Halifax woman blames slow ambulance response in death of husband

·3 min read

HALIFAX — A Halifax woman whose 79-year-old husband died in her arms last year just six minutes from a local hospital is speaking out after it took nearly 40 minutes for an ambulance to respond to her 911 call.

Anne MacPhee told reporters Wednesday that her husband, Kelly, a retired school principal, spent the last 30 minutes of his life "in terror" as he repeatedly asked "where are they" after he had a heart attack on Sept. 29.

MacPhee said she made three frantic calls to 911 during her husband's medical emergency before help finally arrived.

"We couldn't understand it," she said. "I kept telling them how bad things were getting. You're in total shock because you never think this could happen to you."

MacPhee said the ambulance that eventually responded came from Mahone Bay, N.S. — about 84 kilometres away, adding that she was told no ambulance was available in Halifax at that time.

"And the irony of it all — he (Kelly) always said it was so good for us to live in the city and be so close to health care, and then look what happened," she said.

MacPhee called the situation unacceptable and said the province has to do more to bolster the ambulance system. She said she felt compelled to speak out because she didn't want the same thing to happen to another family.

"We need something done," she said. "We can't be talking about the same thing five years down the road. It should be done now."

MacPhee held a news conference with NDP Leader Gary Burrill, who released figures indicating that 16 of the province's 38 hospitals take, on average, more than the 20-minute recommended time to offload patients who arrive by ambulance. This can mean ambulances aren't readily available to respond to urgent calls.

The data obtained through a freedom of information request showed that from April through December 2020, the average offload time at one of Nova Scotia's main trauma centres, the Halifax Infirmary, was 91 minutes — the longest in the province.

"Most regional hospitals are dealing with delays that are double or triple the recommended offload delay time," Burrill said.

He said the problem has been ongoing for years and it will take further solutions, such as emergency mental health teams and more long-term care homes, to ease pressure on hospital emergency rooms and paramedics.

Earlier this month, the government released a report on the province's ambulance system by U.S.-based Fitch and Associates that it received in October 2019. The study found that ambulances are spending too much time in non-productive, non-emergency activities.

Health Minister Zach Churchill told reporters Wednesday that 45 of the 64 recommendations accepted from the report have already been implemented.

Churchill said while the offload data does not suggest a "blanket increase" in wait times across the province, there are challenges that remain.

He said a number of solutions are being looked at, including the hiring of more paramedics. The minister noted that 21 new paramedics had been hired recently with another round of hiring anticipated for May or June.

Churchill also said that under a pilot project, the province's four health zones are each using a vehicle dedicated to transporting non-urgent patients in order to take pressure off paramedics. As well, the scope of practice has been expanded for paramedics in order to allow them to treat and release patients where appropriate.

The minister called what happened to the MacPhees "gut wrenching" and said an operational investigation and clinical review is being conducted.

"We are very committed to seeing further system improvements so our ambulatory system can save more lives when it's possible," Churchill said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press