At 12.56am, early Saturday morning, I rang triple 000 to call an ambulance for a recently discharged surgical patient who was rapidly going into shock with severe internal bleeding.
The phone rang … and continued to ring. It took nearly three minutes get to speak to an ambulance call centre operator.
I was given no chance to give a succinct summary of the patient’s rapidly deteriorating condition; instead asked a list of mostly irrelevant questions: “I’m sorry Madam, I have to ask there before you can tell me anything else,” said the call operator.
I was then asked for my address. I gave it. Although in a rural area we do have a street name and number; Google will direct you here without incident. I was then cross-examined about the nearest cross streets. I tried to explain both were far away, irrelevant, and possibly had no gazetted official names, but that the local ambulance drivers would know how to get here.
Then the nightmare began.
I was asked where the nearest town was. I said Braidwood; please send an ambulance from Braidwood. I repeated: the local ambulance officers knew how to get here.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “We have no listing for Braidwood. What is the next nearest town?”
I repeated that there is an ambulance station in Braidwood; that it would take over two hours to get an ambulance from either Canberra or Bateman’s Bay. She insisted that Braidwood not only didn’t have an ambulance station, but that it didn’t exist.
By now I was pleading.
“This problem has happened before. When I was on the hospital board a man died because the operator called an ambulance from Canberra instead of the local one,” I said.
“There really is an ambulance station at Braidwood, not far away.”
The word “died” at least stopped her mid flow. Another break while she went to call her supervisor.
He finally arrived.
“I know you are upset and confused madam, but there is no ambulance station at Braidwood. We have no listing for a town called Braidwood.”
I was not upset. I was not confused. I was however desperate, and wondering if I could rig up a travois to get the patient to my car, and then how to get them into it.
”Do you have a personnel list? Can you look up the name ‘x’?” I asked.
Reluctantly, he looked.
I heard him say, “Yes, here’s ‘x’. He’s stationed at [pause] Braidwood.”
“Could you please ring him? Please? Just ring him?” I said.
I heard ”Stop asking her questions and tell her we’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
“They’ll be there in 20 minutes,” said the supervisor — grudgingly and angrily — and then hung up.
Twenty minutes later the ambulance arrived, and the wonderful, compassionate officers of the NSW Ambulance Service took over. The patient is now recovering.
It had taken me 22 minutes to convince the call centre to send an ambulance and that Braidwood existed, with an ambulance station. It would have taken far longer if I had not been stroppy, insistent, and knew the name of the officer in charge locally.
The call should have taken three minutes at most, not 22.
In 19 minutes a man can bleed to death.
In 19 minutes child can have convulsions and brain damage.
I would like:
- The NSW Ambulance call centre to add the Braidwood Ambulance Depot — which does exist — with dedicated, caring, superlative staff- to their list of ambulance stations.
- An enquiry to find out why the call centre operative was so sure there was no ambulance depot at Braidwood.
- Training for call centre operatives so that they can show initiative if a caller can tell them quickly what is wrong, and what is needed, and not — ever so slowly — ask how old they are, and if they speak English, etc. If those questions are needed, the information can be passed on via ambulance radio.
- A personal apology from the supervisor on duty that night.
- A public apology from the NSW ambulance call centre to all those families who have suffered and lost because the call centre sent an ambulance from far away, when there was a local one ready and waiting.
- That call centre staff be given an aptitude test before they are hired, to see if they are capable handling an emergency.
- And that all ambulance call centre staff, before they take up their jobs, attend the trauma centre in a busy hospital, to see what it is like to see someone bleed to death, while their families look on in aguish; to watch a child scream in agony, to see just a little of what the people on the other end of the phone may be going through. To learn, perhaps, to show a combination of both urgency and compassion, neither of which I received that night.