When the stars align, good things can happen. On June 30, 2021, a mere 34 days ago, the stars were aligned for little Leo Vaulton, his father, Devin, and Daniel Rice, the District 6 constable for Union County. Truly, a great thing happened.
Five words sum it up: Daniel Rice saved Leo’s life. And in doing so he rescued a family from the agony of going forward in life knowing they lost a son.
In addition to his constable job, Rice is a senior firefighter and paramedic for the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD) at Station 7 in Lonsdale. He’s also the chief of the three-station Paulette Volunteer Fire Department that covers a sprawling part of rural Union County.
On this June day, Rice, 35, was doing constable duty when a 911 call came in around 11 a.m. “I monitor the calls and that day I was in my car when the call came in and when I heard the address, I knew I was only three minutes away, so I called dispatch and told them I was responding,” he explained.
The 911 call said a small child was choking and could not breathe.
When Rice entered the home the child’s father, Devin, was holding his son. “He told me he thought Leo was choking on a piece of popcorn,” Rice said. “I had my medical bag with me and used the stethoscope and he was not breathing. His lips were blue and when I picked him up, he was basically lifeless.” Leo’s mother, Hope, is a CNA and was working at Willow Ridge Center Nursing Home when this happened.
Rice’s paramedic training on how to deal with pediatric emergencies kicked in. “I picked him up, face down and his butt up. Then I moved him to my left hip and started doing back thrusts and back blows. Kinda like the Heimlich maneuver for young kids. The fifth time I hit his back a marble popped out of his mouth and rolled across the floor. In a minute or so he was good to go.”
And in true toddler form, once he was breathing and stable, little Leo did go – he ran across the room and grabbed the marble. “We had to move fast to pry it out of his little hand,” Rice said. “He was quick.” And he was OK – thanks to Rice.
After the fact, Rice thought about Leo’s name and noted that “LEO” in the first responder world is an acronym used by police officers, law enforcement industry professionals, first responders and others to signify their jobs or profession – Law Enforcement Officers.
Rice, born and reared in Union County, has two decades of work in emergency services under his belt. At the age of 15 he was an Explorer in the Boy Scouts and began working as an Explorer for the Paulette department. After a few years passed, he was working fires alongside his mother, a certified firefighter, and his younger brother, Derrick. He then spent three years on ambulances for Union County EMS (Emergency Medical Services).
He knows the dangers inherent in his career choice. In 2004 he was working an accident and was hit by a passing car. He spent eight days at UT Medical Center with two broken legs and a mild traumatic brain injury. He also was a reserve deputy and dispatcher for the Union County Sheriff’s Office before joining the KPD in 2018.
Back to those stars … they were aligned for the Vaultons. Rice was just three minutes from their home. Had he not been close and had a few more minutes passed, Leo may not have lived or could have suffered brain damage, Rice said. Being a paramedic, Rice knew exactly what he had to do. And he remained calm. “It’s like being a duck on a call like this. The duck looks calm gliding across the water, but under the water his feet are paddling as fast as they can.”
Rice loves his work – as a constable, at the Paulette and Knoxville fire departments. “I do love it so much. All of it. It may sound real trite or like a cliché, but I think this is what I was supposed to be doing with my life.”
Tom King writes Our Town Heroes each Monday. Suggest future stories at [email protected] or call 865-659-3562.