Clyde Dearman was supposed to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary this weekend.
Instead, he has spent the past few days grieving the death of his wife and trying to find out why it took Ontario’s air ambulance service eight hours to send a helicopter to transport her from one hospital to another.
Judy Dearman died last Thursday, a day after the critically ill patient was airlifted to Ottawa for treatment from St. Francis Memorial Hospital in Barry’s Bay, about 150 kilometres west. She was 69.
“It’s too late for my wife,” Mr. Dearman said in an interview, adding that he will never know if she would still be alive had the ambulance arrived sooner. “They never gave her that chance. That’s what’s bothering me.”
It was the second major incident involving the embattled Ornge air ambulance service in recent days. Ornge was in the news last Wednesday because it did not have a helicopter crew available to respond to a horrific collision near Stouffville. The victim, identified as Richard Ribeiro, a married father of a young child, died of his injuries in hospital.
Both cases raise questions about Ornge’s ability to respond to patient calls. The service has been embroiled in controversy for months over private, for-profit ventures now at the centre of an Ontario Provincial Police probe.
Ornge said it is conducting an internal investigation into the latest incident but declined to comment further. Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees, who raised the matter in Question Period on Tuesday, said Ornge’s inability to respond to patients is becoming a “systemic” problem.
Health Minister Deb Matthews told reporters Ornge cannot respond to every call. “Do they do their very best to get there whenever they possibly can?” she said. “Absolutely, and the frontline staff deserve our gratitude.”
According to Mr. Dearman, doctors in Barry’s Bay first called for the air ambulance at 12:30 last Wednesday afternoon. His wife, who was a colon cancer survivor, had gone in for treatment in April, and the procedure had led to infection.
Ornge called back shortly after to say its helicopter was in for maintenance and that it would send a land ambulance crew to Barry’s Bay. Doctors in Barry’s Bay countered that it would take 2.5 hours for the ambulance to get there, so they would send Mrs. Dearman to Ottawa by local land ambulance. As his wife was being loaded on to a stretcher just before 3:30 that afternoon, Mr. Dearman hopped in his car and drove to Ottawa. When he arrived, he was told his wife was still in Barry’s Bay.
He drove back home, only to learn that his wife had been airlifted to Ottawa General Hospital 20 minutes earlier, around 8 p.m. It was late on Wednesday evening before Mr. Dearman arrived back in Ottawa, where he found his wife in a coma. She was still alert when he left Barry’s Bay the first time. She died the next night.