'I was completely shocked': Dispatch nightmare, operator hangs up as parents call to save dying southern Alberta teen

There are renewed calls for Alberta Health Services to scrap the province wide 911 dispatch system after a Magrath family’s plea for help was interrupted by another emergency. 

“How could there be any more important phone call in all the world at that moment?” asked a frustrated Ron Strate, whose wife was doing compressions on their 17-year old daughter Monday, when the 911 operator hung up on him to take another phone call.

Sarah Strate, a healthy Grade 12 student, had been isolating with other members of the family at their home in Magrath after being exposed to COVID-19 about five days earlier.

They were tested for COVID but the results were negative.

Over the next few days Sarah had developed a fever and chills, started vomiting, and Monday she was so weak, she could hardly get out of bed.

When she appeared to become delirious, Kristine, a public health nurse, called 911.

Kristine said Sarah stood up because she thought she had to go to the door to meet the ambulance, but then slipped down to the floor.

Kristine helped Sarah climb back into bed and put a blanket on her.

“I was talking to her and telling her the ambulance was coming, and she went unresponsive instantly.”

Kristine said she immediately started CPR, performing rescue breathing and chest compressions. In the meantime, Ron was on the phone with a 911 operator who told him she was in Edmonton.

“Then she goes, I’m sorry, are you guys okay? I’ve got to take another call.”

Strate said the dispatcher told him if it gets worse, to please call 911.

“I’m like, how is this going to get any worse?”

Ron said when the operator hung up he immediately made another call to 911, and had to explain everything all over again.

Strate said he was “completely shocked,” when the first operator hung up the phone.

“I’m like what is the phone call you have to take? What is more important than us doing CPR on our daughter, who is about to die?”

AHS RESPONDS

Alberta Health Services provided a statement that said “AHS has reviewed the circumstances around the 911 call and subsequent EMS dispatch, and found that there was no delay. An ambulance was dispatched within 27 seconds of receiving the 911 call. As Magrath does not have an ambulance station, the closest ambulance to Magrath was sent, which is an Advanced Life Support unit from Raymond.”

According to AHS the Raymond ambulance arrived on scene approximately 22 minutes from the time the first 911 call was received.

When the ambulance was approximately five minutes away, the family notified EMS that the patient’s condition had worsened and as a result EMS contacted Magrath fire department to respond, even though the fire department typically does not respond to medical calls.

The Strates said based on the 18 kilometer distance between the two communities, they were expecting help to arrive in half that time, especially considering the Raymond fire hall is only three blocks from their house.

When an ambulance failed to show up right away, Sarah’s brother Dawson drove to the fire station and found it deserted and the doors locked.

He said the first firefighters to arrive knew they were responding to a call about a 17-year old girl, but did not have information on where they were supposed to go.

The Strate’s said the ambulance and volunteer firefighters arrived about the same time.

“And there I was holding my daughter lifeless in my arms and they finally showed up,” said Ron.

AHS RELOCATED MAGRATH AMBULANCE IN MARCH

“I can’t imagine the distress and anxiety that caused the Strate family,” said Magrath Mayor Russ Barnett.

He added, “That doesn’t give anybody much confidence that we have a reliable service that is working in rural Alberta.”

Magrath was among dozens of rural southern Alberta communities that urged the Alberta government to leave 911 emergency dispatch in Lethbridge, instead of making it part of a consolidated provincial system.

Barnett said in March, AHS moved the Magrath ambulance and medic to Raymond, without any consultation or communication.

He said his hope and plea to AHS and EMS is to re-evaluate the system, “and say is this really working? And if it’s not working, then make a change.”

The Strates said they are not blaming the dispatchers or responders, who they believe are doing their best, however, they maintain the 911 dispatch system needs to be addressed.

“We want to see the system changed, so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

AHS said it was saddened to hear of the tragic death, and would be reaching out to the family to hear their concerns and answer any questions.