DC fire chief Adrian Thompson called the case of David Rosenbaum “an aberration.” Rosenbaum was the retired New York Times journalist who, attacked and severely beaten near his home, died after emergency medical personnel mistakenly assumed he was drunk and failed to provide appropriate care. But for many with inside knowledge of DC’s emergency medical service, the only aberration in Rosenbaum’s needless death was that the District’s inadequate emergency care had come to light.
“The incident with Mr. Rosenbaum came as no surprise to many of us,” says paramedic Kenneth Lyons, a 23-year veteran. “We’ve seen incidents like this all the time, and we continue to see them because we are a dysfunctional agency.”
DC’s emergency medical system (EMS) is dysfunctional, insiders say, because for decades it has been underfunded and its personnel often undertrained. EMS crews are sent to medical emergencies with old equipment, outdated medical protocols, and shortages of supplies, from oxygen to IV needles. They have to make do without vital anti-seizure and pain medications that EMS agencies elsewhere use.
Members of the civilian EMS also say they’re underpaid and disrespected by the fire-department officials under whom they work. EMS training is inconsistent and often unreliable—some EMS personnel can’t read blood pressure accurately, read an electrocardiogram, or make informed medical judgments at the scene of an emergency.
A quick survey shows that the Rosenbaum case was far from unique:
• In February 2006, a month after Rosenbaum’s death, Monica Yin, 54, fell on the ice in front of her Northwest DC home and struck her head. She bled profusely. Her housemate called 911. When a fire truck with firefighter emergency medical technicians (EMTs) arrived, they asked if Yin had been drinking. They were told no. A firefighter asked Yin her name. When Yin didn’t answer, the firefighter told her, “I’m going to tell them at the hospital that you are uncooperative, so when you die it will not be my fault.” Eventually Yin was transported to George Washington University Medical Center, where she had stitches to close her head laceration.
That was Yin’s second encounter with District EMTs. In 2002, she had become disoriented and sick to her stomach at home. Witnesses say the emergency crew treated Yin disrespectfully; at one point a firefighter shook Yin and said he thought she was “faking it.” At no time, the witnesses said, did the EMTs take Yin’s vital signs. Friends finally drove her to GW hospital, where a CT scan revealed a leaking brain aneurysm. She had emergency surgery and remained in the ICU for three days, then in the stroke unit another eight.
• In March 2006, two months after David Rosenbaum’s death, Cassandra Bailey of Northeast DC died after District Fire and Emergency Medical Services (FEMS) responders took 90 minutes to come to her aid. Bailey’s blood pressure had dropped sharply after treatment at a dialysis center. Staff at the center made repeated 911 calls and got repeated assurances from dispatchers that help was on the way—which kept people at the center from driving Bailey to the hospital. She died at the hospital that evening. She was 38.
• Last April 2, a DC fire company was dispatched to aid a man having a seizure at 10 G Street, Northeast, but it went to the wrong location. Finally arriving at the scene, the crew found 35-year-old Jeremy Miller on the ground in front of an office building with a security guard performing CPR on him. Miller arrived at the Howard University Hospital emergency room 34 minutes after the 911 call and was pronounced dead.
• On the night of December 2, 39-year-old Edward Givens was lying on his living-room floor in Northeast DC experiencing chest pain and difficulty breathing. He yelled for family members to call 911. Three DC firefighter EMTs arrived a little before midnight, checked Givens’s vital signs, and administered an electrocardiogram; they said the reading was normal. Givens told firefighters he’d eaten a hamburger earlier.