Child Stops Breathing on I-90 Ramp, Mom Asks Why No One Stopped to Help

Dawn Johnson said not one person called, stopped or asked what was happening after she pulled over to help her son.

Alexander stopped breathing while in his mother's car. Photo credit: Dawn Johnson
Alexander stopped breathing while in his mother's car. Photo credit: Dawn Johnson

When Avon Lake’s Dawn Johnson saw her 7-year-old son Alexander having a grand mal seizure while driving eastbound on I-90 on their way shopping Aug. 22, she did what needed to be done to save his life: She took the Crocker-Bassett exit in Westlake and pulled over.

Traveling with her were her two teenage children. The three of them lifted Alexander out of the car and started procedures to save his life. They took turns using an ambu-bag to help him breath after calling 9-1-1.

“Immediately I had to get my son out of his car seat, lay him on the side of the ramp (in the grass) and accessed him,” Johnson said in a letter to Patch. “He had stopped breathing. Even though my son is medically fragile I cannot tell you all the emotions that come over you in a situation like this. His life literally fell in my hands.”

Police and medical assistance arrived in minutes and Alexander, after being stabilized at St. John’s Medical Center, was airlifted by a medical helicopter to Cleveland Clinic’s main campus, which has a ventilator for a child his size.

It was after Alexander returned home, stable, that Johnson said a realization hit her hard: Not one person on I-90, at the Crocker-Detroit intersection or coming up the exit ramp, stopped to help.

“No one even rolled down their windows to ask if we needed help,” Johnson said. “I’m appalled. You couldn’t even stop and direct the traffic for me?”

She fired off a letter to Patch.

“At the end of the day once my little boy was stable it hit me, if my teenage children would not have been with me I do not know that I could have performed all the necessary life saving measures alone,” Johnson wrote. “You see, as my son’s lifeless body lay on the side of the exit ramp, needing us to breathe for him, not one single person stopped to inquire if we needed assistance. NOT ONE!”

Johnson drives a recognizable van with a sticker on the back that says “Medically Fragile Child on Board.”  Alexander, who is adopted, sustained a brain injury at birth and breathes through a tracheostomy tube.

“I’m sure there were people from Avon Lake driving that recognized my van,” she said. “No one saw us? I’m not buying that.”

She said she asked the two Westlake police officers who arrived if their department received any calls of a child or motorist in distress. They said no.

“Then it hit me, this is repulsive,” Johnson said. “Not one person even bothered calling.”

Johnson said she contacted Patch not to berate those who ignored her and Alexander but to encourage others to stop next time they see a medical emergency and offer some sort of assistance or at least inquire if 9-1-1 needs to be called.

“The purpose of this letter is not to criticize or judge anyone for their lack of action, seeing this is terrifying, I get that,” she wrote. “However, regardless of a person’s medical training or lack thereof sometimes as a parent just knowing there is another adult with you to encourage, pray, or even direct traffic is huge. (See police tips below for hat to do.) I urge you next time any of you drive by someone in a medical crisis do the right thing. Do what you would appreciate someone doing for you.”

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Westlake Police Captain Guy Turner said if you are on the side of the road, there are protocols drivers should take, but he does not recommend civilians directing traffic.

"Stopping on the interstate is risky, because drivers tend to steer at what they are looking at; ergo, a gawker looks at you, he might unconsciously steer toward you and crash into your vehicle," Turner said. "We definitely would NOT want any civilian directing traffic. That is illegal, highly dangerous and a skill that takes some time for even police officers to develop."

Pulling over for what appears to be a life-threatening situation is a judgement call, he said, but noted one should always call for aid first. 

He said the more stopped vehicles, persons on foot, and commotion within the roadway, the more dangerous it is. The best way to help is to (carefully) call for police assistance, he said.

"If you don't have a phone, you can help by stopping at a nearby business and asking the staff to call," he said. "Unless you bring those sorts of safety skills to the table, you may just put yourself at risk by pulling over. Better to be a good witness or source of info."

Becky R August 28, 2013 at 11:45 AM
I am sorry you had such a horrible experience - as a parent, I can't imagine how I would respond if my child was in a life or death situation. My heart goes out to you. The Westlake Police Captain made some good points about highway safety and helping someone in distress. I am not sure if people are afraid to help or too consumed by their own lives. We are all in a hurry to get somewhere, right? My daughter was, thankfully, not in a life threatening situation. But she fell off her bike while riding on the sidewalk in our subdivision. She was alone, laying on the ground and had scraped up her arms, legs, and head. Not one person driving by stopped to see if she was okay. She was able to call me from her cell phone and as I ran down to her with a 2-yr old in my arms...people drove past her as she was laying there, bleeding and crying, (obviously not okay) and not one person stopped.
Adele August 28, 2013 at 12:04 PM
It's a shame everyone is in such a personal hurry they cannot be bothered to even offer help. So sorry for you and your child. I hope all goes well.
Sandyt August 29, 2013 at 07:24 AM
I'm sorry this happened to you. As a mom of 4 kids I can imagine what you were going through. Glad your son is doing ok.
Becky September 03, 2013 at 07:54 AM
While your story is heartbreaking and a true reflection of how society must act today, I can assure you that I would have not stopped to help you. In this day and age it is better to mind your own business. Additionally, if I was in the same situation with my children I certainly would not want anyone to stop and help me, for the same reasons I would not help you. My mother-in-law's car broke down a few weeks ago on I-90 and a car carrying 2 men stopped to help her. The men seemed suspicious and my mother-in-law was scared they might try and cause her harm. The men could have been armed and forced her into their car. I would not want a stranger stopping to help me, not knowing what they are capable of and if they would try to abduct me or my children. I apologize for what you went through and things for you are hard but you cant expect people to stop and help.
Common Tator September 03, 2013 at 09:33 AM
Traffic is moving so fast that by the time you realize there is a need you have already driven by and could cause an accident by stopping abruptly. I would and have called police when I have seen someone that seems in distress on the side of the road. I am terribly sorry for what you went through. I can only speculate that some people may really not have understood what was going on in a brief glance at the side of the road, despite it being clear to you that your child was in danger.


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