The 9-1-1 call between an emergency dispatcher and a nurse at a California retirement home is so chilling, so horrifying, I had to listen to it twice to make sure I had heard right — it so defied the most basic tenets of compassion and human decency.
On the tape, Bakersfield fire dispatcher Tracey Halvorson can be heard pleading with a caller from Glenwood Gardens Retirement Facility to perform CPR on an 87-year-old resident who had collapsed in the dining room. When the dispatcher asks if the woman is breathing, the nurse replies, “Barely.”
What follows is nothing short of reprehensible. The dispatcher tells the nurse to start CPR, but the nurse refuses. She says staff is not permitted to perform CPR at the facility.
(I guess that’s like saying, “Sorry, I can’t stop to help the bleeding motorist by the road because the traffic sign on the shoulder says ‘No Stopping or Standing.’ ”)
“OK, then hand the phone to the passerby,” the dispatcher says. “If you can’t do it, I need, hand it to the passerby. I’ll have her do it. Or if you’ve got any citizens there, I’ll have them do it.”
This is not Halvorson’s last request for help, nor is it the nurse’s only failure as both a healthcare worker and human. Precious seconds tick by as the dispatcher gets more desperate.
“Anybody there can do CPR. Give them the phone, please …” the dispatcher continues to beg. “This woman’s not breathing enough. She’s going to die if we don’t get this started.”
Then another request. “I don’t understand why you’re not willing to help this patient. Is there anybody that works there that’s willing to do it?”
And another: “Are we just going to let this lady die?”
And another: “We can’t wait. She can’t wait right now. She is stopping breathing. Is there anybody there that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?”
By the time the medics arrive, it’s too late.
We may never know if the caller — or any other worker at the facility — could have saved the woman’s life by performing a crucial act of simple humanity. But we can shudder at the callousness, at the lack of empathy, especially after the dispatcher assured the nurse that Glenwood couldn’t be sued if anything went wrong while trying to resuscitate the resident.
The senior living facility’s executive director defended the nurse in a written statement, saying she followed protocol. He told a local TV station residents are informed of the policy when they move in.
Really? Part of a retirement community’s policy is to stand idly by while someone is dying? If so, and if this is an industry-wide practice, the death in Bakersfield is a wake-up call to anyone with a parent or grandparent at such a facility.
The tragedy, however, is also so much more. It speaks to a broader issue, one that underscores a troubling reality. Corseted by policy, fearful of legal liability and lacking the most essential sense of morality, we too often check our empathy and humanity at the door of bureaucracy. In this case, a nurse, trained to help the sick, refuses to override a facility’s “protocol” to try to save someone’s life. A woman may be dead because of it.
What kind of society are we?
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.