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BC Paramedics: Looking for vital signs in patients … and in funding

BC Health Minister Adrian Dix announced on Wednesday that more paramedics and more dispatchers, along with new ambulances and better rural response stations, will be coming.

That’s the good news. But like a small band aid applied to close a big, gaping wound, how long can it last? We have an aging population, new record heatwaves, an opioid overdose crisis — and a pandemic.

BC’s ambulance service has been diagnosed with multiple health problems. So Dix has also asked the BC Emergency Health Services board chaired by Jim Chu to focus on finding more ways to help it heal. Good plan.

So why then, is it so hard to talk better wages, and give paramedics in the field (or on call) the salary, support, and pat on back they deserve?

They do, after all, train to save people’s lives.

Medical emergencies happen every day. They arise from car crashes, sudden heart attacks, strokes, natural disasters, house fires, firearms, altercations, overdoses, sports injuries, and slip and fall accidents.

Paramedics can even be called out to help in cases of allergic reactions to bee stings, severe animal bites, or on occasion, a precipitous birth.

I would like to think I could do their job. It sounds so very heroic. But I don’t have the grit or the guts. In my career as a newspaper reporter, however, I have seen paramedics in action many times and marvelled at their level of skill and compassion.

But it’s a high stress, huge demand job and its workers need to be recognized as our valuable VIPs…very important paramedics. So the part that has me baffled is why deter any new hires and help with poorly paid on and “off” hours?

In a July 14, CBC news piece, it said Dix will address shortcomings in the BC Ambulance Service (BCAS) by providing funds for 85 new full-time paramedic positions and 20 full-time dispatchers, plus 22 new ambulances and the conversion of 22 rural ambulance stations into round the clock service providers.

The announcement came after some unnamed paramedics had told CBC reporters the system had failed during the deadly heatwave at the end of June (with 716 sudden, unexpected deaths) when issues like burnout, staff shortages, and longer response times etc. surfaced.

Here we’re not talking BCAA, and waiting on roadside assistance for broken down vehicles and flat tires. We are talking about BCAS and  critical call wait times for an ambulance that could mean saving human lives.

Responding to the CBC story, reader Lee Lynn made this thoughtful comment:
“Pay these people [paramedics] what they’re worth … Next time you call for an ambulance, remember, the people coming to save your life are making less than $30 an hour.”

I do remember. Parts of it, at least.

On Dec. 29, 2018 the car I was a passenger in, suddenly veered off the road outside Williams Lake, plunged into a field, smashed into a Hydro pole, flipped over and over in the air, and finally came to rest, upside down, in very deep snow.

Everything went black. I woke up to find myself hanging like a bat, still strapped in my seatbelt. Passing motorists had come down the steep embankment to help get us (me, my daughter, and my friend) out because we were trapped.

It is a long story. There was a kind woman who stayed with me and who I remember comforted me until the ambulance arrived. God bless her. But it’s what I remember of one paramedic who cared for me that makes me forever grateful.

Due to my injuries, later found to be a badly fractured sternum and compression fracture in my back — I could not speak. But I could hear a very calm, steady, soothing voice, telling me to open my eyes, to talk to her, squeeze her hand.

When she told me my daughter was okay, I am told I squeezed her hand, tight. Then I heard the siren wail. At some point, this same paramedic even came to visit me in the emergency room.

“Do you remember me?” she asked. “Yes”, I said, her voice now familiar. “You are the one who held my hand on the way here.” She smiled… and that’s the last thing I remembered for a long time.

And last year — as said in an earlier column — I was taken by ambulance from Quesnel to UHNBC for an emergency procedure, with “male escort” paramedics Rich and Derek.

I thought Rich was just making small talk en route, chatting with me about my court cases, columns and such. Only later, I realized that he was probably checking for my alertness, along with vital signs and calming fears I might have.

Then there is Jim VanderPloeg, a Prince George paramedic who is also a talented photographer. When not attending the scene of accidents, he was often behind the scenes, talking to students about the perils of drug and alcohol abuse.

So many paramedics, giving of their time and skills. All deserving of whatever it takes to help them, help us. And right now that may mean applying a pressure bandage on the province to keep its focus — or making use of a new model defibrillator to jump start the heart of a nation.


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