MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — When you call 911, you expect help to arrive quickly, but two families tell Channel 9 that MEDIC never showed up after they called for help.
“That’s just unacceptable. It’s truly unacceptable,” Kim Bradley told Channel 9.
“We don’t want people to have to wait for an ambulance,” said Mecklenburg EMS Executive Director John Peterson.
Channel 9′s Gina Esposito is investigating MEDIC’s response times in two different cases, as well as the impact of those responses on Mecklenburg County families. Here’s what she found.
‘They weren’t here for us’
The first case involves a 4-year-old girl named Lea. Her mother, Teresa Ordonez, said she needed medical help on April 14.
“I see her face twitching, her right side was twitching,” Ordonez said. “Then her arm was twitching.”
For the first time in her life, Ordonez said she called 911 for help. Channel 9 obtained that call and in the recording, you can hear Ordonez asking for help from dispatchers. But 10 minutes later, only Charlotte firefighters had arrived. Paramedics were still on their way.
“They told me they had been diverted somewhere else and were going to come in another 25 minutes,” Ordonez said.
She said she couldn’t wait for MEDIC. With Lea still actively seizing, she said a firefighter jumped into her car and provided oxygen to Lea on the way to the hospital in Mint Hill.
Ordonez said Lea then started foaming from her mouth. The 4-year-old was intubated when she was transferred to Novant Health’s main hospital. Doctors gave her three medications to stop the seizure and she spent five days in the hospital.
It was a traumatic experience, Ordonez says, that never should’ve happened. According to the CDC, a seizure lasting for more than five minutes can be dangerous.
“She could’ve had brain damage, or she could’ve died,” said Ordonez. “That’s why you call 911 -- to get help, and they weren’t here for us.”
Unfortunately, another family told Channel 9 the same thing -- an ambulance never showed when they needed one. Patrick Bradley said he got a head injury one night in April while taking his dog out at his south Charlotte home.
“Dog is finishing up. Dog runs in. I come in, close the door just like this, started to get dizzy, took one step and fell straight back and hit my head right on the corner of the crown molding right here,” Bradley said.
He dialed 911 and spoke with a MEDIC dispatcher. Then he called back two more times to ask their ETA, which he says they never gave. After 43 minutes of waiting, he said an ambulance never arrived.
His wife, Kim, was out of town at the time. She said he was forced to wake up family members who ended up taking him the hospital. Doctors said he had a concussion.
(WATCH: 9 Investigates: How fast does MEDIC respond to 911 calls? 2 families say they never showed - Part 2)
MEDIC: ‘We don’t want people to have to wait for an ambulance’
Channel 9′s Gina Esposito learned MEDIC diverted ambulances away from Ordonez’s home three times. At first, they were rerouted to a cardiac arrest call and then to a difficulty breathing call. Another ambulance was diverted because a closer one became available. Crews were less than four miles away from Ordonez and Lea when they were canceled.
Peterson said the way the call was handled did not meet his expectations.
“Let me first say, I’m sorry,” he said. “It was a very busy time frame in particular -- in that geographic area that time, there were a lot of calls coming in for really sick people so it got reassigned again.”
Peterson told Channel 9 the agency investigated its response to the call. Lea’s ambulance was delayed at least 25 minutes when it should have gotten there within 13 minutes. He said a paramedic could’ve given Lea medication to stop the seizure.
Channel 9 learned because of Lea’s case, MEDIC will now classify pediatric seizures as high-priority calls. That means they should get a faster response from paramedics.
“It is significant and it drove real change in the agency,” said Peterson. “We don’t want people to have to wait for an ambulance.”
Ordonez said she’s glad MEDIC made real change, but she said Lea is no longer the same. She now takes daily seizure medication.
“I hope this would help so this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “When I needed them the most they weren’t here.”
The night Bradley called 911, Peterson said 20 calls came in at the same time. He said Bradley’s call was not a priority. In fact, he said patients in his case across Mecklenburg County may have to wait up to 60 minutes to see an ambulance.
“That’s a difficult decision that we are having to make—but we have to triage those calls to the sickest patients,” Peterson said.
“That’s just unacceptable,” Kim said. “It’s truly unacceptable.”
Challenges at MEDIC
For months, Mecklenburg EMS has been short around 70 EMTs and paramedics, which is about 19% of its workforce. The agency has faced challenges with a rising call volume, employees out with COVID-19 and competition among other EMS agencies for workers.
Response times for certain calls are suffering because of MEDIC’s staffing shortage and increased call volume. Channel 9 obtained a chart showing MEDIC’s response times to priority one calls from April 2019 to April 2022. In December 2021, MEDIC saw its biggest dip in agency history.
Channel 9′s Gina Esposito pulled data and learned MEDIC has maintained its response times for high-priority calls like cardiac arrests. It’s because it has implemented strategies to delay responses to other calls -- like Bradley’s.
‘It’s not because MEDIC isn’t trying’
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Elaine Powell is working to find solutions. She pushed for higher wages in the county’s budget. Now, EMTs make $20 per hour -- up from $16 per hour. Paramedics make $25 per hour, a bump from $20. The Bradleys support using taxpayer dollars for the raises but they say it’s not enough.
“I understand we have staff issues, we have pay issues. I wholeheartedly empathize with that,” Kim Bradley said. “However, I can’t accept that as the reason as to why they didn’t come when he needed them.”
“I understand the anguish and frustration of families that aren’t responded to in time but it’s not because MEDIC isn’t trying,” Powell said.
Mecklenburg County increased its wages for paramedics and EMTS months after Wake County raised wages for its field crews. A spokesperson for Wake County said the pay increases have led to more applications, but we’re told those employees haven’t started yet.
MEDIC is responding to priority calls faster than Wake County EMS. In April, MEDIC’s average response time was 8 minutes and 13 seconds. Wake County EMS’s average response time was 9 minutes and 27 seconds.
Powell said Mecklenburg County also dished out $121,000 for a new partnership with MEDIC and Central Piedmont Community College. She said 30 EMT students will be given paid internships, with a job waiting for them at the end of the course.
“It provides the critical lifesaving staff that we need,” Powell said.
The Bradley family hopes it’s a step toward fixing the problem.
“Just trying to bring awareness and hopefully it doesn’t happen to more people,” Bradley said.
(WATCH BELOW: Tryon Medical Partners taking over Blacklion’s Pineville space)
©2022 Cox Media Group