NC 911 operator dies from COVID day before his son’s birthday


Joey Thompson, a 911 operator in Randolph County, North Carolina, died on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, after a weeks-long battle with COVID-19, his family said.

Screengrab from Randolph County Emergency Services’ Facebook page

A 911 dispatcher in North Carolina known for his deep voice and calming presence on the other end of the receiver died of complications from COVID-19 after several weeks in the hospital, his family and coworkers said.

Joey Thompson died on Monday, Jan. 24 — one day after his birthday and the day before his son’s.

The love he had for his son was “beyond measure,” according to Randolph County Emergency Services, where Thompson worked since 2013. His girlfriend, Lynn Smith, said his son was “the most important thing in this world to Joey.” She had asked friends and family to send birthday cards while Thompson was in the hospital — not to him, but to his son.

Thompson never made it to the celebration.

Randolph County Emergency Services confirmed Thompson’s death in a Facebook post at 6 p.m. Eastern time on Jan. 25, saying his “unique deep voice, wonderful sense of humor and thoughtfulness will be greatly missed.”

“In addition to being an awesome 9-1-1 Telecommunicator, Joey never met a stranger and has hundreds, if not thousands, of friends to prove it,” Emergency Services said. “His love for his son is beyond measure. His love for his family, friends and community was unwavering. We are grateful he is no longer suffering, and in knowing that he’s in a much better place.”

The Randolph County Sheriff’s Office said they’d miss his “calm voice on the other end of the radio.”

Kimberly Smith, a colleague who worked at the 911 call center with Thompson, shared a memory of him on his birthday as he was battling the virus in the hospital. She said he was the dispatcher on a call in which a person committed suicide, the details of which he relayed to her with a voice that she described as “strong but broken.”

“I share this story because here’s what Joey said when I tried to comfort him: ‘I’d rather take that call 100 times before any of y’all have to,’ and he meant that,” Kimberly Smith said in a Facebook post. “I wish y’all could have seen seen the loving look in his eyes. He is the epitome of a leader and sacrifice.. he truly has a huge heart for others.”

‘Fight so hard for his life’

Thompson’s girlfriend told WFMY he started feeling sick around Christmas and was admitted to the hospital with difficulty breathing about a week later. He was placed on life support, which she said he tolerated well until he had a heart attack and had to be put on maximum ventilator support. That was less than two weeks ago.

“There are days my heart literally hurt(s) and I find myself unable to breathe watching my best friend and the love of my life fight so hard for his life,” Lynn Smith said in a Jan. 12 Facebook post.

Thompson’s mother, Belinda Culler, said things had “not gone well” since he got sick with COVID-19.

“Things are very serious,” Culler said in a Jan. 15 Facebook post. “The outpouring of love, support and prayers is so much appreciated. It makes us proud that you all see the great person we see. Please keep the prayers coming. He has a long way to go.”

Thompson’s birthday was Jan. 23, and he died the following day. His son Caleb turned 9 on Jan. 25.

Lynn Smith told WFMY Thompson had been reluctant to get a COVID-19 vaccine — a decision he later regretted. She urged others not to make the same mistake, saying he rationalized that he was young, healthy and active and didn’t need it.

“There is one thing I can tell you with certainty,” Lynn Smith said in a Facebook post. “Joey would not want anyone else to go through what he is.”

Culler said she argued with her son about getting vaccinated but she couldn’t persuade him.

“I told him if he got COVID he would change his mind,” she said on Facebook. “Please, think hard if you are against them. Do it for your loved ones. Better to get a couple of shots in your arm than to be where Joey is right now. This COVID does not care who you voted for, what your health or age is, what you do for a living or who you might leave behind if you (lose) your battle with it. It just wants victims.”

As Lynn Smith told WFMY, “This virus shows no mercy.”

A friend and hunting partner said on Facebook that Thompson’s struggle prompted him to get more information about COVID-19 vaccines.

“He was healthy and so strong,” Craig Acheson said of Thompson. “He put me in a jujitsu move once that would cripple you instantaneously. When you start to see your friends in their 40’s and 50’s dying (3 now), you have to think. How can I avoid this? Even if it’s just little better odds??”

After talking to experts in the medical field, he said he chose to get vaccinated.

“It’s not politics, it’s not reading the news, I’m a strong conservative constitutionalist,” Acheson said. “This isn’t about constitutional rights. I was convinced by asking nurses and our anesthesia doctors at a University Hospital. They have no agenda but to save lives. They see this EVERYDAY.”

At least 20,440 people have died in North Carolina from COVID-19 since March 2020, according to state health department data. About 70% of adults and 60% of the total population in the state are fully vaccinated.

Hayley Fowler is a reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking and real-time news across North and South Carolina. She has a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and previously worked as a legal reporter in New York City before joining the Observer in 2019.

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