As Anne MacPhee held her husband, Kelly, in her arms and watched him die last fall, both of them wondered why an ambulance didn't seem to be coming.
MacPhee remembers some of the last words her spouse spoke as they tried to make sense of the situation.
"He said, 'Anne, I'm dying. I know I'm dying,'" the Halifax woman recalled. "He said, 'Where are they, and what's taking them so long?'"
MacPhee couldn't answer the question on that day last September, and she can't answer it now. She shared her family's story with reporters Wednesday, hoping it might bring about change.
Shortly after waking up on the morning of Sept. 29, 2020, Kelly called to his wife, feeling ill. A call was placed to 911. When an ambulance didn't show up, 911 was called again and a third time after that. Kelly MacPhee died in his Halifax home — just three kilometres from the Halifax Infirmary — before an ambulance could arrive.
'You're in total shock'
An autopsy later showed he died from a heart attack. It took 34 minutes for paramedics to arrive at the scene. An ambulance had to be called from outside the city because none were available nearby.
"You're in total shock because you never think this could happen to you," said Anne MacPhee. "And the irony of it all [is] he always said it was so good for us to live in the city and be so close to health care."
MacPhee's story is not new. Rather, it's the latest public example of an overburdened system Nova Scotia's health minister said the government continues to work to improve.
The NDP released the results of a freedom of information request Wednesday that shows ambulance offload wait times continue to increase at many hospitals in the province, both urban and rural.
That information comes on the heels of the release of the Fitch report, a detailed examination of the challenges facing the provincial ambulance system.
'Dramatic' change needed: NDP
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said that report showed systemic problems that can only be addressed with systemic changes. They include better access to long-term care, so people aren't unnecessarily occupying acute-care beds, and better access to primary care, so people aren't treating emergency departments as walk-in clinics.
Burrill said the situation speaks to "the need for a system-wide level of dramatic investment and response."
Health Minister Zach Churchill expressed his sympathies to MacPhee and said his department remains committed to addressing offload wait times, as well as acting on the recommendations of the Fitch report.
To date, 45 of 64 recommendations are complete or in progress. Earlier this month, the minister issued a directive to the health authority to address offload issues.
2 investigations underway
On Wednesday, Churchill said work on that plan continues and he expects something soon to outline short-, medium- and long-term steps to address the issue.
"We're trying to move as quickly as possible," he told reporters at Province House. "We've asked the health authority to move as quickly as possible."
He pointed to other changes, such as expanding paramedics' scope of practice so they aren't always required to bring a patient to an emergency department and the creation of a four-vehicle patient transfer system for non-emergencies. The minister acknowledged the transfer program would need to be expanded following a pilot project.
Churchill said Emergency Medical Care opened two investigations into the case shortly after MacPhee's death — one that is looking at what caused the delay of an ambulance arriving, and another that is examining whether a more prompt response would have led to a different outcome.
'It has to stop'
Despite the "gut-wrenching" story of what happened to Kelly MacPhee, Churchill said the public should have confidence in the system.
"Of course there's going to be circumstantial challenges, as we've heard about recently. But we're very committed to making sure that the right things happen to get the right service to the patient for the right reason at the right time," he said.
For Anne MacPhee, that change can't come soon enough. Her family is private by nature, but she said she's gone public in hopes that no one else experiences what her family did.
"People are dying, as my husband did," she said, "and it has to stop."
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