NORTH HOLLYWOOD (CBSLA.com) — What began as a happy day at the Los Angeles Zoo for a North Hollywood family quickly turned into a life and death situation.
On July 11, 2015, 13-month-old Connor Snider was visiting the zoo with his mom, Kelsey, and aunt, Tyla Epstein, when he began to choke on a grape moments after they got through the front gate.
His aunt, Tyla Epstein, talked to CBS2’s Randy Paige about the horrifying transformation she witnessed as she looked down at her nephew in her arms.
“Rosy cheeks, a little happy baby, to such a dark blue he was almost purple. His face looked like one giant bruise,” she said.
Epstein added that the more she and her sister tried to get the grape out of her nephew’s throat, the deeper it seemed to sink.
As they tried to dig for their cell phone that was buried in a diaper bag, Epstein screamed out for somebody to call 911, then zoo security staff took over, she said.
According to Epstein, a security guard tried to comfort them, saying: “He’s breathing. He’ll be okay.”
Epstein screamed and asked the guard if paramedics were on their way and couldn’t believe his answer.
“He just looked at me and he’s like: ‘Do you want them to be?’” Epstein recalled.
She said the security guard said he couldn’t call an ambulance until toddler’s mother gave permission.
But Kelsey Snider was so traumatized by the sight of her son she froze. “I was watching everything happening around me I didn’t know what to do,” she recalled.
“She was on her knees in shock. So I slapped her and was like: ‘Say yes!’ I knocked her out of whatever state she was in. And she just looked over and she was like: ‘yes,’” Epstein said. “He stared at us. I said: ‘Well, do it!’, and he finally did it.”
On a recording of the 911 call, the zoo’s security dispatcher can be heard calling for a rescue ambulance and described Connor as “choking but now is conscious and breathing and has stopped choking.”
“That’s not how I remember it at all,” the boy’s mother recalled. “He was still choking and barely breathing.”
“He was breathing so little that he was turning purple, and he had blood coming out of his mouth,” the boy’s aunt added.
The closest fire station is located three and a half miles away. According to fire department records, it took the ambulance almost eight minutes to get to Connor, and lights and sirens were not used.
When paramedics arrived, the baby’s airway was “fully obstructed” and he was “found limp” and “unresponsive”.
The toddler’s mom rode with him in the ambulance. “He was really purple and blue and like splotchy,” she said. “It was hard.”
It took paramedics a total of 18 minutes from the time they were dispatched to get Connor to Children’s Hospital.
Doctors told the family the boy’s brain was severely damaged, and he would probably never see again. He may be deaf, and he would have to be fed with a feeding tube.
At age one, Connor was walking a week before his accident. Now, at age two, he can only sit up with his mom’s help.
But she said her son continues to bring joy to her life with every milestone he makes.
The zoo declined to comment on the advice of the city attorney, and a request for information about how the zoo deals with medical emergencies was also denied.
Zoo officials sent an email saying the Los Angeles Police Department provides security at the zoo: “Please contact the LAPD’s Media Relations unit for any questions on emergency response procedures.”
When Paige did, the LAPD replied, “Sorry, but at this time we cannot accommodate your request.”
Paige then went to Dr. Marc Eckstein, the Los Angeles Fire Department’s medical director, and asked if security personnel should have the power to decide when 911 calls are made.
“Would you like to see that many steps before your ambulance is dispatched?” Paige asked.
“No, we certainly don’t want a secondary person triaging the case as it were before we’re contacted,” said Eckstein.
“Since we clearly have evidence that that is the protocol at the zoo, will you as medical director try to get to the bottom of this?” Paige asked.
“Knowing this now, absolutely we’ll reach out to our partners at the zoo,” Eckstein replied. “If that is their protocol, certainly we’ll want to reach out to them and change it because I think it can result in unnecessary delays.”
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