Cleveland Police Sgt. Raymond “Ray” O’Connor poses with Tomika Johnson and her family. The quick-thinking Johnson helped save the officer's life during a community celebration in the Ohio city on Aug. 20, 2022. Cleveland Police Department photo.
When Cleveland Police Sgt. Raymond “Ray” O’Connor wandered into the Back 2 School Ward 5 Festival, he wasn’t expecting to almost die.
“I've been shot at twice, but honestly, it didn't compare to this,” O’Connor told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I knew I was barely breathing, and it was pretty much about the end for me. And that is the most scared I've ever been in my life.”
O’Connor is allergic to bees, and on Aug. 20, the venom from a pair of stings began coursing through his veins. He couldn’t reach for his epinephrine injector — often called an “EpiPen” — because he’d left it back at the District 4 station, where he serves as the administrative sergeant.
He started walking to Community Engagement Officer Brooklyn Barnes, figuring he'd know in 30 seconds whether the stings would kill him.
Cleveland police officer Brooklyn Barnes with one of Tomika Johnson's sons. Barnes and Sgt. Raymond O'Connor delivered gifts to the Johnson residence on Aug. 22, 2022. as a thank you for saving O'Connor's life. Cleveland Police Department photo.
Barnes saw his face and asked the sergeant whether he was going to be okay. He told her he'd soon stop breathing.
“You can feel it take over. It's like a really strange feeling, as well as a feeling that you dread because you know, 'Here it comes,' and there's no fighting it,” O’Connor said. “There's no doing anything.”
Except collapse, which the 6-foot-7 O’Connor did on top of the 5-foot-9 Barnes. With his gear on, that meant 275 pounds came crashing down on her, but she kept carrying him until other cops arrived to help.
Luckily, Tomika Johnson, a Project Save volunteer at the festival, heard the clamor about the stings and knew exactly what to do.
Cleveland police officer Brooklyn Barnes wrapping gifts to take to Tomika Johnson's house for her son's 10th birthday. The 10-year-old's epi pen played a critical role in saving Sgt. Raymond O'Connor's life on Aug. 20, 2022, after he had been stung by a bee. Cleveland Police Department photo.
Her 10-year-old son had an EpiPen, too. Johnson rushed across the street, grabbed it, and then ran it back to Barnes, who speared it into O’Connor’s thigh.
“Like, we [are] used to them saving our lives, not the other way around,” Johnson told Coffee or Die. “I just hope that, if ever I'm in that type of situation, somebody will reach out to help me.”
O’Connor’s fellow officers lifted him into the squad car, where he mumbled out what he thought were his last words: Tell his girlfriend he loved her. Take his dog to another cop to raise.
“He kept saying, ‘I’m going to die,’” Barnes told Coffee or Die. “I’m like, ‘You’re not going to die. Everything’s going to be okay. I’m here.’”
Sgt. Raymond O'Connor, Tomika Johnson, and her two sons at Johnson's Cleveland, Ohio, home on Aug. 22, 2022. Cleveland Police Department photo.
He survived, as she'd promised.
Although Johnson insisted she wasn’t a hero, just glad to help, Barnes and O’Connor disagreed.
When they learned that her son’s birthday was on Aug. 22, they arrived with a bag of presents to thank the family for saving the sergeant’s life.
“Some people turn the other way. Not everybody steps up if you're in trouble. Some people will turn their back,” O’Connor said.
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Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion.
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