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Paramedics deserve blame for man’s death

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An ambulance speeds down the street, lights flashing and siren blaring. Then it stops, stuck in the two feet of Pittsburgh snow that has blanketed the ground.
Paramedics, sworn to the Hippocratic Oath and trained to save lives, sit and discuss their next step. They can walk a few hundred feet through the snow rolling a gurney, or they can give up. To most of us, the choice seems obvious. To the paramedics answering Curtis Mitchell’s 911 call on the weekend of Feb. 5, the choice was also obvious. “If he wants a ride to the hospital, he is just going to have to come down to the truck,” one of them told the dispatcher.

Somehow the first responders we trust to help us in a crisis have confused themselves with chauffeurs. Instead of putting forth effort to save a dying man, these individuals chose to stay in their heated ambulance. Had this happened only once, it still would have been a travesty. But it did not. Mitchell and his girlfriend made 10 calls over two days. By the time help finally arrived, Mitchell was dead.

How, in a city renowned for its excellent medical care, can a man spend over two days waiting for an emergency response? How can what appears to have been an early-recognized case of appendicitis kill a man while his girlfriend watches and Pittsburgh’s emergency services drive back and forth in the snow?

Whatever answers emerge to these questions, they will not be enough to satisfy Mitchell’s family, nor will they satisfy the rest of Pittsburgh’s residents. When we are most vulnerable, we trust police, firemen, and paramedics to put us at ease. The men and women who perform these jobs do heroic deeds every day. And yet, Curtis Mitchell is dead.

In the days since this tragedy, a few facts have come to light. The 911 calls Mitchell made were treated as independent by dispatchers, meaning each ambulance did not know that the previous attempts had failed. As the priority level of the calls increased, they remained unassociated, and so mistakes were repeated time after time. All of this was happening while call centers were being subjected to high call volumes due to snow-related problems.

What we learn from the available data is that the fault for Mitchell’s death lies across many areas of the Pittsburgh emergency medical response system. It lies with the dispatchers who failed to coordinate and the planners who failed to predict the consequences of the snowstorm. It lies with whichever bureaucrat established the policy that paramedics should not walk through the snow to save a life. And it lies with the responders themselves who were mere blocks away from a dying man but turned back, leaving him to suffer.