Kan. board opens investigation into agency's handling of gunshot patient

The Kansas Board of Emergency Medical Services probe opens the possibility for state sanctions against Sedgwick County EMS


Chance Swaim
The Wichita Eagle

TOPEKA, Kan. — The Kansas Board of Emergency Medical Services on Thursday ordered an investigation of Sedgwick County EMS in connection with the department's role in the handling of a patient with a gunshot wound to the head in 2019.

The Wichita Eagle first reported on the state board's probe of the shooting in March.

The state board had already issued sanctions against seven first responders from Sedgwick County EMS and the Wichita Fire Department.
The state board had already issued sanctions against seven first responders from Sedgwick County EMS and the Wichita Fire Department. (Photo/Sedgwick County Government)

The latest action by the state board is another setback for a beleaguered county department that is trying to find its footing under two temporary leaders who took over this summer as part of a massive overhaul of the EMS system following a months-long Eagle investigation.

The new department-level probe opens the door for state sanctions against Sedgwick County.

The state agency can now subpoena records from Sedgwick County on its handling of the case and its cooperation with investigators.

The state board had already issued sanctions against seven first responders from Sedgwick County EMS and the Wichita Fire Department and called on the Kansas Board of Healing Arts to investigate former EMS director Dr. John Gallagher to determine whether he should continue holding a medical license after a man who had apparently shot himself in the head was denied an ambulance ride for 5 hours.

Sedgwick County and Wichita government agencies have hired an attorney to defend their employees' conduct and are appealing.

On Thursday, the Kansas Board of EMS voted to take disciplinary action against an eighth first responder — Sedgwick County paramedic Malachi Winters, one of Gallagher's top administrative officials. The board's investigative committee unanimously approved revoking his paramedic license. The county is expected to appeal the decision.

Gallagher resigned in July after an Eagle investigative series — Unresponsive — showed how county leadership's inaction in the aftermath of the shooting case led to a massive staff revolt, a paramedic shortage, dangerously slow response times and fewer ambulances on the street.

The county and city of Wichita have allowed the eight first responders to continue working while the case is under appeal at the Kansas Office of Administrative Hearings. Charges include patient abuse, falsifying information, disregard for patient well-being and dignity, failing to provide patient care, unprofessional conduct and not following protocol.

Sedgwick County said in a news release in July that county officials believe "competent and appropriate care was provided to this patient." The Sedgwick County Medical Society found the same conclusion one month after the suicide.

County officials attended Thursday's Kansas Board of EMS meeting virtually and did not comment on the state board's decision.

'Unsalvageable'

The case at issue involved a 31-year-old patient who had apparently shot himself in the head — but still had a pulse and was breathing on his own — on June 19, 2019.

Sedgwick County EMS protocols call for paramedics to transport patients who have a pulse and are breathing to an emergency room. Ascension Via Christi St. Francis hospital was a mile away. Instead, Gallagher determined the man was "unsalvageable" and ordered first responders to wait for the man to die.

For five hours, the patient was left on the floor of his downtown Wichita apartment, at times appearing to be in pain and "moaning loudly," according to an order issued by the Kansas Board of EMS.

Winters called Gallagher after five hours and said that he "worried the moaning would distress the audience outside," the order said. He received Gallagher's permission to administer 500 mg of ketamine "because the Patient was not being managed as far as pain control."

The patient was then covered with a white sheet even though he was still alive and carried down the apartment stairs to the ambulance. He died at Harry Hynes Hospice 10 hours and 39 minutes after the initial 911 call.

The Kansas Board of EMS admonished Winters for his role on Thursday.

"By utilizing an oral airway for transportation of the patient to the ambulance, and then covering the patient's head, including the oral airway, with a sheet during this transport as though patient was already deceased, not only demonstrated a disregard for the patient's dignity, but also restricted the airflow the patient was receiving through the oral airway," said Sam Feather, general counsel for the state board, reading from Thursday's revocation order.

"And staff also believed that by providing pain medication out of concern for those nearby and covering an oral airway with a sheet and thus restricting the flow of air to the patient, (Winters) engaged in unprofessional conduct in his failure to safeguard the patient, failure to provide adequate care pursuant to applicable EMS protocols and abuse of the patient," Feather said.

"The order also directs board staff to open an investigation into Sedgwick County EMS itself to determine whether or not the organization itself, and its conduct throughout this incident, violated Kansas law," Feather said.

County leaders were aware of widespread problems in the department for nearly two years but ignored, dismissed and publicly whitewashed concerns raised by EMS employees until 92 paramedics and EMTs had left, The Eagle's investigation found.

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(c)2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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