'I definitely didn't feel safe': Patient alleges Calgary paramedics threatened him, refused treatment

A Calgary man alleges he was mistreated and threatened by EMS workers when he called for an ambulance, and that the paramedics judged him due to the colour of his skin.

'I don't want this to ever happen to anyone else,' said Wess Vandenhoek

Wess Vandenhoek said he was threatened by a Calgary paramedic when he called an ambulance because he was in extreme pain. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

A Calgary man alleges he was mistreated and threatened by EMS workers when he called for an ambulance, and that the paramedics judged him due to his appearance and the colour of his skin.

Wessen Vandenhoek told CBC he visited the East Calgary Health Centre in Forest Lawn on Thursday because of an ongoing medical issue involving severe groin pain that has landed him in the hospital before. 

Vandenhoek said staff at the medical centre initially offered him a bus ticket to the Peter Lougheed Hospital in northeast Calgary, but when it became clear how intense his pain was, they instead suggested he call an ambulance, which he did.

He went outside to meet the paramedics, which is when he said the problems started.

"The guy opened up the door [and said] 'Are you f--king serious? You don't look like you need a f--king ambulance. You know this isn't a ... taxi?'" Vandenhoek said.

'[Ambulance service] is for real people, not people like you'

He then said he was told: "This is for real people, not people like you who use us as a g-d--n taxi."

Vandenhoek said he believes his appearance factored in to how the paramedics treated him. The 32-year-old is black, gaunt, and was wearing loose clothing and may have had body odour, as he was unable to shower for a few days due to the pain he was in. 

"Did you see me coming from where I live, and my complexion, and decide already based upon just looking what you thought was going on?

"I'm an actual human being, with feelings. I have value as a person. You can't do that," Vandenhoek said. 

Wess Vandenhoek said he was picked up by ambulance from the East Calgary Health Centre. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"I'm a very small person. And when I have a big, burly dude ... that is in a position of power losing his mind at me ... knowing that he's threatening to tell staff to treat me in a menacing way, it's absolutely terrifying."

He said the paramedic pulled out a syringe and vial, but then, upon learning staff had initially offered him a bus ticket instead of an ambulance ride, allegedly told him he had to remain in pain, wouldn't treat him and accused him of seeking drugs and wasting time.

The paramedic then allegedly told him, "Do you know what they're going to do to you when I tell them you used us as a taxi? You'll see how your treatment goes."

I definitely didn't feel safe.- Wess Vandenhoek

When the ambulance arrived at the Peter Lougheed, Vandenhoek said the paramedic's tone completely changed once he saw other staff.

He said the two paramedics were friendly and helped him into a wheelchair, but that when he initially tried to speak to staff or a peace officer at the hospital, he was steered him away from them and threatened with a psychiatric hold — an involuntary hospital stay for mental illness — if he spoke to anyone about what happened.

He said he thinks the purpose of threatening the psychiatric hold was to goad him into behaving in a way that would make him seem not credible.

"I think that was the sole purpose, that once you get that psych hold or something happens, it's the easiest way to discredit you, dismiss you, you're gone. The problem just got erased. Crazy little blackie, just doesn't matter anymore," he said.

At this point, Vandenhoek said he was terrified and in tears from the altercation. He asked for the paramedics' names and supervisor's name, but said they refused to give it to him.

"I definitely didn't feel safe," he said.

Eventually he was able to get treatment and speak to a peace officer at the hospital who reassured him he was safe, and gave him the phone number for the police non-emergency line.

He called the line and filed a report with police. 

AHS is investigating

An Alberta Health spokesperson said that the agency is aware of the complaint and is the process of investigating the incident. 

"As Alberta's health care provider, it's our responsibility to ensure every patient is treated with respect when they need our help. At AHS we take every patient complaint seriously. So at this time we cannot comment on this situation as this is currently under investigation. We are doing our due diligence to determine what happened.

"If our investigation determines there was any inappropriate behaviour by our staff members, we will take action as required," the agency wrote in an emailed statement.

AHS said as they are continuing to investigate, they cannot comment on the allegation that the paramedics racially profiled Vandenhoek.

Vandenhoek was taken to the Peter Lougheed hospital in northeast Calgary. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Vandenhoek said he's spoken to both Alberta Health and EMS union representatives since the incident occurred.

His main concern is making sure something like this doesn't happen again to another vulnerable person.

"The part that bugs me the most is ... they don't know my full story," he said.

Vandenhoek has severe anxiety. He was adopted from abroad as a child, and has no close family or friends in the city to support him. He said it was a devastating experience to be in pain and feeling unsafe and unsure of who to turn to for help.

On the walls of his apartment, he has motivational signs reading: "I am enough."

"Every day I try to tell myself I am enough, and I matter ... I look at my walls and I gotta read I am enough. The reality is, I wasn't that day. I wasn't in their eyes," he said through tears. 

Since the incident, he's missed a doctor's appointment.

"I don't feel comfortable going to a medical place right now ... I can't stress enough that I don't want this to ever happen to anyone else.

About the Author

Sarah Rieger

Reporter

Sarah Rieger worked in digital media developing social strategies for non-profit organizations and writing and editing online news, before she joined CBC Calgary as an online journalist in 2017. You can reach her by email at sarah.rieger@cbc.ca.

With files from Anis Heydari