HOUSTON — Stranded outside in the rising waters of Hurricane Harvey, feverish and in great pain, 14-year-old Tyler Frank tried desperately to think of ways to get herself and her family to safety.
Calling 911 didn’t work. Begging for help on Facebook and Instagram failed, too.
“I was like — Siri’s smart enough! Let me ask her!” Tyler said.
And indeed Siri was smart enough. With one inquiry to the Apple personal assistant — “Siri, call the Coast Guard” — Tyler got her whole family rescued after two days out in the storm.
Sickle cell crisis
It happened in the nick of time. Tyler suffers from a genetic disorder called sickle cell anemia. When Harvey hit, she suffered a sickle cell crisis, as her stiff and oddly shaped red blood cells clogged up her blood vessels and prevented oxygen from reaching parts of her body.
The pain of a sickle cell crisis can be worse than the pain of childbirth, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Trauma or exposure to cold can trigger a crisis, according to Dr. Titilope Fasipe, Tyler’s hematologist at Texas Children’s Hospital. Tyler suffered both.
In the early morning hours of August 27, Tyler, her mother, and three brothers awoke to water in their home up to Tyler’s chest. Soon the water was nearly over her head.
Tyler’s oldest brother, Joseph, 18, carried her on his back to the roof. Her next oldest brother, Brayland, 16, carried their youngest brother, Jaquarus, 8, on his back.
Shivering in the cold, Tyler had only a towel to protect her. Then the towel got wet.
Connecting to the Coast Guard
That’s when she thought of asking Siri to connect her to the Coast Guard.
She gave the man on the other end of the line her family’s location, and explained that she was sick and scared for her life.
The man told Tyler she was a brave “guy.”
“I was like, ‘I’m a girl!’ And he was like, ‘oh, you’re one brave girl.’ And I was like, thank you!'” she said.
A Coast Guard helicopter arrived the following afternoon. Tyler’s mother, Tameko Frank, recorded the scene on Facebook Live.
One of the rescuers descended from the helicopter and spoke with her. She said he asked if anyone was sick.
By this time, Tyler had a 103 degree fever.
“I told him yes, I have a child with sickle cell and she’s very sick, and I need you all to take her,” Frank said.
She said the rescuer told her he was only taking elderly people, and he would come back for others.
“She was standing right there in front of him. And he turned around and got on the helicopter and left,” Frank said.
As she watched the helicopter take off, Tyler said she felt abandoned.
“Why did they leave when we really need them?” she said. “It made me cry.”
In a statement the Coast Guard told CNN; “Coast Guard first responders were faced with an overwhelming request for assistance due to Hurricane Harvey. On-scene rescue crews made determinations based upon emergent factors (i.e. immediate, life-threatening situations) and the conditions faced on the scene.”
Rescue by helicopter
Tyler, a straight-A ninth grader at Forest Brook High School, was undeterred.
She again called the Coast Guard number Siri had given her.
The next morning, a helicopter landed, and this time it took her to safety. Again, her mother posted it on Facebook Live.
Tyler was first seen by doctors in Pasadena, Texas, and then sent on to Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston. From there she went by ambulance to Texas Children’s Hospital, where Tyler has been treated since she was a baby.
Fasipe marvels at Tyler’s resilience. On top of withstanding two days in the rain and two helicopter trips while sick and feverish, the teen has been in and out of the hospital all her life. At age three, she had her spleen removed, and she’s had six blood transfusions, the first when she was just six months old.
“She’s got this great sense of humor — she just made us laugh,” Fasipe said. “It’s so impressive what she and her family dealt with. I don’t think most of us can even imagine.”
Her challenges haven’t ended.
Discharged from the hospital on Friday, she and her mother and four brothers — 15-year-old Brayveon wasn’t at home when the storm hit — are sharing one room at a Super 8 hotel off a Houston highway.
They have no place to live, and no clothes except what’s been donated to them.
“Our car is gone, our house is gone, everything’s gone,” Frank said. “We have to start over.”