St. Charles Herald-Guide

Long ambulance delays are rare, hospital CEO says

By Kyle Barnett - November 27, 2013

After a hit and run accident earlier this month resulted in a Des Allemands woman laying in the roadway on Old Spanish Trail for nearly an hour waiting for an ambulance, questions have been raised about how such a delay in medical service could occur.

The victim, Mericka Hill, a 25-year-old mother who pushed her children out of the way before being hit by an oncoming truck that drove off, said the wait seemed like an eternity. Although a Des Allemands EMT arrived on the scene moments after the accident and waited with Hill throughout the ordeal, there was a long delay in ambulance response. “They kept saying they were 8 minutes away and it felt like hours, me just waiting there bleeding and everything,” Hill said.

Hill was eventually transferred to Louisiana State University Hospital in New Orleans where she underwent emergency surgery hours later to stop internal bleeding. “Everybody in my neighborhood was mad because it took so long getting me off the road,” Hill said.

At the time of Hill’s accident, the two ambulances St. Charles Parish Hospital has on duty at any given time were busy with other incidents. One ambulance was working a multi-car accident with numerous injuries and the other was doing a long-range transport.

In cases where local ambulances are not available to transport those in need within St. Charles Parish, outside ambulance services are called in.

Since both of St. Charles Parish Hospital’s ambulances were tied up at the time, a private ambulance owned by Acadian Ambulance was called in from Raceland but had to turn back due to mechanical problems. Another private ambulance was called in from Gretna and arrived 55 minutes after the initial 911 call, according to 911 Communications Center records.

Fred Martinez, St. Charles Parish Hospital CEO, said that the hospital receives an average of 434 calls a month for ambulances. Out of those calls, there are around 24 instances where it takes an ambulance more than 20 minutes to respond.

Martinez added that the ambulance service averages 9 and a half minutes to arrive at the scene of a call.

If it takes more than 20 minutes for an ambulance to respond, Martinez said the hospital does a review of the case to see what factors resulted in the delay.

“We analyze them to figure out why they went over that much time, so we do track that,” he said.

Sheriff Greg Champagne said delays in ambulance service need further review as a whole.

“I’m not criticizing, I’m just saying the issue needs to be looked at because it is happening more often and Acadian, being in an adjoining parish, is going to be a 30-minute response time if we are lucky,” he said.

Hill’s mother, Connie Hill, said the incident revealed the inadequacies of the current ambulance service. She vowed to go to the St. Charles Parish Council to request something be done.

“This is unfair in the fact that this is our parish of better than 50,000 people and we have one ambulance for the East Bank and one for the West Bank,” she said. “That is totally unacceptable.”

Quinn Landry, St. Charles Parish Hospital spokesman, said the hospital is already overcompensating by having two ambulances on duty at all times.

“We keep an ambulance on both the East Bank and West Bank to ensure quick response times on both sides of the river. The national standard calls for one ambulance per 40,000 people,” he said.

Landry said officials took a close look at what went wrong in Hill’s case and feel they did what they could to the best of their ability.

“We have reviewed the incident and everything went along with our dispatch protocols with the exception of the mutual aid provider’s ambulance breaking down while responding to the call,” he said.

While delays do occur a small percentage of the time, Landry said the hospital has a plan in place in the event an ambulance is tied up with a long-distance transport, such as on the night of Hill’s incident.

“For long-distance transfers, every opportunity is utilized to put up a third ambulance,” Landry said. “A majority of the crew members live in the parish and are available if the need arises. As health care professionals, our priority is our patients.”

According to Landry, to run a third ambulance at all times would cost the hospital an additional $310,000 per year. There are also questions as to whether a third ambulance is actually needed.

Landry said St. Charles Parish Hospital’s ambulance service already has a lower than average response time for rural hospitals, averaging 9 and half minutes per call in comparison to a nationwide average of 11.33 minutes and a statewide average of 12.53 minutes.

Despite the numbers provided by the hospital, a former St. Charles Parish Hospital employee, who worked for the ambulance service and asked to remain anonymous, said many calls were delayed during their employment.

“People put their lives behind this. I’ve been on several where I am not saying they would have lived, I’m not God, but I can tell you that early care and quick transport is a major factor in saving someone’s life,” the person said.

In the case of another ambulance service such as Acadian being called in, the former employee said a problem is the added cost to patients who have to use outside services.

 “I am paying a tax every month or whatever to have an ambulance service out here then I don’t get that ambulance service,” the anonymous source said. “I get another ambulance service that I get a whopping bill for, so I am paying twice for an ambulance service.

“I don’t think it is fair and I don’t think it is right.”  

Long ambulance delays are rare, hospital CEO says