by Shayne Terry
We answer within one ring. Don’t worry about being fast. It happens automatically. A window opens and there is a person in your ear. The ring is just to warn you.
You’ll know the name by the account on the screen. If you can’t pronounce it, just say “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Most of them are okay with “Sir” or “Ma’am.”
It’s the same with outbound calls. Account pops up and suddenly you’re talking to an old lady from Houston who hasn’t moved in four hours.
“I’m fine. I’m just watching TV.”
Sometimes they are cranky with you for interrupting their programs or for not being their daughter.
“Who is this?”
“This is your LifeRaft. Are you in need of help?”
“Who?” Some of them forget about us. They might not even know about us, if their kids are paying.
Half the calls are from the kids.
“It works!” they shout and then hang up.
We only call to talk if they pay extra. For the ones who pay extra, we call daily to ask how they are. If the account has a blue background, it’s a check-in.
Check-ins are capped at five minutes. The counter on the screen will tell you when to wind it down.
If you get one who doesn’t want to say goodbye, act like you’re getting an incoming call. They understand emergencies.
Every once in a while, a kid will try and test you. They want to know what they’re paying for. They want you to be smart but not smarter than them. They want you to simulate what you would do in a real situation. If they don’t think you’re good enough, they’ll tell you.
“Go back to flipping burgers,” they’ll say.
“I’ve never worked in food service,” you’ll say.
“I could be your father,” they’ll say.
“You could be my grandfather,” you’ll say.
When I first started, no one told me I could hang up. I’m telling you now: if someone’s treating you badly, you are allowed to hang up.
You’ll get some of them stuck in your head. I’ve got this lady, Trina. Trina is almost a hundred years old and still lives by herself in a trailer outside Tuscaloosa. I got her on a low activity alert, outbound, and when she picked up she said, “Finally.”
“This is your LifeRaft. Are you in need of help?”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Have you fallen?” This is the first question to ask if they’re cagey.
“Are you in pain?”
“All the time.”
“Do you need me to send an ambulance?”
Trina whistled. “Only if I get the same EMT as last time. Boy was fine.”
When leaving notes on the account, stick to the facts. This is an example of a factual note: “Unsure whether he took medicine. Asked him to count pills. One fewer than yesterday. Decided he had.”
Set the account for an automatic follow-up and, if you’re available, the call will route to you. If you’re not available, it will route to someone else, so always leave a note.
If someone is hurt, hit the red dispatch button to send an ambulance. If they answer the call but don’t say anything, the rule is to hit the red button and stay on the line.
You’ve probably seen the commercials. That’s how I found out about this job. I saw a commercial and thought, “They must need people to answer those calls.” And it’s an inside job, better than working on a tree farm in the weather, which is what I used to do.
If there’s a bad snowstorm coming, you might be asked to check out a laptop and take calls from home. Don’t do it. Say you have spotty WiFi, or take the laptop but say you lost power.
It’s one thing to be asked what you’re wearing when you’re here, but it gets weird when you’re on the futon in your dad’s basement.
My favorite kind of outbound call is the birthday call—pink background. When they pick up, say happy birthday. I swear, you can hear the smile through your headset.
If you sing and a supervisor is around to hear it, you’ll get a ten-dollar bonus in your next paycheck. I can’t hit the high notes and it’s taxed at fifty percent anyway, so I never bother.
I’m waiting to get Trina on her birthday. I can see maybe singing for Trina.
We are able to place calls outside of the automated system, but we’re not supposed to. I have a way of setting follow-up calls with Trina and making sure they’re routed to me. I schedule them for the start of my shift and log in exactly ten seconds early. I almost always get the call.
In case it goes to someone else, I leave pretty standard notes. “Claimed she felt incoherent. Sounded fine. Check in tomorrow.”
You’ll learn to write your notes before the next call sneaks in. You’d think you would remember the details a few calls later, but you almost never do.
The people in the commercials are always falling. We don’t get as many fall calls as you would think. Usually if they fall and can call someone, they’re going to call their kid or a neighbor. They don’t want to pay for an ambulance if they don’t have to.
Most of the calls we get are the kind I myself have made to my best friend Vin on harder days.
All I need to say is, “Vin.”
And Vin will say, “You picked up the phone and called me.”
“I called you.”
“You called me.”
We’ve all needed a friend to say those words. It’s just that most of their friends are gone.
I think Trina likes our calls. She wouldn’t ever say it, but we have a kind of code.
“This is your LifeRaft. How are you today?”
“The sun is up, isn’t it?”
“I think so. There are no windows here.”
“I’m looking out the window and I can tell you, the sun is up in Tuscaloosa.”
You will want to look up their accounts. After you hit the red button because there is shortness of breath or chest pain or feet with no feeling, after you stay on the phone and tell them it’s going to be okay, after the ambulance arrives and you disconnect, a day or two will pass and you will be tempted to check. It’s normal to want to do something more.
A gray background means the account has been deactivated. Account Services might leave a note or a date of death, but sometimes they forget. I don’t check anymore. You never get the full story.
I sent Trina a valentine. They were two for a dollar and I was getting one for my brother’s kid anyway. The card had a drawing of two donuts, one with sprinkles and one without, and said, “Donut let me go.”
I sent it in the mail, but I didn’t sign it or include a return address. We’re not supposed to use their personally identifiable information like that.
While you’re in training, a supervisor will randomly listen in on your calls. It’s random. You won’t know which ones. Just treat all your calls as if someone is listening.
If you make it through training and are put on the day shift, you’ll sit here next to me. If you make it through training and are put on the night shift, you’ll sit in my cubicle when I’m not here. If that happens, I might sometimes leave you encouraging post-it notes, especially in the middle of the week. The middle of the week might be Friday, if you end up on weekends. I might leave you a note on a Friday that says, “It only takes one person to change your life,” meaning you. I might occasionally replace the desktop background with a picture of a sloth.
I’ll do this because I like you. I can tell you’re a good egg.
Shayne Terry is a Midwestern transplant living and writing in Brooklyn, where she is a founding member of the Rumble Ponies Writing Collective. Her fiction has appeared in American Chordata, (b)OINK, and Wigleaf and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Read more of her work at shayneterry.com.