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Paramedics Mistakenly Thought Va. Woman Dead

By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page B01

Cegurna L. Thomas listed her ailments yesterday as if she were reciting a grocery list.

"Diabetes, hernias, congestive heart failure, asthma, all sorts of lung issues," she said, counting on her fingers in the living room of her Alexandria rowhouse. Often tethered to an oxygen tank, her speech was labored, with long pauses between the words. "I'm pretty sick," said Thomas, who uses a wheelchair.

"Everyone thought I was dead," Cegurna L. Thomas of Alexandria says after paramedics could not detect a pulse. "It's happened before where I quit breathing, and people think I've gone." (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

But despite her poor health, Thomas, 56, is not dead.

Two city paramedics thought she was, however, when they were unable to find a pulse after they were called to her home Feb. 4. They drove away 11 minutes after arriving at 9:48 a.m., leaving Thomas with three police officers who stayed to process the scene.

But then a police officer noticed one of Thomas's eyelids move. And another officer heard strained breathing. The paramedics were summoned back to the home on Oronoco Street. Thomas was taken to Inova Alexandria Hospital, where she remained hooked to intravenous fluids for four days.

An internal fire department investigation into the incident, reported Thursday on WUSA (Channel 9), was conducted, and "the appropriate actions are being taken in response to the findings," department spokeswoman Jane Malik said. She declined to identify the paramedics or to elaborate further, citing employee confidentiality and personnel laws.

John Vollmer, president of fire union Local 2141, said the paramedics were disciplined -- one was terminated and the other one was suspended for 24 hours. The dismissed medic had an administrative hearing yesterday, he said, and "she is fighting for her job back."

"It was unfortunate what happened. Something like that has never happened before," Vollmer said in a telephone interview. "I don't know that it warranted that kind of discipline, and only for one of them."

Vollmer said the union has hired an attorney for the fired paramedic, a 16-year member of the department. He said the city has seven days to review her arguments.

Thomas, who lives not far from City Hall in Old Town Alexandria, said yesterday that she does not want the paramedic to lose her job.

"Everyone thought I was dead," she said, laughing. "It's happened before where I quit breathing, and people think I've gone."

Thomas said she remembers nothing about the morning it happened. She said that she fell asleep the night before and that when she awoke, she was in a hospital attached to tubes.

Charlene Kyer, a social worker who tends to Thomas daily, said she arrived at the house about 9:45 a.m.

She went into Thomas's bedroom, a small space decorated with family photographs and artificial flowers, and called out her name.

"I thought she was dead myself. I looked at her, and she didn't look right," Kyer said yesterday. "She wasn't moving and she didn't respond to me. I tried, but I didn't feel a pulse."

Andre Lewis, a retired D.C. police officer, said he is "shocked and appalled" at what happened to his sister. The paramedics should not have left Thomas alone, he said.

"I'm glad that somebody was there to help her, but it's a real shame that they weren't doing their job and didn't know she was alive," Lewis said in a telephone interview. "It was outrageous behavior, but I just thank the Lord that she's alive to tell the story."

Six weeks after the incident, Thomas said she doesn't mind repeating the story. The details "nourish" her and keep her "encouraged about life," said Thomas, wearing a T-shirt with the words "St. John Baptist Church Youth Ministry" on it. Thomas said she holds no hard feelings against the paramedics.

"They call me the Holy Woman around here," she said, adding that she reads parts of the Bible twice a day. "I have a lot of faith that God wasn't ready for me yet. My work here wasn't done. When He's ready for me, believe me, He'll let me know."

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