New Brunswick

'What if?': Man dies while ambulance depot down the road is unstaffed

David Harvey, 54, died after going into cardiac arrest at his home, just a five-minute drive from an unstaffed ambulance depot. His parents tried to save him during the long wait for an ambulance from farther away.

David Harvey died after going into cardiac arrest at his northern New Brunswick home

This ambulance depot in Jacquet River was left unstaffed the morning David Harvey died. (Kayla Galley/Submitted )

In the early hours of June 5, David Harvey's parents called 911.

Harvey, a 54-year-old carpenter, had collapsed in the home he and his parents shared in Nash Creek, near Belledune, in northern Brunswick.

At the other end of the 911 call, a dispatcher told the parents what to do to keep their unconscious son alive.

So Lorraine Harvey, 75, and Donald Harvey, 80, took turns pumping their son's chest.

I'd like to think if I called 911 they'd be right there but you really don't know.- Kayla Galley, Harvey's niece 

The Harveys say it was 30 minutes before an ambulance arrived to help their son, who was in cardiac arrest.

The frantic pumping during the wait was exhausting, physically and emotionally, for the couple, says granddaughter Kayla Galley, David's niece.

"Any of us who have taken a first aid course know how exhausting it is to do compressions," she said. "For someone who is strong and young, it's exhausting."

For her grandparents, it was almost unbearable.

"They are putting their own health and well-being in jeopardy trying to save their son. ... They are performing compressions on their son, they shouldn't have to go through that."

Ambulance New Brunswick should have been at the house within 22 minutes, the service's standard for rural areas.  

For David Harvey, an ambulance was dispatched from Dalhousie, 30 kilometres away. And it arrived in 20 minutes, not 30, Ambulance New Brunswick insisted later, when the family tried to investigate.

Harvey, 54, died after going into cardiac arrest. His parents heard him collapse in the house and tried to keep him alive by pumping his chest until the ambulance arrived from Dalhousie. (Submitted)

The organization didn't explain to the family why the ambulance depot in Jacquet River three kilometres from Harvey's house, wasn't properly staffed that night.

David LaPointe, a volunteer firefighter who lives across the road from the depot, was also called to the Harvey home that night to assist paramedics after they arrived on the scene sometime between 3:30 and 4 a.m.

It took him just a few minutes to get there, he said.

"The victim was on the floor, the two paramedics were working on him," LaPointe said. "One was doing CPR, one was looking at the man's vitals. They asked me to help."

The three of them worked on Harvey for about 20 minutes, LaPointe said.

"He never made it."

Wondering what if

In the days since her uncle died, Galley said, the family has been tormented by what ifs.

They will always wonder he would have survived had the Jacquet River depot been staffed, and paramedics been able to get there as fast as firefighter LaPointe did.

"There is an ambulance sitting in the ambulance bay three minutes from my uncle's house," Galley said.

She hasn't been able to get answers.

"I just want to know why nobody was there. I want to understand why we have perfectly good ambulances and nobody to man them."

The mayor of Belledune, a village of about 1,550 just down the road from Jacquet River, said he shares her concern.

Community uneasy

Mayor Joe Noel said he ran the ambulance service in Belledune for 27 years before it was taken over by Medavie, a private company under contract with the provincial government.

Long wait times are something Belledune has been dealing with for a while, Noel said, and people in the town and surrounding area are frustrated.

"We have an ambulance service here but it's rarely staffed," said Noel, who admitted his own ambulance career may make him biased. "To say we have an ambulance service here in Belledune would be a farce."

"There is no need of this. This is just not caring about the people of New Brunswick. The government of New Brunswick should be ashamed of themselves." 

Ambulance New Brunswick would not discuss the Harvey family's concerns about the service, citing the need to protect patient privacy.

Shortage of workers

But paramedic shortages in the provinces have provoked protests in recent days. About 150 jobs are being posted every eight weeks that aren't being filled, according to CUPE Local 4848 president Greg McConaghy.

As part of a lawsuit settlement in December 2017, the province and Ambulance NB agreed to provide New Brunswickers from both linguistic communities service in the language of their choice. 

McConaghy said that there aren't enough bilingual paramedics, resulting in higher wait times in rural areas and many other areas, despite an increase in overtime.

Last year, overtime expenses totalled nearly $8 million — an average of 250 hours for each of 1,000 or so medics keeping the system running.

Minister aware of shortages

Health Minister Benoît Bourque would not agree to an interview with CBC News but sent an email statement saying he was sad to hear about David Harvey's death and acknowledged staffing was an issue in general with the ambulance service.

"While the Department of Health (DOH) is aware, and deeply concerned with staffing issues in our paramedic workforce, hiring is a process that is operational in nature," the statement said.

Bourque said it will take time to address the staffing shortage, but he is confident Ambulance New Brunswick will meet provincial requirements.

"Your government also remains confident in ANB, and its paramedics, to continue providing timely coverage across the province, despite staffing challenges."

Doesn't trust information

Noel said he doesn't believe Ambulance New Brunswick was right about the 20 minutes it says the ambulance took to reach the Harvey home from Dalhousie. He suggests the family's estimate is more accurate.

"That man's parents were there giving CPR," Noel said. "They know how long it takes."

Kayla Galley said she and her family are worried. If David's parents, her grandparents, had to call 911 some night, would the ambulance make it in time?

"I'd like to think if I called 911 they'd be right there but you really don't know."

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