Turlock police Officer Paul Heppner was on patrol March 29 when a dispatch call went out for a vehicle crash at West Hawkeye Avenue and North Golden State Boulevard with two children pinned in.
As he and other officers arrived, he positioned his vehicle on Golden State to block traffic. A group was gathered around the center divide, and those seeing him get out of his car opened the circle to let him in.
“Everyone is waving their hands at me to come over. At that point, it becomes somewhat of an overwhelming situation for everyone involved. I notice it’s a child, and people are seeing that the child is not in very good condition. What crosses your mind is, ‘I’m the guy who’s supposed to fix this.’ ”
For performing lifesaving CPR on the 4-year-old girl, Heppner last week was presented the Medal of Meritorious Service from Turlock police Chief Nino Amirfar and Mayor Gary Soiseth.
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When AMR kneeled down beside me, I thought, ‘Now I have a savior.’
Officer Paul Heppner
The crash that Wednesday afternoon involved two vehicles. In one was Turlock resident Shawnta Lynell and daughters Gia, 13 months, and Genevieve, or “GG,” the 4-year-old. In the other was Jorge Tello, 21, of Delhi. Video footage from a surveillance camera at a business shows Tello driving at a high rate of speed as he approached the intersection.
“The collision investigation is almost complete, but we are waiting on a technical analysis portion being completed by an allied agency,” Sgt. Neil Cervenka, Turlock Police Department spokesman, said in an email last week. “No criminal charges have been filed.”
Tello refused medical treatment at the scene. Lynell was hurt, but not nearly as seriously as her little girls.
Gia, who initially was treated by medical responders from Turlock Fire, said Heppner – “We could not have accomplished anything without those guys” – suffered injuries including head trauma, collapsed lungs and a leg broken in two places.
GG has undergone surgery for a damaged spinal cord and was released from the hospital only last week.
Heppner on Saturday talked about the crash aftermath and gave an update on the family, which is rounded out by dad Ryant Grayson. In a text message, Lynell said she wanted to “let everyone know how thankful my family is for Officer Heppner” but did not want to discuss the crash or the girls.
The officer recalled trying to listen for breathing and check for a pulse on GG, and finding neither. It was a challenge to stay focused because emotions all around were high, and he could hear the distraught Lynell right by him.
I want to thank him publicly for his heroic act that helped keep my daughter alive.
“I started CPR, both mouth-to-mouth and compressions,” Heppner said. “I remember I was frustrating myself because I couldn’t get open airway and I kept trying to get air into this child. ... I finally got her chest to expand and I gave her a couple breaths to get that in her right away, then started with compressions.
“I don’t remember who the person was – I wish I did – but a bystander kneeled down in front of me and started counting out loud as I gave compressions. That helped me focus, so I continued with compressions, I can’t tell you low long, until AMR showed up. When they knelt down beside me, I felt a sense of relief because these are the boys who really know what they’re doing.”
The medical responder who took charge was so calm and collected, Heppner recalled. “He is the GI Joe of CPR and medical emergencies. We (law enforcement vs other emergency responders) play such separate roles. I keep people away from structure fires and I look at these guys going into burning buildings with just a tank of air on their backs.”
With medical responders having taken over, Heppner was able to get up to talk with Lynell and other family that had arrived.
“I remember the mom ... her girls are physically traumatized and she’s going through emotional trauma and she needs just as much help,” he said. Another officer came over to talk with Lynell, who was “bleeding from her face but she was so strong she didn’t care, she just fought through it.”
He got a sign from AMR that GG had a pulse, so was able to share that with the family. “It impacted me. I’m a father myself, and I could not imagine a police officer telling me, ‘We did CPR on your child but got a pulse.’ ”
Medical helicopters landed near the crash scene and the girls were prepped and airlifted – GG to Valley Children’s Healthcare in Madera and Gia to the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. The girls’ stays left the parents with a trip of about 165 miles between the two hospitals.
Fortunately for me in my 14 years of service, I personally never have started and completed CPR on my own to this extent.
Officer Paul Heppner
Heppner said the entire Police Department had been thinking about the family, and he and his wife visited Lynell, Grayson and GG at the Madera hospital. “They were so genuine, so loving and very, very optimistic, almost to the point where I questioned myself if I could stand in same room with my child, who is very likely paralyzed – and she is – and be like that. They never spoke poorly of anyone, they spoke very positively of their daughter and her recovery, that’s what I took away. I’m so impressed by them.”
He’s spoken other times with the family, and said Lynell has talked with him about the changes in their lives and adapting to a new way of raising a child. Heppner asked about the family’s needs and was told they’re looking for an SUV or other type vehicle that can be equipped with a wheelchair lift.
“Their life as it was stopped in the blink of an eye, and now they have different needs,” he said. “So if there’s something I would like to pass on to people, it’s that there are lots of programs giving medical help, and they’re doing well in that area, but there are many basic needs to be met.”
A gofundme page – “Shawnta’s babies medical fund” – has a $50,000 goal and had raised $10,695 as of Sunday morning.
Thinking back on the March day and last week’s honor, Heppner said, “I am truly honored and humbled by the award, but what I did is what any officer, including my partners on the scene, would have done. We’ve all been in the training and we’ve all been in situations that are different each time. That day, it was doing CPR on a 4-year-old.”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327