 1:39 pm, I got the first of several calls from Emily. The poor cell reception made it difficult to understand what she was saying. What I was sure of was someone was stung by a bee and was having difficulty breathing. I told her I’d be right there and called 911 as soon as we hung up.
The drive from our door to the Great Rock Bight parking area is about four to five minutes. When I arrived, Emily was sitting in the chair of Land Bank attendant Richard Gleason, clearly having an allergic reaction. A woman was holding her hand, talking to her to help her keep calm while she struggled with her breathing. I let everyone know that an ambulance was on its way, and Mr. Gleason confirmed he too had called 911. As we talked to Emily I took her other hand, learned she had ridden her bike, fallen into bushes, and then got stung on the hand by a bee. She immediately began to have difficulty breathing and did not know what was happening to her.
Time always has a funny way of slowing in emergency circumstances. As we waited and Emily continued to have more difficulty breathing, the blotches and redness covering her skin became more pronounced. Two people appeared on their way from the parking area to the beach path. A girl, dressed in a short wetsuit and carrying her boogie board, stopped with her friend to find out what was going on. The girl, allergic to peanuts it turned out, said she had an EpiPen in her beach bag. It was decided that Emily needed this, now. The girl’s friend asked if we wanted her to administer the EpiPen and everyone said, “Yes, please.” The girl said, “It doesn’t hurt. I promise.” The woman holding Emily’s left hand never let go and I held Emily’s head gently against my chest and I just kept talking softly telling her to hear own voice singing. Bam went the EpiPen into her thigh. Her eyes widened and her voice, still quiet and subdued, uttered, “That really hurt!”
Instantly her skin began calming, and her breathing became easier. I pulled a scrap of paper from my bag and wrote everyone’s names down except the attendant. Annie Colangeli was holding Emily’s hand. Lila, ready for the beach, was accompanied by family friend Caitlin Murphy visiting from Chapel Hill, and both were staying with Lila’s grandparents, Wendy Gimbel and Doug Liebhavsky in Chilmark.
The ambulance arrived, the police arrived, Chilmark Fire Chief David Norton arrived. Once everyone was up to speed, the EMT got a tank of oxygen and put Emily on a gurney to move her to the ambulance. Everything seemed to move in triple-time. Annie accompanied Emily the hospital so she would not be alone when she arrived. As soon as they closed the ambulance door, I hopped in my car and drove a quarter-mile down the road until I had a strong cell signal and then called Ed, her father.
At 6:30 pm, Ed called from the hospital to say she was stable. Another EpiPen had been needed, but they had to hold her for four hours because that’s how long the bee venom would be in her system. Ed explained that the doctor had told him that Emily was in distress and would not be alive if an EpiPen had not been administered at the scene. He told me, “I was allergic to bees as a kid.”
Ed was on his way to pick his wife up at the airport and return to the hospital. Emily had never been stung before and had no one had any idea she was allergic to bee stings. I spoke with Ed again later that night once he and Carrie had taken her home and put her to bed.
The following day I left a message on Wendy Gimbel’s answering machine, wanting to find out how Lila was related to her. When Wendy returned my call she said had not heard a word about this adventure from her 10 year-old granddaughter, Lila, or Lila’s 25 year-old friend and caretaker, Caitlin. She was not surprised by their actions and explained they have had a special friendship that has developed over the last few years.
Annie Colangeli lived on Martha’s Vineyard for 17 years and had just returned days earlier for a six-week visit. She told me she had a strong feeling she should go to Great Rock Bight beach that day. As she walked from her car in the upper lot, she came upon Emily visibly in distress and seated with Mr. Gleason. Emily complained to her about the rash and “itching in her ears and eyeballs.” Annie did breathing with Emily to calm her, and of course her cell phone did not get any reception.
It turned out when I spoke with Emily’s mom, Carrie, who had been in New York on business that day, that it was the anniversary of her father’s death and she herself had had a very frightening plane ride — her own near-death experience — before arriving in Boston and learning from her husband that their younger daughter had nearly died that very day. Everyone involved stayed calm, and clearly the stars were aligned so that it proved to be a life-saving day, still each person who had a hand in Emily’s well-being was a necessary piece in this life-event unfolding.