A Northwest Washington doctor witnessed firsthand the District's frustration with ambulance response time yesterday morning when he watched someone convulse, stop breathing and bleed before an ambulance arrived about 30 minutes after he called.
Larry Siegel summoned 911 when a handyman working at his home in the 2100 block of Wyoming Avenue NW suffered a grand mal seizure, then stopped breathing shortly after 9 a.m., he said.
"We needed an ambulance right away, the man was very combative, he was bleeding and hitting his head against the cement," said Siegel, former medical director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic.
City officials said it was 23 minutes from the time they logged the first call from the upscale Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood until an ambulance arrived.
"This is still unacceptable," said Erik Christian, deputy mayor in charge of public safety.
But Siegel said the ordeal lasted longer than the recorded 23 minutes, after several calls to 911 rolled over to an automated answering system that put the caller on hold.
"You need a human voice when you call and even if it took 30 minutes, that's too long in a situation like this," said Siegel, who hired the man, an AIDS patient, after meeting him at the clinic. "We could've lost this man's life waiting for help."
The patient, a 35-year-old man whose name was not released, was treated at George Washington University Hospital and was later released, Siegel said.
A fire engine arrived at Siegel's home six minutes after being dispatched, said interim D.C. Fire Chief Thomas Tippett, who characterized that response time as very good.
But Siegel said none of the personnel on the fire engine was qualified to treat the patient.
Under a pilot program being tried in several fire districts, a paramedic arrives with the first unit to respond. That would have been the ideal scenario for yesterday's emergency, Christian said.
The pilot program is among the short- and long-term solutions Christian is proposing for the District's often-criticized emergency response teams.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said he was appalled when he heard about the incident and said it proves that the emergency medical services system needs fixing across the District. "It's not a unique problem," he said. "The fact that this happened in Sheridan-Kalorama should indicate this is an equal-opportunity problem."
Siegel said he was stunned by the way the call to 911 unfolded.
"This is my first experience with calling an ambulance and I have to say, I might as well have been in a Third World country on a back road," he said. "As a physician, as a [former] medical director in charge of 2,000 patients at Whitman-Walker and as a citizen, I am appalled."
CAPTION: D.C. Council member Jim Graham says the system needs to be fixed.