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B.C. man dies of heart attack while local ambulance not staffed due to illness

This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.

A stylized phrase reading 'SITUATION CRITICAL', made to read like a red heartbeat monitor.

The mayor of a small community in B.C.’s West Kootenay region is mourning the loss of his close friend, who died from a heart attack while the community’s ambulance was out of service due to someone being ill.

Nakusp Mayor Tom Zeleznik says his friend — whose name he didn’t identity for privacy reasons — passed away on Jan. 29 while on the way to the Arrow Lakes Hospital, just a few blocks away from the deceased man’s home in the community of approximately 1,700 residents, located about a 240 km drive east of Kelowna.

Zeleznik says his friend was in his late 60s.

Zeleznik says his friend’s wife and her neighbours called 911 for ambulance services, but were told that they had to wait because there was no ambulance in Nakusp at the moment. They were told the nearest one was in Castlegar, about 146 kilometres south of the community.

B.C. Emergency Health Services (B.C.E.H.S.) confirms the ambulance crew that normally services Nakusp was not operating that day due to someone being ill, and the community was instead being served by paramedics from Castlegar and Winlaw.

B.C.E.H.S. declined an interview with CBC but a spokesperson did provide a written statement indicating that at the time the initial call came in, a paramedic crew was immediately dispatched for what was described as a “low-acuity” or “non-lights-and-siren call.” 

They said 45 minutes later, the paramedics were informed the patient was being transported to hospital by the people who called 911, and the response was cancelled.

At that point, the ambulance was still up to an hour away from Nakusp, according to B.C.E.H.S., which also estimates the response time from Castelgar to that community would be 90 minutes or faster if it was deemed a “lights-and-siren” emergency.

The service said more specifics of the situation could not be provided due to patient privacy but that at no point was the caller instructed to transport the patient to hospital themselves.

Paramedic shortage

Zeleznik describes his friend’s death as a tragic incident for the family, as he believes he could have been saved if an ambulance were available to take him to hospital sooner.

Patients’ deaths following long wait times for ambulances have been a recurring issue across the Interior and other parts of the province over the past year.

Last August, a 84-year-old man in Ashcroft, B.C., died from a heart attack after waiting more than 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, even though the ambulance station is within sight of his home.

And a month before that, a woman who lived nearby in Ashcroft also died of a heart attack when the only on-call ambulance was also about half an hour away.

Zeleznik says he and the mayor of neighbouring New Denver, Leonard Casely, have been advocating for improved ambulance service for two years and they presented on the issue at last fall’s Union of B.C. Municipalities meetings. Among their requests is better communication with the public, such as posting notices when the local ambulance is unavailable.

Zeleznik says last November, B.C. Emergency Health Services expanded its services to Nakusp by providing permanent full-time paramedics to staff a 24/7 ambulance service but there are still shortcomings, with several positions still open.

B.C.E.H.S. says the community has eight regular full-time and two irregular part-time positions for Nakusp and they are in the process of hiring more people to fill the gaps.

They also said that they are able to partner with other first responders, such as RCMP and hospital staff, or to utilize air ambulance, in situations where ground crews aren’t available.

B.C.E.H.S. says its chief operating officer Neil Lilley met Zeleznik and Casley of New Denver on Feb. 9 to discuss long-term solutions to the long wait times for ambulance services in the two municipalities, and are set to hold a follow-up meeting in early March.

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