As my fiancé’s life slipped away in front of my eyes I stood by, shocked that the cops didn’t perform CPR. When I saw the same thing happen in the Eric Garner chokehold video, I wanted answers.
I worked late on January 24, 2013. The sun was long gone by the time I stepped out of my afternoon meeting and into the twenty-degree Manhattan air. I didn’t head straight home to Brooklyn, though; I stopped in an overpriced boutique and tried on a pair of $400 boots. I was supposed to be on a budget — my fiancé and I had just paid our wedding venue deposit, and we’d been bickering over how to cover the remaining expenses. But I’d had a productive day and a good meeting, and my communications consultancy had been growing steadily over the last six months. I told myself I deserved a little extravagance.
I decided against the boots. Still, it was almost eight p.m. by the time I rushed into our apartment, my bladder full and stomach empty. Matt and our dog, Amy, delivered a typically effusive greeting — all smiles and tail wags and eager waiting for hugs and kisses.
“I’ve got no time for you!” I yelped. “I’ve gotta pee!” I ran straight into the bathroom, giggling. Play fighting, Matt and I recently discovered, was a lot more fun than real fighting.
I was frantic with hunger when I emerged from the bathroom, hands still wet and pants still unzipped. I stared Matt down and barked, “What’s for dinner? And did you do the laundry?”
Matt played along. He shrugged, then ambled over to me. “Um, excuse me? You haven’t even given me a hug yet. How rude!”
He grabbed my waist but I arched away from him. “Look at me: I’m a mess! I’m starving and my pants are unzipped and I barge in here and harass you about things like dinner and laundry. And you’ll be dealing with this for the rest of your life! What do you think about that?”
He pulled me into one of his signature bear hugs — the kind that made everything else go quiet — and whispered, “That sounds great, boo.”
Our refrigerator was empty, so I called the closest restaurant — a quintessentially Brooklyn spot with tightly packed reclaimed-wood tables and a seasonal menu — and asked if there was a wait for a table. Magically, there wasn’t.
So many details from the rest of that night, important details, have disappeared from my memory. But others are as crisp as the big winter moon that shone over our two-block walk to dinner. I can’t remember, for example, if we held hands on that walk. We probably did — we were always physically connected in some way. But we were probably wearing gloves, so maybe not. I can work myself into a frenzy trying to remember details like this.
I do remember Matt starting to sit down, then freezing mid-squat to close his eyes and press his fingers to his forehead. He sucked his breath in sharply and then, after a few seconds, looked at me.
“Wow. All of a sudden I have the worst headache.”
I remember saying I didn’t mind going back home if he wasn’t feeling well. He said he’d be fine, and in hindsight I remember he was a bit quieter than usual during dinner. I remember holding hands across the table after our dinner plates were cleared but before the dessert menu arrived. I remember Matt’s head falling forward violently, chin to chest; then jerking back as his eyes rolled backwards. I remember him collapsing onto the man sitting at the next table, but I don’t remember how he got to the floor, or what the man who crouched at his side and yelled, “Does anyone know CPR?” looked like.
I’ll never forget the awful silence and the roomful of eyes on me as I dialed 911. I lied to the dispatcher and said the snoring, unresponsive man on the floor was my husband. I was terrified of being separated from him as he recovered from this freak allergic reaction or choking incident or whatever this was.
Then the snoring stopped. The dispatcher asked if he was breathing. I looked down at the mystery man and repeated her question. He looked at me, then down at the floor. “I don’t think so,” I answered.
“If help doesn’t get there within the next minute, I’ll need to walk you through CPR,” the dispatcher said. That’s when I started to beg.
“Please, please. Help me, please, I don’t know what to do…”
The restaurant was suddenly illuminated by the most beautiful sight: the flashing red lights of a police cruiser.
“Help is here,” I cried. “They’re here!” And then I hung up the phone.
Two young police officers strode in and told everyone to back away. The smaller of the two pulled me aside and asked the questions I would repeatedly answer over the next several hours. Matt Molnar. Thirty-three years old. No, not a drinker or a smoker. Not a drug user. Yes, he takes medication for high blood pressure. No, I don’t remember the name of the medication. Our address is…
I never took my eyes off Matt, still lying on his back and now starting to twitch. The other officer stood above him, arms folded across his chest. He looked straight ahead, out the restaurant’s front window, like an aloof bouncer at a Vegas nightclub.
“Can’t you help him?” I wailed. I suddenly regretted my decision to hang up on 911.
The officer didn’t respond, or even look my way. A fellow diner — maybe the same man who tried to help earlier — chimed in. “Aren’t you going to try CPR?”
“I don’t know CPR,” the officer replied flatly.
I looked around the room and noticed some diners had returned to their meals; others whispered out of the corners of their mouths while gazing sideways at me. I pulled my scarf over my mouth, as if for protection.
I wish I’d screamed at the NYPD officer, or recorded him on my phone, or attempted CPR myself. But I couldn’t do anything except stare at the scene and repeat to myself, rapid-fire: It’s OK. It’sOKit’sOKit’sOKit’sOK.
Finally, a team of EMTs barged in. A seemingly impossible number of them crammed into the little restaurant and crouched in a busy circle around Matt. I counted the number of people working on him with EpiPens, defibrillator paddles, mouth-to-mouth, and an endless parade of devices they kept retrieving from the ambulance. I counted them over and over again, knowing I’d want to tell Matt all about it when he woke up, but the number kept slipping away from me.
I remember begging to ride in the ambulance, but instead being escorted to the emergency room by the police officers (my first time in a cop car I thought as I fought to catch a full breath). The next thing I remember is sitting on a bench outside a private room off the ER, straining to hear through the closed door.
I noticed the two police officers standing guard from a respectful distance, halfway down the too-bright hallway. Then I noticed my legs were bouncing up and down so violently I appeared to be running in place.
The door opened and a team of people walked out. Then they walked away — all except a movie-handsome doctor with purple scrubs and a silver hoop in his left ear. He sat on the bench and looked at me with a practiced empathy that seemed straight out of a bad TV show. His face was so close I could smell his sour breath. He said something about a catastrophic event, then “expired.” As if my fiancé was an old carton of milk.
“Yes. I’m sorry, your husband has expired. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
Of course I didn’t understand; he made absolutely no sense. The only thing I understood was that I needed to maintain the illusion that Matt and I were already married, so none of these terrible people could snatch him away from me. The reality of the situation wouldn’t register until three days later, as I rummaged through our closets in search of a tie for Matt to be buried in.
I started screaming, because that seemed like something a person in my situation would do.
“You’re saying he’s dead? My husband is DEAD?”
He explained with patronizing patience that an autopsy would be the only way to know for sure what happened. But, based on the facts at hand, he guessed Matt had a brain aneurysm that ruptured suddenly.
“I didn’t do CPR,” I confessed.
He assured me that wouldn’t have made a difference. “It was a catastrophic event,” he repeated, then suggested the autopsy again. There’s no way in hell you’re touching his body, I thought. He’s MINE.
The policemen reappeared as soon as TV Doctor disappeared. They each shook my hand and said they were sorry for my loss. Then they walked away. One of them fist-bumped the security guard on the way out, and said something that made all three men laugh.
* * *
For the most part, the rest of that night has been erased from my memory. I don’t remember whom I called first or how long it took for Matt’s best friends or mine to arrive.
One thing I’ll never forget is calling Matt’s younger brother and asking him to pull his car over so I could tell him something important. So I could tell him that the only remaining member of his nuclear family had died.
I vaguely remember a nurse escorting me into the room where Matt’s body lay. I started babbling as soon as she stepped out and closed the door.
“I’m sorry, honey,” I said out loud. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I wasn’t sure what I was apologizing for.
The next six months were mostly cushioned by shock. I carried the otherworldly weight of Matt’s memory with me every minute of every day. I took intermittent stabs at healing, because I knew that’s what Matt would want. (If it were up to me, I’d still be sitting on my couch, wallowing over old pictures and crying into Amy’s fur.) I took up boxing and cut off all my hair. Sometimes I’d hibernate for days at a time; other times I’d go drinking with Matt’s best friend, the two of us vacillating between cackling about “Matty moments” and sobbing into each other’s arms. I joined a support group for young widows and widowers and, embarrassingly, felt jealous of members who’d lost their spouses after excruciating battles with cancer or other drawn-out diseases. At least you got to say goodbye, I thought bitterly. I did pretty much everything you might expect someone to do after having her fiancé, best friend, business confidant and future ripped away two months before her thirty-fifth birthday.
* * *
I didn’t think about the two NYPD officers until I saw them one day that summer, patrolling slowly as I walked home from the gym. I stopped in the middle of the street and stared. It felt like someone had picked up the sidewalk and tilted it thirty degrees; I struggled to stay on my feet. The air began to hum in my ears — softly at first, then loud and shrill. I sobbed as I walked the rest of the way home, stopping twice to lean against a building as memories of January 24 suddenly flooded over me in powerful waves. When I finally got inside, I fell to the floor and cried so hard and for so long that I threw up.
Later I texted a friend from my support group, a firefighter who’d responded to 9/11 and knew a thing or two about PTSD. I told him some of my memories from the night Matt died.
“What do you mean, they didn’t attempt CPR?” he asked. “Gina, they’re supposed to at least TRY!”
Are they? I wondered. The next day, I called NYPD headquarters, requested the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information’s (DCPI) office, and asked about the department’s official policy. Are officers trained in CPR? Are they required to help if they’re first on the scene of an emergency?
I’ve worked in PR for a long time, so I wasn’t surprised by the answer: I’d need to file a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. I also knew what that meant: months or possibly even years of waiting for someone in the legal department to approve a written statement.
I spent hours searching the Internet for information; that’s how I learned about Michael and Carmen Ojeda, who lost their eleven-year-old daughter, Briana, to an asthma attack in 2010. Panicked and driving the wrong way down a short street to the hospital, Carmen was stopped by an NYPD officer who attempted to write her a ticket. She pleaded for help, but his response was the same one I heard: “I don’t know CPR.”
Matt’s life probably wouldn’t have been saved by CPR. But Briana’s would have.
I found some answers in the news coverage of Briana’s death. New York City police officers, it turns out, are not legally required to attempt resuscitation. (Though, according to a friend in the force, many do — like the two officers who, earlier this year, used CPR to save a fifteen-month-old girl from choking.) Recruits receive basic CPR training during their time in the police academy; that training is not refreshed or revisited for the remainder of their career. I learned that, in New York City at least, police are often first on the scene of medical emergencies, as they’re already out on patrol, usually in smaller cars that are easier to maneuver through traffic.
I also learned that the Ojedas lived in the same police precinct as me, which seemed significant somehow. I decided I needed to talk to the precinct’s captain. He was sympathetic, but didn’t seem very concerned by my call. I posed my questions as innocently as possible, fearing another brick wall. “Can you help me piece together the events of that night?” I asked.
He obliged, pulling up the report on his computer and talking me through it: 911 call received at 8:23 p.m., then assigned it to the NYPD. The two officers arrived on the scene by 8:26 and EMS arrived at 8:28. At 8:34, a second ambulance arrived. At 8:54, Matt was brought to the hospital.
I remembered the time between the arrival of the police and of EMS as agonizingly long, but in reality it was two minutes at most. “I know those two minutes probably seemed like an eternity,” the captain said. “But, maybe the officers knew EMS was right around the corner.”
I asked if it was typical for a police officer to refrain from attempting CPR, and got a glossed-over version of what I already knew: Officers are trained to administer CPR and “under normal circumstances,” they do. The captain promised to talk to the officer still working there — the one who’d stood stoically over Matt’s body — and get his side of the story.
He called back a few hours later and informed me that the officer said he had indeed attempted CPR on my fiancé. Trying not to sound hysterical, I protested, “I may have forgotten parts of that night, but I know he didn’t do CPR.”
The captain reminded me that memory is a funny thing. Then he suggested I contact NYPD’s public information office and hung up.
I replayed our conversation many times over the next few days. Of course the officer said he tried to resuscitate Matt. He either didn’t remember that night or wanted to cover his own ass – or, more likely, a combination of both. I considered telling the story to one of my media contacts, but was hesitant to drag the nightmare on even further. I didn’t want to be angry. I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble or call any more attention to the worst night of my life. None of that would bring Matt back. And I certainly didn’t want Matt to be remembered as the man who died on a restaurant floor while the NYPD stood idly by. I wanted people to remember the real Matt: quiet, curious, fiercely loyal, always smiling, with a piercing wit and an insatiable passion for aviation.
I decided to put the whole ugly thing behind me. My job, I told myself, was to recover from this tragedy and try to create a new life for myself.
* * *
I changed my mind as soon as the infamous Eric Garner video surfaced the following summer. When I watched it I didn’t see police brutality or race bias; all I could see was a replay of January 24, 2013. On the surface, the two events have little in common. Garner, a black man, was being arrested for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes when an NYPD officer pulled him to the ground in an apparent chokehold; he went into cardiac arrest shortly after. Matt was a white man eating dinner in a trendy Brooklyn restaurant, and no one was suspected of criminal activity. He died of a brain aneurysm — which is rare, but not unprecedented in people with high blood pressure. The Garner case was much more egregious because it can be argued that the police contributed to his death; because CPR might’ve changed the outcome; and because, in addition to the NYPD officers on the scene, four EMTs also refused to attempt CPR.
But when I watch the officers milling around Garner, ordering people to back up while barely looking at the dying body at their feet, and hear a bystander ask, “Why nobody do CPR?” all I can think about is my fiancé’s horrible, degrading last moments.
This is when my fixation became an obsession. I tracked down Michael Ojeda’s phone number. When I told him my story, he said God had brought us together. He also told me more about his family’s story.
Several politicians attended his daughter’s funeral, including State Assembly Member Felix Ortiz, who promised to help the Ojedas change the system. Together, they’ve fought — hard — to create Briana’s Law, which would require every police officer in New York State to be retrained and tested in CPR every two years. Ortiz has stood with and cried with the Ojeda family, gone through CPR training himself and forged partnerships with the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association, which states that effective CPR provided immediately after a sudden cardiac arrest can double or triple a victim’s chance of survival.
Briana’s Law passed the State Assembly in February of 2014; the Senate planned to vote on it in the fall of but removed it from the docket at the last minute without any public explanation. Its future remains unclear. Ojeda, who now has his daughter’s image tattooed all over his body, told me, “I’m not gonna stop until it hits the floor…I can’t let her die in vain.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, meanwhile, took to the airwaves to perform damage control and tout a new three-day training program that commenced in November and focuses on issues like proper use of force and more effective interaction with members of the public.
Most of the talk about the NYPD’s new training, of course, has centered on restraint tactics and race and community relations. But what about CPR? Determined to find an answer, I devoured every piece of news coverage I could find. I pored over video and transcripts of the hours-long City Council Public Safety hearing questioning Bratton about the new trainings and other planned changes. CPR was not mentioned once.
(Bratton did state several times during his testimony that the retraining is partly inspired by successful programs he oversaw during his time with the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD bundles CPR refresher courses with the rest of its training.)
I called One Police Plaza again to ask if CPR policy would be revisited in the wake of the Garner case, and was directed once again to DCPI. I submitted my query via email, per the DCPI officer’s instruction. I followed up four times over the next six weeks; each time I was told my request “has been received but not yet approved by supervision.”
I called the offices of the Mayor, of City Council members who participated in the Public Safety hearing, and of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams — a former NYPD captain who in the past has called the department’s CPR policy “unacceptable.”
“Can you tell me if CPR will be addressed as part of the new three-day training?” I asked over and over again, only to be stonewalled every time.
I called the office of Assemblyman Ortiz, the original sponsor of Briana’s Law. Would the legislation be revisited in the wake of the Garner case? If I sensed an opening, I’d wiggle in my story as casually as I could.
I don’t know if I was looking for sympathy or a foot in the door. I got neither. Impeccably trained press agents, public information officers and legal aides simply recited different versions of the same boilerplate answer.
“I’ll certainly look into that for you, but please note this is a very busy time of year for us.”
“Please send me an email with the details of your request.”
“I’ll let them know you followed up.”
When I called back, I was mostly ignored. I made dozens of queries and follow-ups over the next three months. I finally got so desperate, I filed that FOIL request.
* * *
It’s now been almost two years since Matt’s death. The good news is, I’ve made my own sort of peace with the events of that night. In a sense, I’ve become a completely different person: more appreciative of the love and relationships I do have, less fixated with work and status, and more focused on creating a happy, meaningful life. I think back to January 2013 and barely recognize the person who shopped for $400 boots and picked fights with her kind, gentle fiancé about things like dishes and laundry and hogging the bathroom.
The bad news is, I still don’t have answers to my questions. Neither do the Ojedas or Eric Garner’s loved ones or anyone else who’s been in a similar situation. Late last month, two hours before this story was due, I received an emailed statement from Borough President Adams’s office:
“I have long been an advocate for regularly retraining police officers on performing CPR on New Yorkers in need of life-saving assistance. I advocated for this as a member of the NYPD, as a State Senator carrying Briana’s Law, and now as Brooklyn Borough President. Fortunately, we have a leader at One Police Plaza like Commissioner Bratton, with whom I served in the transit police. He and I spoke earlier this year on the importance of this issue, and I am pleased that he agreed to enact these critical changes.”
When I asked for proof of these changes, I was directed to the transcript of a City Hall press conference held in March, honoring the two “hero cops” who’d performed CPR on the fifteen-month-old girl. The transcript’s sole mention of CPR training is a hat tip from Commissioner Bratton, who said he was “pleased that Eric Adams…is here because we actually have a meeting set up very shortly, to discuss the issue of CPR training for our officers.”
I’ve yet to find any evidence of that meeting.
* * *
Gina Masullo is a writer and communications consultant who lives in Brooklyn with her best friend Amy (the dog).
Jess Smart Smiley makes pictures with his bare hands. See more at jess-smiley.com.