Last week, one of our own became a real-life hero. A lead transportation security officer with the Transportation Security Administration, Connie Labouff was just about to clock out when an incident at work caused her to jump into action and use her life-saving CPR training to keep a man from clocking out permanently. She shared her story in an effort to make everyone aware of how a few hours of your time could save a life.
PGN: Where are you from?
CL: I grew up right over the bridge in Haddon Township, N.J.
PGN: What was life like growing up in Haddon Township?
CL: Well, we lived in California until I was about 10, which is where my half-sister still lives. My full sister and I are very different so it was interesting. I think we balanced each other out. She’s more artsy, which I appreciate but can’t do. Well, I did some welding but that was it.
PGN: Welding as in pipes like in “Flash Dance” or sculptures?
CL: I got a welding certificate from the Burlington County Community College, which was for traditional welding, but I primarily did artistic welding, sculptures.
PGN: What was your favorite piece?
CL: I made a pregnant angel for Angela (I call her my angel) when she was pregnant with our oldest son. It’s a silhouette with angel wings in the back and a pregnant belly.
PGN: Any other hidden talents?
CL: Ha! My mom used to say that I dabbled in everything without committing to anything. I taught snowboarding in Breckenridge, Colo., for a couple of years, I worked at a gym for a while, you name it.
PGN: You’ve been all over the place!
CL: [Laughs] Yes, I was in West Point as well for two years until I tore my ACL and left the school. I decided to go to Colorado and hang out and got a job teaching snowboarding. After that, I spent a year in California with my half-sister and then came back to this area.
PGN: What was West Point like?
CL: It was intense, but I kind of like that. I loved the camaraderie and the competition and would have loved to have graduated from there, but my personality didn’t fit the military at that point. My uncle was killed in Iraq and it takes a very specific person to be able to compartmentalize their feelings in wartime. I couldn’t.
PGN: The best and craziest moments at West Point?
CL: The best moment was probably during our summer training. They had this really big rope you had to climb up and none of the girls could do it. There was this one really loud girl who kept bragging that she could do it. I was a recruited athlete and knew that I was pretty strong but I just kept quiet. She went up first and was getting close but then got winded and didn’t make it. I went after her and without a word made it all the way to the top. It was a perfect moment for my personality. I’m not a really showboat-y person; I’d rather let my actions speak for me. The craziest moment was probably the gas-chamber training. They put you in a little room with C4 tear gas and you have to take off your mask for like 10 seconds and you come out all drippy and teary.
PGN: You were there before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Was there much homophobia? Were people afraid of being outed?
CL: Not really. It didn’t feel like they were shark-dogging for it. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time but there were upper classmen who were gay and they didn’t bother to hide it very well. We were women who were all pretty athletic and strong both mentally and physically and we were more concerned about the competition and getting things done.
PGN: You must have been proud of the two female rangers who just made it through the training.
CL: Oh yeah, they were West Point grads too, which was cool. Most men can’t get through the cycle so it was pretty awesome.
PGN: You said it was physically and mentally challenging. What were the mental challenges?
CL: Things like, during freshman year, you can talk in your living space and in your academic buildings but you’re not allowed to talk outside of those two areas … at all. You have to walk with your hands balled at all times unless you’re in an academic building and greet every single upperclassman you pass with a good morning (or afternoon), sir! Things like that. I was blessed that, since I was recruited as an athlete, I got to get away from some of the academic stuff, but for a lot of people it’s really difficult. Most of us were used to being the best but at West Point they only recruit the best, so you go from being special to one of many at the same level, whether athletically or intellectually. Everybody is a top dog and the classes are extremely hard and people find themselves getting bad grades for the first time in their lives.
PGN: I didn’t know they recruited athletes.
CL: Yes, all the academies — West Point, Annapolis, Coast Guard and Navy academies — are all Division 1 schools, so they all have sports teams and departments. I was recruited for track and field. I threw javelin in high school and was second in the state my junior year. I played soccer as well.
PGN: I guess javelin could be useful on the battlefield. By the way, what do the folks do?
CL: My dad is a loan rep and my mom is an assistant principal at Seneca High School.
PGN: Was she your assistant principal?
CL: No, I went to Haddon Township High School, but we have history there. My mother went to Haddon, I went there and now my two boys are in Haddon Township schools. It’s kind of cool.
PGN: What brought you to Philly?
CL: My grandparents were getting older. My pop-pop is … was — he just passed away a year ago … he was 100-percent Italian and my nana was 100-percent Russian. Family is really important to us and we would do a family dinner every other week. They’d send me pictures of everyone together with an empty spot for me and I thought, Man, I want to be there. They were getting older and I didn’t want to miss anymore time with them.
PGN: When did you meet your partner?
CL: Angela Carol, I met her a year after I got back. I was working at a skate shop and a friend of hers was into skateboarding. I saw them out one time and we met. It was near the Fourth of July, which is fun because now every Fourth, I’m like, “Aww, remember when we met?”
PGN: And now you’re back in Jersey.
CL: Yes, we were living in the city but when we had kids we needed more space, so I figured we might as well go back to a place I was familiar with. We have two sons, Gavin who’s 6 and Logan who’s 4.
PGN: What’s something funny that one of them did recently?
CL: Um, we were at my parents’ house swimming in their pool and complaining about the mosquitoes. Gavin said, “Not getting mosquito bites, yay! Getting mosquito bites, whomp, whomp, whomp, wah … ” He does a lot of crazy sound effects that make us laugh.
PGN: Something surprising about being a parent?
CL: People always say that it takes a lot to become a parent, but I think you don’t realize how much that means until you’re there. To be needed all the time, 24/7. You’re always on.
PGN: How did you end up with the TSA?
CL: I have a security background and I started working as a bouncer at an after-hours club for extra money, but once we had Gavin I needed to find something more stable with benefits and health care where I wouldn’t be out all night. I heard about this job and took it.
PGN: What are some of the interesting things you had to learn for the job?
CL: The ever-changing policies and equipment. We constantly are doing updated trainings and taking courses to keep up because the threat that we’re facing is ever-changing as well. The agency is also changing from being very reactive to proactive.
PGN: So most of us wonder things like, so why can I take 3 ounces but not 4 ounces on a plane?
CL: Well, it’s interesting for us because we get all the back stories that the public doesn’t see. When someone argues, “It’s just a bottle of water!” we can’t respond, “Well you say so, but it might not be.” Part of our job is our customer service and being polite, but we have the research on things like, maybe you’re limited to 3.4 ounces because that’s the most you can take and not bring down a plane. We’re just trying to get people safely to where they want to go. But we understand that people get frustrated. People will say, “Come on! Do I look like a terrorist?” but we can’t profile. Again, when you’ve done your research, you know about things like the two women in the ’90s that took down a plane. I think being gay, I can empathize with people who may get stereotyped. If I were Muslim-American and felt that I was always having the focus on me, I think I’d feel some kind of way about that. As a gay person, I know what it’s like to be judged so I think I’m more sympathetic.
PGN: What are some of the silly aspects of the job? Ever pat someone down who’s really ticklish?
CL: [Laughs] Yeah, it happens all the time, actually! It’s funny, passengers will remember me and say, “Hey there, this is my third pat-down from you!”
PGN: You don’t ask them to buy you flowers first?
CL: Oh yeah, we get all those comments too. I’m at a really busy checkpoint, so I don’t remember them. We see about 6,000 people in eight hours. Multiply that by five days a week and it’s a lot of people.
PGN: What are your responsibilities?
CL: I run the everyday workings at the checkpoints. We have security officers to run the body scanners, the X-rays and the metal detectors, and we rotate them regularly and I coordinate that. If there’s a problem or if a passenger is getting irate, I’m the one they call to try to mitigate the situation.
PGN: So what happened the day of the incident?
CL: I had 10 minutes left in my shift and was standing with some of my people when we heard a loud thud. I heard people call for a supervisor and though I’m not a supervisor, I usually go to those calls. It’s in my blood to be the one to jump in. My partner keeps telling me, “I know you have a good heart, but if there’s a burning building, I hope you’ll take a minute to think, Hmmm, I have kids and a partner at home, maybe I should let someone else handle this.” So anyway, I ran to the front of the checkpoint and there was a gentleman laying on the ground. Another officer was there and we both started checking for a pulse and we couldn’t find one. He started yelling, “Is anyone certified in CPR?” and I was saying, “Ed, I’m right here!” And I just went right into train mode. I remember doing “look, listen, feel” to see if he was breathing. I remembered that it’s really bad to do chest compressions if he was breathing so I checked it twice but he wasn’t, at all. So I started doing compressions. Out of nowhere another officer of mine appeared and jumped in to help. I told her, “Do the breaths, you have to do the breaths! Thirty and two, 30 and two!” [the compression-to-ventilation ratio]. We were both just in the zone. [Laughs] She was shouting, “Let me get some more breaths in!” and I was yelling back, “The chest compressions are more importaaant!” Then I yelled to the people standing around for someone to get the defibrillator and we got it open and on and shocked him and then listened for a heartbeat. Nothing, so I did 30 more chest compressions, she did two more breaths, a couple of more pumps and then his legs started moving and he came back.
PGN: Wow! What had happened?
CL: He’d had a massive heart attack and fell straight back and hit his head on the ground. That was the big thud we’d heard, his head hitting the ground like a bowling ball.
CL: Yeah, his wife kept thanking us. I got CPR training because of my work coaching soccer, and I just keep thinking, Wow, without that, he could be dead. It’s crazy to think that, with that two-hour training, I was able to save a person’s life. The people who were standing around and saw it happen were all saying they now want to get trained.
PGN: Quite a story. I forgot to ask, what’s your coming-out story?
CL: It was fairly difficult. Since I was always on the move, my parents didn’t really know until I moved back here and Angela and I started dating. At first it was a “This is my friend … ” type of situation but when we moved in and started talking about having kids, I had to sit my parents down and tell them. They’re evangelical Free Christians so it made it a little difficult. My dad didn’t talk to me for a good year. I knew that there was going to be drama, but I was like, This is who I’m going to be with and we’re going to have a family so get on board or I’m going to choose my family. We went to Christian counseling and they came around. They’re now exceptionally good grandparents.
PGN: How did the counseling go?
CL: Surprising! I thought it was going to be like something from “But I’m a Cheerleader,” some kind of intervention, but it was the opposite. The counselor was very supportive and really helped out.
PGN: That’s great. So, you’re a big Eagles fan. What position would you want to play?
CL: I think I’d want to be a tight end, they get to do a little bit of everything. They’re very versatile.
PGN: How long have you been coaching?
CL: I’ve been coaching varsity women’s soccer at the Friends School for four years.
PGN: Ever have any problems as an openly gay coach?
CL: No, not here. Bullying is not tolerated. It’s very open. In fact, we have several trans kids here.
PGN: Let’s talk about your tattoos. Why two guns and a heart?
CL: Oh, part of the reason I went into the military was because I was feeling desensitized towards human life. The tattoo represents fragility, how two muscle pulls could wipe somebody off of the face of the earth. My moral heart is not OK with that.
PGN: What did you take away from the life-saving experience?
CL: With social media and everyone on their phones, it’s so easy to get numb to life. Recently, there was a teenage girl at the airport crying her eyes out. No one was paying attention to her; everyone was like, “Oh, I’m sure she’ll be all right.” But I had to go over and see what was going on. She was just overwhelmed and was afraid she was going to miss her flight. We’re so insular these days, we don’t see people. I don’t ever want to get to the point — no matter what job I’m in — that I lose compassion for others.