Fla. couple angered by distancing of paramedics on medical call
The couple claims the paramedics became irritated while questioning the patient from 10 feet away and asked him to drive himself to the hospital
The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Bob Beaulieu's partner, suffering from symptoms of coronavirus, started gasping for air on Tuesday night, Beaulieu didn't hesitate to call 911.
But the interaction with the West Palm Beach Fire Department left him seething after an irritated paramedic questioned his partner from several feet away and then suggested that he drive himself to the hospital.
When Beaulieu insisted the crew take his partner to St. Mary's Medical Center, the other paramedics stood on the far side of the ambulance's cabin and wouldn't go near him, Beaulieu said.
"This was very reminiscent of the AIDS crisis," Beaulieu said. "Nobody wanted to touch you, nobody wanted to get close to you. That was exactly the way he was treated, like an AIDS patient."
What Beaulieu witnessed is potentially a new paradigm in emergency response, in which paramedics, trying to conserve personal protective equipment, must be extra vigilant with patients, especially those infected with the coronavirus sweeping the country.
It's a work in progress, West Palm Beach Fire Chief Diana Matty said.
"There is anxiety on both sides of the door," she said. "What we are wearing is not what we used to wear. The way we approach our patients is not the way we used to approach them."
As long as supplies last, paramedics are wearing two sets of gloves, a tight-fitting N-95 face mask, goggles and a plastic gown. The department is going through 1,500 pair of gloves a week but has to reuse the face masks five times, Matty said.
Despite the precautions, the department has quarantined four paramedics because of high-risk exposure, she said.
The chief said the department enjoys a good reputation and relationship with the public and wants West Palm residents to know: "We want nothing more than to provide top-notch customer service, to show empathy, to be respectful."
Still, she said, what Beaulieu's partner experienced was not acceptable.
"We under-treated him and it was not up to the normal standard of the West Palm Beach Fire Department," Matty said. "We did not put our best foot forward."
She said Beaulieu helped her department understand how those infected with the virus feel.
"Every person feels like a pariah or a leper who has this because they know they can infect their family and friends," she said.
Beaulieu said the 911 operator on Tuesday night told his partner to wait for the paramedics on their front lawn. This is also new protocol, Matty said.
Paramedics will ask the person if they can make it to the front door or even wait outside. Before coronavirus, paramedics would enter the house and treat the person in their own bed if needed.
"If my medics get sick there is nobody to come to you when you break your leg or crash your car," Matty said. "Look at what is going on in New York City. They are overrun and they are losing medics left and right."
Beaulieu and his partner were exposed to coronavirus at an event in Fort Lauderdale. His partner, who doesn't want his name published, came down with symptoms, including a persistent cough.
The couple's first interaction with West Palm Beach Fire Department actually came Sunday night when Beaulieu's partner started panicking as symptoms of COVID-19 appeared. He called 911.
Beaulieu said the paramedic who arrived on that night could not have been more kind or understanding.
"He told him, 'Sir, your symptoms aren't that severe but if this happens and that happens, then please call.' And that is what happened."
On Tuesday night, Beaulieu's partner took a turn for the worse, gasping for air.
"He couldn't talk. It was like a dog panting," Beaulieu said. "When you can't breathe, that is like one of the scariest things."
They waited outside for the fire department on the front lawn. But the paramedic who arrived would only question his partner from 10 feet away.
As he shouted questions at Beaulieu's beloved, his partner struggled to answer and breathe at the same time.
The clearly frustrated paramedic said he couldn't hear the answers so Beaulieu tried to respond for his partner. The EMT told him, "Sir, I'm not talking to you."
Then something happened that shocked Beaulieu, who would first take his concerns to friends in a Facebook post and then to Matty in an email.
"He asked him, 'Can't you drive to the hospital?' And my partner kind of looks at him, 'What in the world are you talking about?" Beaulieu said.
"He then started looking at me and I said, 'Sir, I am in self-quarantine. I have been not only exposed to my partner but to other people with the coronavirus.' I'm probably positive but asymptomatic.'"
Beaulieu said it was then that his partner was taken to St. Mary's Medical Center by ambulance. His partner later told him how the paramedics distanced themselves in the ambulance.
Beaulieu's partner is recovering and was expected to be released Sunday, but may still have to be quarantined at home.
Beaulieu said Matty told him about the department's new protocols.
Matty said administrators talked with the medics involved and hoped to get word out to residents that the fire department will have to behave differently when they come to their aid during this crisis.
She already committed to one change: moving the truck farther away from the patient so the loud diesel engine doesn't drown them out as they respond to questions from afar.
The ambulance cabin is always disinfected between patients but now extra care is being taken to keep it sterile.
"The poor senior citizen who falls and has a hip fracture, we don't want to be the reason she tests positive," Matty said.
Personal protective equipment remains a problem for first responders and hospitals, Matty said. She said one fire department in the county had to put out the call to others because they nearly had run out of masks.
First responders such as paramedics go into the profession because they care, she said, anticipating an adjustment period for both paramedics and patients in this rapidly changing landscape.
"When I was a medic on the truck, I had no issue holding the hand of some poor elderly woman who was upset or missing her family or having whatever medical issue," Matty said. "We can't do that anymore."
©2020 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)