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UPDATE: Surrey residents report calling 911 for ambulances that didn’t arrive

One was an eight-year-old girl, another a 64-year-old woman with a blood clot after getting an AstraZeneca vaccine
Ambulance at Surrey Memorial Hospital. (File photo)

The disturbing story of a Surrey family who called 911 for an ambulance for an eight-year-old girl in medical distress last Friday but ended up having to drive her to hospital themselves is not an isolated case, the Now-Leader has learned.

Sadaf Khan said she has yet to receive an explanation why an ambulance didn’t come to take her daughter to hospital after they called 911 for help. She said Aira was in “severe pain” after she fell in the bathtub at about 4:20 p.m., June 18.

“She’s OK now,” Khan said. “She passed out, she was in severe pain, she was not able to talk.”

Khan said they waited about half an hour before calling again. On the second call, she said, she was told an ambulance wasn’t available and that they should bring her to the hospital themselves, which they did.

“It was really tough for us, for our whole family,” she said. “The ambulance never showed up.”

Shannon Miller, a spokeswoman for BC Emergency Health Services, said Thursday that the call was deemed “non-urgent,” as in “not serious or life threatening.”

“On June 18 at that time, we were experiencing a high call volume and did not have an ambulance immediately available as paramedics were responding to time-critical and potentially life-threatening medical emergency calls,” Miller said.

“A BCEHS Paramedic Specialist conducted an assessment over the phone, and assessed the patient was in stable condition. Following a consultation with the Paramedic Specialist the caller stated they would transport the patient to hospital themselves,” she added. “We know it can be incredibly stressful waiting for an ambulance during a medical emergency. We can assure BC residents paramedics continue to get to critical patients and prioritize our responses based on the medical priority dispatch system used around the world. This means patients with life-threatening symptoms including cardiac arrest and breathing difficulties receive the highest priority response.”

Miller said BCEHS is currently experiencing higher than usual call volumes, and not only in Surrey, which generates about 50,000 medical emergency calls each year. She said this amounts to an average of roughly 140 calls per day to 911 from people requesting an ambulance.

“This month, those numbers are averaging about 150 calls a day,” Miller told the Now-Leader. “In the first three weeks of June there has been 3,443 medical emergency calls, and of those calls 33 per cent of them were life-threatening, ‘Purple or Red’ in our clinical model of response.”

Bilal Cheema, a friend of the Khans, questions how often scenarios like the one the Khans experienced occur in Surrey.

“They called for an ambulance and they said it’s on its way. When someone calls for an ambulance and they say it’s on its way, it gives them so much comfort right, like OK, help’s on its way,” he remarked. But 30 minutes went by, he said. Thirty five, and no ambulance. “Eight year old child.”

“That’s not good enough, even under COVID circumstances,” Cheema said. “One of the things that separates us from a lot of places in the world is governance, right, and knowing that you can get help when you need it.”

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Meantime, Newton resident Marie Van Camp, 64, was walking down to the store at 64th Avenue and Scott Road, at about 2:30 p.m. on June 9 when suddenly she was in medical distress.

“I became very short of breath, I couldn’t breathe, I was blacking out. My husband was with me, he got me over onto the grass and I just collapsed onto the grass,” she told the Now-Leader.

When she came to, her husband was calling 911. A Surrey firetruck showed up 35 minutes later with a crew of three who checked her blood pressure, and got her on oxygen. She already knew she had a suspected blood clot – she’d been into a doctor about it.

“That morning I woke up with excruciating pain in the back of my leg,” she recalled. “The ambulance never did come.” Van Camp said one of the firefighters told her “I don’t think they’re coming” and suggested her husband Ray drive her to emergency. “You better drive her, and here’s what to do if she stops breathing en route – you call 911.”

“We said well we did that already, and we didn’t get an ambulance the first time so why would we get an ambulance the second time?”

Her son drove her to SMH emergency, where she spent 11 hours. Van Camp said she told the medical practitioners that she thinks she had a blood clot and that she’d had the AstraZeneca vaccine.

She said they found a clot and a doctor told her she was “very lucky.”

“I’m on blood thinners and will be for three months.”

Van Camp described a hospital in chaos.

“The nurses were saying to each other ‘What the hell is going on? This is nuts.’ The doctor said ‘We haven’t been this crazy busy since COVID started.’ The guy beside me, he’d been waiting to be seen for eight hours,” she said. “People were getting up and walking out, they were saying this is f-ing stupid, I’m not waiting. And I heard a doctor saying well it couldn’t be that bad, it can’t be that serious if they’re not willing to wait. I saw four or five people get up and walk out.”

She was instructed to call the thrombosis clinic at the Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre and tried four times to get through, with “no satisfaction.”

“Nobody ever called me back.” She eventually drove there. “I thought I’m not coming out until I’ve spoken to somebody. So, a huge runaround inside as well. Finally I did get an appointment.”

Van Camp said she wants to know why an ambulance did not show up. Was her ordeal scary?

“You bet.”

She said she only called 911 once before, for a medical emergency when she lived in Delta, and “they (an ambulance) were there within minutes.”

“Apparently there’s a shortage of drivers or attendants.”

The BCEHS has yet to provide an explanation for Van Camp’s case.

Miller confirmed Friday that BCEHS received a 911 call at 2:38 p.m. on June 9 for a patient experiencing shortness of breath in the 6400-block of 120th Street in Surrey.

“Based on the information from the caller the call was triaged in our dispatch centre as a Yellow call (requiring a non-lights-and sirens ambulance response),” she said. “An ambulance was dispatched and en route was diverted to respond to a more urgent, time-critical call. At 2:57 the fire department was notified of the call. A second ambulance was dispatched and also diverted to a higher acuity call.

“At 3:59 we received a call from the fire department to cancel the call and indicating the patient was being transported by family.”

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About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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