When Bolton, Ont. mother Sara Fuda called 911 to get help for her toddler who was suffering from a complex seizure triggered by a fever, she expected paramedics to be there in a matter of minutes.
The febrile seizure, which occurred on the night of Sept. 6, was the sixth one her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter had experienced since she was diagnosed with the condition just shy of her first birthday.
“She was playing, completely happy, no sign of illness whatsoever… Then I noticed her lips were a bit blue,” Fuda told CP24.com this week.
“Not even a minute later, she started seizing. Because this is her sixth one, I knew what to do. I ran upstairs. I grabbed her seizure medication. I called 911 right away.”
Fuda said that in the past, paramedics always arrived promptly, showing up to her home no later than eight minutes after placing the call.
But this time, Fuda said the dispatcher told her that there wasn’t anyone available to respond right away and that because her daughter was still breathing, the call was not high up on the priority list.
“Her face was turning a bit blue and that has never happened before,” Fuda said. “I was telling her and she kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry, there is no one in the area right now.’”
Fuda said while regular seizures typically only last for a minute or less, the duration of complex febrile seizures are much longer. She said her daughter has had seizures that lasted for as long as 25 minutes and doctors have warned that anything exceeding 30 minutes can lead to brain damage.
“She (the 911 operator) kept saying seizures are not a priority. I was shocked because every other seizure my kid has had, it has always been a priority. They have sent an ambulance within minutes,” Fuda said.
By the time the paramedics arrived, about 22 minutes after she first called 911, Fuda said her daughter had fortunately come out of the seizure.
“The paramedics came, I’m crying, I’m frazzled,” Fuda said.
She said when she asked why it took them so long to respond this time, they seemed confused.
“They were like, ‘What do you mean? We only got a call a few minutes ago.’ They said we were parked in the neighbourhood… She told me basically that they could have been here within five minutes.”
According to Fuda, the paramedics apologized and indicated that a new system was responsible for causing delays in their response times.
“They were so upset themselves because they said this is an ongoing problem,” Fuda said,
Fuda said the paramedics that responded to her home the night of her daughter’s seizure urged her to file a report to notify Peel paramedics about the delay.
She said she did fill out a contact form on the municipality’s website but did not receive a response.
“It is so scary to think this is an ongoing problem,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think that it could happen again.”
NEW DISPATCH SYSTEM LAUNCHED IN PEEL LAST YEAR
The province’s new Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS), which prioritizes life-threatening medical conditions over other calls, was implemented in Peel Region in December 2022.
Monica Misra-Lui, a spokesperson for the Region of Peel, said the system was launched in an effort to ensure that “paramedics are always available and ready to respond to patients who need emergency medical care right away.”
She noted that the Ministry of Health’s Ambulance Communications Officers use “detailed call-taking protocols within MPDS to determine the severity of someone’s illness or injury.”
“In this situation, paramedics responded one minute after they were notified by the Ministry of Health’s Central Ambulance Communications Centre. It took them six minutes to arrive at the patient’s home. This falls within our response time framework,” Misra-Lui said in an email to CP24.com.
“We do not have any information on what took place from the time the 911 call was placed to the time paramedics were dispatched.”
The province would not provide any details about the call in question but Hannah Jensen, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, said it would have been transferred to the region’s Central Ambulance Communications Centre (CACC).
She noted that the MPDS is an “international industry standard” that is used in 3,000 jurisdictions globally.
“CACC employees use a standard set of pre-set questions determined by MPDS based on their regularly peer-reviewed, evidence-based medical triage algorithm, to understand the severity of the patient’s medical condition to send the right resources to the right location, at the right time, ensuring urgent patients receive critical care,” Jensen said in an email to CP24.com.
“The closest EMS vehicle and staff will be dispatched to the location of the call based on the severity of the call determined by questions asked by the CACC operator.”
ELDERLY OAKVILLE WOMAN WAITS 4 HOURS FOR AMBULANCE
It is not clear what factors led to Fuda’s call not being immediately prioritized by 911 operators but the Bolton woman isn’t the only person to have been impacted by a longer wait for an ambulance.
In Halton Region, which also recently transitioned to the MPDS system, a 99-year-old woman waited four hours for an ambulance to arrive after suffering a fall in the middle of the night last month, her niece said.
In an interview with CTV News this week, Wendy Gunn said that her elderly aunt waited four hours for paramedics to arrive at her Oakville retirement home after she fell on the night of Oct. 19.
Gunn said her aunt, Mureil Pattee, was discovered on the floor by a nurse, who immediately phoned 911. She said Pattee spent hours lying face down on the ground, writhing in pain, while she waited for an ambulance to arrive.
“I really believed that she might die there and I didn’t want that to be the last few minutes that she had,” Gunn said.
Paramedics eventually arrived and transported Pattee to hospital, where she was diagnosed with a fractured vertebrae.
“We need to fix it. It can’t be like this,” Gunn said. “It is unreasonable amount of time for anybody to wait.”
In a statement to CP24.com, a spokesperson for Halton Region Paramedic Services said they have been in contact with the individual involved and are reviewing the situation with the Ministry of Health. The spokesperson added they could not provide any further information, citing privacy issues.
UNION RINGS ALARM OVER CODE RED SITUATIONS
Ambulance response times have made headlines in recent weeks after the chair of the union representing Toronto paramedics spoke out about near-daily “Code Red” events. The union said Code Reds are issued when there are no ambulances available for transport at a given time.
“It’s only a matter of time before somebody […] dies waiting on an ambulance,” Mike Merrimen, Chair at Toronto Civic Employees’ Union Local 416 paramedics’ unit, told CP24 last month.
Several Ontario municipalities say their paramedic services are under immense pressure, with worrying stretches of times during which no ambulances are available to respond to calls – but the province doesn’t track the problem. Ambulances are seen at a hospital in Toronto on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
In an email to CP24.com, a spokesperson for the Toronto Paramedic Service could not confirm how often these incidents are occurring as the service does not track data classified as Code Red.
“We do run into periods of time when ambulance availability is low,” Dineen Robinson, a spokesperson for Toronto paramedics, said in a statement emailed to CP24.com.
“During these busier periods, paramedics are diverted from lower priority calls to respond to higher priority calls. Higher priority calls will always be responded to first.”
Peter Shirer, vice chair of the Toronto Paramedic Services Unit, QBE Local 416, told CTV News on Tuesday that the situation shows no signs of improving.
“It is getting to be a daily occurrence that we are running down to zero ambulances available quite regularly,” Shirer said.
“The bottom line is we need to get more paramedics on the road.”
With files from CTV News’ Heather Wright