The emergency call that sent Fire Engine 29 and Paramedic Unit 17 racing to Lachuna Sheppard's rowhouse on Oswego Avenue in Park Heights was routine. Her son Jashon Stephens had stopped breathing, a problem city firefighters encounter all too often.
The tiny 22-month-old has a heart defect - he has had seven surgeries and has spent more time in hospital wards than at his home in Northwest Baltimore. His stomach is tied and he has a single lung, which had collapsed. He eats through a tube and has a nurse help him 19 hours a day.
Lt. Tom Tosh and his colleagues revived the infant and got him to a hospital. Tomorrow, Jashon will spend his second Christmas at Johns Hopkins' Children's Center, where he has been the past three weeks.
Yesterday, Tosh and others assigned to the firehouse six blocks away on Park Heights Avenue made another trip to Sheppard's home. They pulled up in a fire engine and walked in, single file, one carrying a pile of wrapped boxes, another a spiral-sliced ham, the third a sweet potato pie, the last a red tricycle.
"Fire Department," Firefighter Michael Hineline yelled as he knocked.
"Oh, wow!" exclaimed Jashon's mother. "Good morning! Merry Christmas!"
The firehouse was one of three in the city whose members adopted a family for the holidays. They made their deliveries from stations in Park Heights, Upper Fells Point and East Baltimore Midway. Firefighters have also visited several city hospitals, cancer wards and the Kennedy Krieger Institute over the past few weeks.
Hineline, who is assigned to a station in Roland Park, organized the drive five years ago when he got his crew together to visit sick children at Sinai Hospital. It grew to include other hospitals, and they got so many toys and so much food they decided to adopt families to give away the surplus. Hineline and his 7-year-old daughter Molly wrapped the gifts.
Tosh chose Jashon after his crew helped get the infant breathing again. He told me he was impressed with the care his mother was providing, that she knew all the contraptions her son needed and exactly what medicine he was taking, which helped paramedics quickly give proper care.
"Your son touched our hearts when we were here," Tosh told Sheppard as he and the firefighters scrunched in the small living room.
"He's a fighter," the mother answered. "But it is a struggle. I'm so glad that you all came. You were here really fast. You were very attentive to my child. It was almost as if one of your children was the one lying on the floor."
The firefighters hugged Jashon's relatives, and Jashon's relatives hugged the firefighters. They posed for a group picture - with Tosh, Hineline, Battalion Chief Mark Ruff and firefighters Gregory Matysek, Richard Overstreat and Brian Ganzzermiller.
They had taken the morning off - going "out of service" to make sure their visit wasn't interrupted. Engine 29 responds to about 3,800 emergency calls and Medic 17 goes on about 6,000 calls a year.
When the firefighters left the house, they went back "in service" and prepared for a shift that would take them into Christmas.
"We have to go help another family," Tosh said.
Talk with Peter Hermann about crime at his blog: baltimoresun.com/crime