‘Ambulances take too long’

Former firefighter says 30-minute response when wife had stroke

The provincial government will look into response times of B.C. Ambulance Services.

The provincial government will look into response times of B.C. Ambulance Services.

Bob McKee spent an agonizing half hour with his wife after she suffered a stroke, waiting for an ambulance to arrive at their house in Pitt Meadows.

Now the former firefighter is adding his voice to those calling out the provincial government for under-funding the B.C. Ambulance service.

McKee was a firefighter for 31 years and was trained to recognize the signs of stroke. His wife Vicki would not wake up on Jan. 12. She seemed confused, her speech was slurred, and her face was drooping. She was terminally ill with cancer, with blood clots in her arms and neck. He called 911.

After seven or eight minutes, firefighters from Pitt Meadows arrived on the scene, but they needed an ambulance to transport her to Ridge Meadows Hospital. One finally arrived after 30 to 32 minutes, said McKee.

He followed the paramedics to the local hospital in his vehicle and asked them about the long response time. They told him they had come from Delta.

“They were really good, very professional,” said McKee, “but they were the only car available on either side of the river.”

Vicki passed away last Wednesday. On Saturday, thinking about their experiences, her husband decided to speak up for better ambulance service. He believes the provincial government has cut it too much.

“I feel sorry for those people with no first-aid training, and having their loved one laying there,” he said.

They had another terrible experience in Vicki’s last days. The previous week, a CAT scan revealed a blood clot in her neck – a life-threatening condition. Her doctor told her to go to the emergency ward. They waited six and a half hours for treatment. McKee said his wife was in tears.

“She said, ‘I guess I’m not a priority.’”

Vicki was terminally ill, but McKee said the system is not performing as well as it should in life-and-death situations.

“Someone is going to die because our system is lacking in funds for emergency services.”

Bronwyn Barter, president of CUPE Local 873, which represents paramedics, said the union’s investigation found 22 new ambulances are needed in Greater Vancouver. Then service would be able to meet the national standard of 8:59 (nine minutes) response time for a Code 3 emergency call, the union contends.

“The bottom line is, we’re under-staffed, and under-resourced,” said Barter.

The union hears anecdotes like McKee’s, about slow response times, too often.

“And we’re hearing from our crews. They’re doing one call after another, and they’re hearing the frustration when they arrive at the patient’s side.”

The 22 cars would ideally be staffed for 24 hours by two paramedics each, said Barter. However, the union is asking government to at least consider single responder units, to get to emergencies quickly.

It is also promoting the idea of community paramedics, who offer limited medical services to lower-priority patients right in their homes, rather than transporting them to hospital emergency wards.

“So an ambulance can be used for true emergencies, when people need to get to the hospital,” Barter said.

She said such a system is being used in Ontario, and could offer huge savings to the health care system in B.C.

Maple Ridge-Mission MLA Marc Dalton was asked about the recent Pitt Meadows incident, and he put questions to the B.C. Ambulance Service.

“They are doing an investigation, and they do take it seriously,” he said. “They will look at this specific incident, to see what happened.”

The review will look for opportunities to improve service, and will be shared with the public, he said.

He denied that the B.C. Ambulance suffers from under-funding.

“We have a great ambulatory care service,” he said.

Dalton said the government has to take the recommendations of an employee group – the paramedics union – with a degree of skepticism. He said the union has a responsibility to advocate for its members, and in asking for 22 new ambulances the leadership is simply doing its job.