People die, people suffer, because of the District's sporadic and unreliable ambulance service. The latest victim was Sheila Langevin, who died Oct. 8 after paramedics took 40 minutes to respond to her call for emergency aid.
I was saddened by Sheila Langevin's death. But I was not surprised, because I have had the questionable privilege of comparing the District's pathetically faulty emergency system with a superb one close at hand.
In 1983 my husband had a heart attack while we were living in Bethesda. After phoning 911, I called our family doctor. I was still on the phone with him when the Bethesda-Chevy Chase paramedics arrived.
Within moments our bedroom looked like an emergency room -- oxygen tank, discarded syringes from injections, etc. In other words, the paramedics provided complete emergency care. And as soon as they were sure my husband's condition had stabilized, they took him to the hospital.
The following year, though, we moved to the District, a move that almost proved fatal to my husband when his heart went into arrhythmia. Once again I called 911 and explained the emergency. I asked the operator to call the Bethesda-Chevy Chase rescue squad. She said she couldn't do that but that she would dispatch a D.C. squad.
I, however, knew the BCC paramedics would come into the District if they could maintain an appropriate response time, so I found the number and called myself. I then called our doctor, who said he would meet us in the emergency room.
The Bethesda team arrived in minutes. The paramedics did some elementary first aid, but then they just seemed to be waiting. Finally members of the D.C. team arrived, but they did little more than what had already been done. I rode with them as they took my husband to the hospital. The hospital radioed the ambulance with questions about my husband's condition and ordered that he be given an injection of lidocaine. It was never given.
When we reached the hospital, my husband was in such critical condition that a nurse advised me to start calling the family. And emergency room doctors also chastised me for waiting so long to get my husband to the hospital. I had lost track of time, but my family doctor later told me that he had been waiting for us at the hospital for almost an hour.
Several months later, I had yet another encounter with the rescue squads. This time I skipped calling 911 and called Bethesda direct. Again Bethesda paramedics waited for the D.C. squad. But this time, when we finally got into the medic unit, there was a further delay -- the driver couldn't find the key. I was furious.
Later, I wrote a letter to the BCC squad concerning its emergency-response policy. The fire department's deputy chief replied:
"The original demand of the D.C. Fire Department, which this department fought so vigorously, was that the BCC Rescue squad no longer respond to calls in the District of Columbia unless requested to do so by the D.C. Fire Department.
"Under the agreement reached in 1983, the BCC rescue squad still responds to calls for assistance received from citizens in the District of Columbia. The fire department is notified each time we respond but does not duplicate our ambulance response." (This I found not to be true in practice.)
"However, we are still prohibited from sending our mobile intensive care units into the city unless requested to do so by the D.C. Fire Department, and therefore, wherever possible, the D.C. Fire Department supplements our response to critical care calls with its own mobile intensive care unit.
"Of all the options that were available to us during negotiations with the D.C. government this one seemed to be in the patients' best interests.
"This arrangement may account for the appearance of our crew waiting for the D.C. medic unit."
The deputy chief's response was written in 1984, but I recently checked on the emergency-response policy of the BCC squad regarding the District and was told that it had not changed.
No doubt the D.C. Fire Department has many intelligent and devoted workers. But the District's emergency system as it now operates places every person who lives, works, walks or rides inside the District in medical jeopardy.
With screams about budgetary and personnel problems, it is hard to understand why the District would object to assistance from the BCC squad. Such assistance would only free precious D.C. vehicles to make a better response to others in need in the city.
Meanwhile, all D.C. residents, shoppers, students, tourists and workers should remember that if they need help, they should get someone to drag them across the District line. -- Maria K. Kavanagh